For many religious people, the idea of hell is a terrible thing. It’s the ultimate threat: eternal torture, with no hope of escape. It’s also supposed to be the pain and suffering that comes with a lack of God’s presence. Either way, it’s presented as a very bad place, and Christians are taught to fear it, and avoid it at all costs.
Growing up, I was schooled with the Baltimore Catechism, (a very old Catholic religious educational system) which greatly emphasizes the concept of “contrition.” It defines it thus:
“Contrition is sincere sorrow for having offended God, and hatred for the sins we have committed, with a firm purpose of sinning no more.” (See http://www.catholicity.com/baltimore-catechism/lesson30.html to check my source and see the exact way it is presented if you’re so inclined).
One is supposed to have contrition when one goes to confession in order to be forgiven and absolved. Here’s the thing though: there are two kinds of contrition, and each of them deals with the topic of this post in a way.
Perfect contrition is “…when we are sorry for our sins because sin offends God, whom we love above all things for His own sake.” (This is the one we’re supposed to aim for).
Imperfect contrition is “…when we are sorry for our sins because they are hateful in themselves or because we fear God’s punishment.” (This is like a C grade–acceptable, but not ideal.)
The Baltimore Catechism emphasizes memorization in the form of questions about the faith, and answers, which were to be learned and repeated verbatim. My mother used to teach me concepts from the catechism, and would test me on them verbally nearly every day. One day, she did this when my dad was home, and my extremely religious father became concerned when he heard the questions and answers explaining perfect and imperfect contrition. “When I go to confession, I usually confess for the second reason,” he said, “I don’t want to go to hell.”
My mother assured him that imperfect contrition, while not ideal, is an acceptable form of contrition in the sacrament of confession. Here’s the thing though: there are a lot of people who fear hell, and does it actually make them good people? Does it make up for any wrongs that they do? All that the fear of hell says about their character is that they’re cowards. It doesn’t mean that they’re sorry for what they did in any way. It’s basically the difference between “I’m sorry I hurt you,” and “I’m sorry I got caught.” The first acknowledges some real responsibility. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” says, I know I did something that affected you badly. Because I understand that, and know that’s a bad thing to do to someone, I’m sorry.” The second merely acknowledges impending punishment. Why is this acceptable? What if our criminal justice system worked like this?
“Are you sorry?”
“I don’t want to go to jail, so, yes!”
“OK, court adjourned.”
It’s ridiculous. But let’s look at the other acceptable reasons for contrition. “when we are sorry for our sins because they are hateful in themselves,” is a form of IMPERFECT contrition. Not perfect. In this belief system, it is NOT ideal to despise a sin because it’s hateful. I realize that “hateful” is probably not being used to mean “a hate crime” or to refer to any specific kind of wrongdoing. Perhaps it refers to the attitude taken while committing the sin? I don’t think all sins are done out of hate though, so maybe that’s not a correct understanding of it. Anther way of looking at it is to translate “hateful” to something along the lines of “hurtful,” or “harmful.” This is how I understood it as a child, and it’s how I prefer to see it because it creates a form of contrition to which reason can be applied. Certainly, shoplifting is harmful. Rape is harmful. Lying can be harmful. If that is what the catechism means by “hateful,” then I personally think this is the ideal form of contrition. I want people to feel sorry for their wrongdoings because they recognize the very real consequences of their actions. I want muggers to recognize that they’re spreading fear, and also stealing hard-earned money and items from strangers who may very well need them. I want murderers to realize that they’re snuffing out the lives of other human beings who, whether they agreed with them or not, could have been potential friends or allies rather than enemies, but who will now no longer be able to provide for their families, or fulfill whatever important roles they filled during their lives. I want rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault to be sorry for the fear they have instilled in their victims, and the way that their behavior can affect the emotional well being of their victims for years or even a lifetime. (I realize I’m using examples of crimes, but most priests would definitely group these under sins, and as an atheist, these are sins that I agree are wrong too.) Why is this type of contrition considered imperfect, you ask? My understanding of it is that it doesn’t take God into account. Hell is the absence of God, and you don’t need God to tell you that wrongdoings can harm people.
The definition of “perfect contrition” is, of course, the ideal. It involves loving God and being sorry to have offended Him. I don’t think that feeling sorry for an offense is the ideal sorrow for any and all circumstances though. Offense, while it can hurt a person in the moment and make him or her very frustrated or unnerved, is no where near as bad as actual injury or harm done. Besides, God is omnipotent. Your contrition for offending him isn’t going to do anything. But you know what might? Apologizing to the people you actually hurt with your wrongdoing, and looking for a way to make it up to them. It might not be possible in all circumstances, but that means a hell of a lot more to me than saying “I’m sorry God,” and assuming that the time you stole from the mall is now behind you. Seriously, you stole from someone’s livelihood. Take responsibility for that in an earthly way, not in a spiritual way. It’s a heck of a lot harder to do, but you know what? It actually fucking does something for the people who are really suffering from your wrong.