To the reader: This is an excerpt from a book that I am writing. This book is designed to help ex-Christians transition from a life of faith to a life of enlightenment. I hope this article provides information that is helpful to you. Please send any comments, questions or feedback to email@example.com.
Thanks! Robert Collins
Transforming Inappropriate Christian Guilt
Into Healthy Emotions And Behaviors
First of all, realize that guilt is a feeling; very seldom is it an intellectual decision. Sometimes guilt is rational (e.g., I feel guilty because I hurt the feelings of a close friend, even though I did not mean to); when guilt has a rational basis and is roughly proportional to the offense, it is usually a good thing. Sometimes guilt is irrational, (e.g., I feel guilty because my church is having a huge fund raiser and I don't have enough money to tithe without depriving my children of things that they genuinely need). In the latter case, guilt is the mental equivalent of a short-circuit. All of that emotional energy is going somewhere it shouldn't go.
But, in both cases, guilt is a feeling that digs its way deep into your brain's emotional network. If you have feelings of guilt that you have had for a long time and you can't control, dealing with them will take time and effort. The important thing to remeber is DO NOT GET DISCOURAGED. Just keep at it and you should notice that your guilt is slowly fading. I was a Christian for over 10 years. Resolving my guilt was a gently sloping, but easily seen, decline in guilty feelings, that took many years.
I found that it was useful to break down my guilt into several categories and use different techniques to transform each category of guilt separately. The word "transform" is important because it is very empowering. You do not just "deal with" guilt. It's not like a spigot of water that you can turn off or even a river that you can plug with a dam. Guilt is a powerful emotion that, when used properly, makes you a wiser, stronger and better person. Once I realized this, I was able to transform the inappropriate portions of my guilt into much more useful feelings.
Feeling guilty because of things that Christianity caused you to do, that you now realize are morally wrong.
This is compounded by the fact that, in most cases, I can't go back and correct the bad things that I did. In most cases, I have lost contact with the people I harmed. Some have died. In other cases, the harm is irreparable no matter what I do.
I began by realizing that I was well-intentioned and I was manipulated into doing some things that hurt people. I did not intend to do wrong, even though I did.
You must correctly label this kind of guilt, because calling things by their right name is the first step in transforming them into things that are more healthy and useful. I did not do these things because I was "evil", I did them because I was "not wise". I can forgive myself for this because Christian leaders lied to me and manipulated me into doing these things. But that is just the first step; it resolved only a small part of this type of guilt for me.
The next step was to transform my guilt into motivation to become wiser, so I would not repeat my past mistakes or make future mistakes that were just as bad. Becoming wise is not an easy thing to do. I have spent the past 40 years working on it. I've spent thousands of hours reading history, biography, science, philosophy and other useful materials, I went back to college and studied science in depth, and many other things. I still am not willing to say that I am "wise", although I am certainly much, much "wiser" than I was when I was a Christian. For many ex-Christians, working hard to make yourself wiser is the most effectively healing thing that you can do. Wisdom does not automatically happen. You have to make it happen, which takes an enormous amount of work.
The final step, which effectively resolved the remainder of this kind of guilt, was to work to help other Christians and ex-Christians. I realized that I have an enormous amount of knowledge about Christianity. I can transform that knowledge into things that help people understand the fallacies of Christianity, and help them work through their escape from mysticism and superstition. Two good examples of this are my web site, freethinkersbooks.com and my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/freethinkersbooks
Feeling guilty because of things that Christianity caused me NOT to do, i.e., missed opportunities.
This is the biggest, most difficult one for me because I gave up enormous opportunities - friendships, education, health, career, marriage and many other things, because I was told "give it all to Jesus" and I truly loved Jesus. Then I discovered that I had sacrificed all of these things to the deliberate, premeditated lie that is Christianity. Christianity used my own personal integrity and generosity to suck the life out of me.
The problem here is that these things left enormous holes in my life. Christianity promised all of these things to me and never delivered on those promises, and when I finally figured out that I'd been suckered it was too late to get most of them back.
The transformations that worked for me in these cases consisted of filling my life with other, meaningful things. Although Christianity prevented me from having the scientific career that I wanted, I did have a very satisfying career in software engineering. Christianity ruined my marriage, but I got divorced and got custody of my children, so I got to be a good father to two wonderful children. Christianity drove a wedge between me and some other family members, so now I have been able to renew and deepen those relationships. I have done many other rewarding, meaningful things, such as animal rescue, environmentalism, social activism and many other activities. I've made many wonderful friends.
The key here is to pick things that are meaningful for you. This took many years for me and I'm still working on it. So keep at it. You will probably have to try lots of activities before you find several that are meaningful to you and can effect the kinds of transformations that you need. Don't obsess over it. If you are so busy that you are exhausted all the time, lighten up. But keep trying.
Residual irrational guilt that Christianity injected into my limbic system, and is not directly related to anything I did or did not do.
The limbic system is a part of your brain that controls many of your emotions. A detailed discussion of this fascinating topic in neuroscience would be much too long to include here, but next time you have a few hours, you should look it up on Wikipedia and Google it until you understand it well. For the time being, I'll use a less accurate, but more descriptive term: I'll call it your "dog brain".
Your "dog brain" can be manipulated, until it is almost hard-wired, to feel things that do not have any basis at all, rational or irrational. These intense emotions are simply there, with hair-triggers, ready to fire when they encounter the stimuli that Christian leaders pre-programmed for them. Christianity has had 2,000 years to figure out the most effective ways to do this, so Christian leaders are very skilled at it.
These feelings do not automatically go away just because you have decided that you no longer believe in Christianity. This is not by accident. Your former Christian leaders put them there and they have enormous staying power. This manipulative "dog brain" programming is a major reason why ex-Christians relapse into their former faith even when their rational minds tell them not to.
Identifying the source of this guilt, and labeling it correctly, gives you enormous power over it. But to prevail, you will also need strong willpower and persistence.
When you feel guilty, mentally step back for a moment and try to identify the source of that guilt. At first, this will probably be difficult and take some time of deep reflection; you will do this most effectively if you are in a quiet place with no distractions. After you have done it many times, however, it gets much easier and you can do it almost anywhere. Once you have identified the source (#1 thru #4 on this list), you can start transforming it.
If I identify a particular guilty feeling as something that Christianity has injected into my dog brain, I simply tell myself, "That's my old dysfunctional, sick, demonstrably false beliefs talking to my dog brain". You do not have to use these exact words, but you should use words that are emotionally strong enough to create valid, rational feelings that are at least as intense as the guilt you are feeling. Dog brain guilt is a feeling, not an intellectual conclusion, so you don't have to debate with it; you counteract it by creating opposing emotions that are equal to or greater than your guilt. That sounds simplistic, but doing this consistently and repeatedly has enormous healing power. EVERY time you feel guilty, you should take a few seconds to identify the source, and, if it is your dog brain's dysfunctional programming making you feel guilty, label it for what it is. Thousands of repetitions later, this dysfunctional Christian programming will have lost much of its power.
BTW, it's not a good idea to obsess over dog brain emotions, even if they are dysfunctional. Become proficient at identifying and labeling them, so that you can think about them for a few seconds when they arise, then move on to thinking about other, more interesting things. After all, you are a human, not a dog. Thinking too much about dog brain emotions only feeds them and makes them stronger.
Guilt that is unrelated to your former Christian beliefs.
This kind of guilt may arbitrarily be divided into two kinds: appropriate and inappropriate. (This is a continuum, not a dichotomy, e.g., some kinds of guilt can be 90% appropriate and 10% inappropriate.)
Humans have evolved many techniques to resolve appropriate guilt: apology, restitution, etc. The important thing is to deal with appropriate guilt as soon as you can and not let it fester. Unlike wine, this kind of guilt does not get better with age.
Inappropriate guilt is often much more difficult to resolve. For example, children who grow up in dysfunctional families often have large quantities of inappropriate guilt. Christianity feeds on guilt, as well as creating massive amounts of its own inappropriate guilt that makes the victim much worse than they would be if they were not religious.
It is often difficult to identify the different forms of guilt and correctly discern how much of your guilt is caused by your former beliefs. Unfortunately, I do not know of any structured way to do this, except just to spend a lot of time "alone with your thoughts" carefully dissecting and separating the various portions of your feelings, like a surgeon who is removing a brain tumor by carefully separating diseased from healthy tissue. This takes a lot of time and effort. Sometimes it helps to write your thoughts down to help you analyze, describe and inventory the many different sub-sets of your feelings.
If you have worked on Categories 1-3 above for a year or longer and you do not see much progress, then you might benefit from talking with a secular, non-religious psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor.
Obviously, this short essay does not discuss all of the aspects of the kinds of guilt that ex-Christians experience, nor does it list more than a minuscule fraction of possible interventions which might help you.
But these worked for me; I hope they can help you.