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 happy, meaningful life that is free from superstition and mysticism. I hope this article provides information that is helpful to you. Please send any comments, questions or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks! Robert Collins
How to Transform Inappropriate Christian Guilt
& Shame Into Healthy Emotions And Behaviors
Guilt evolved in humans because healthy guilt is a good thing. Healthy guilt provides reasons, motivations and guidance for us to become better people. Unfortunately, Christianity may distort and misuse guilt to feed itself, like it does to so many other good human emotions. Christian guilt is so powerful because Christianity uses your good qualities against you.
Many forms of Christianity thrive on guilt. If you don’t feel guilty enough for their purposes, many Christian leaders manufacture guilt for you (Romans 7:7-9).
Anyone who has taken a college Marketing course will instantly recognize what’s going on here. It’s called, “Creating demand for your own product”. Christian leaders have had 2,000 years to perfect their skills at creating soul-crushing guilt, and many of them are experts at using this finely tuned system.
Shame is so similar to guilt that the two words are often used interchangeably. This is particularly true for Christians, who often mean “shame” or “shame and guilt”, when they say only “guilt”. There are, however, substantial differences between guilt and shame.
What are these differences? Simplistically, guilt is, “I did something bad”. Shame is “I am a bad person”. For this reason, guilt is often easier to heal than shame. To fix guilt, you have to do something to fix the bad things that you did: restitution, apology, etc. But fixing shame requires fixing what you think about yourself, which is difficult (but not impossible) if you believe that you are bad, evil, stupid, sinful, worthless, incompetent or inadequate.
Guilt and shame are closely related, often occur together, can have the same causes, and often can be healed by the same changes in your thoughts and behaviors. For these reasons, this article will use the word “Guilt” to mean “Guilt and/or Shame”. (Also, this literary shorthand is less cumbersome and easier to read than saying “guilt and/or shame” dozens of times.)
If you are still not sure that you understand the subtle differences between guilt and shame, please do some online searches until you are confident that their definitions, similarities and differences are clear to you.
If guilt was a big part of your former beliefs, it is probably not going to go away just because you rejected those beliefs, even if your decision is supported by mountains of facts and logic, because many types of Christian guilt are neither factual nor logical. Guilt worms its way deeply into your subconscious mind, and becomes a habit, maybe even an addiction.
So what can you do about it?
First of all, realize that guilt is a feeling; very seldom is it an intellectual decision. When guilt has a rational basis and is roughly proportional to the offense, it is usually a good thing. An example of healthy guilt would be, “I feel guilty because I hurt the feelings of a close friend, even though I did not mean to”.
Sometimes guilt is irrational. In that case, guilt is the mental equivalent of a short-circuit. All of that emotional energy is going somewhere it shouldn't go. An example of unhealthy guilt would be, “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.”
Whether it is healthy or unhealthy, 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 remember is DO NOT GET DISCOURAGED. Just consistently use the principles and techniques in this article, and you should notice that your guilt is slowly fading. I was a Christian for a very long time. 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 emotions by their right name is the first step in transforming them into emotions that are more healthy and useful. I did not do these bad 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 bad 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 resolved the remainder of this kind of guilt for me, was to transform my Christian knowledge, skills and experience, which had been very negative and destructive, into Humanistic knowledge, skills and experience that helped other living things.
How do you do this? It depends on your skills. If you cooked for your church, you could be a volunteer cook for a secular charity soup kitchen. If you were a youth leader, the Girl Scouts or Boys’ Clubs could use your knowledge and experience. When I was a Christian, I acquired a huge volume of knowledge about the Bible, Christian beliefs and practices. I am using that knowledge to help Christians make better informed decisions about their beliefs, and to help ex-Christians transition from a life of faith to a more Humanistic, rational lifestyle.
The basic idea is for you to take some of the knowledge and experience that were part of your Christian lifestyle and use them in non-religious ways to help other living things, creating positive experiences for you, and helping them to have better lives.
Feeling guilty because of things that Christianity caused you 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 was able 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, and fill the holes that Christianity left. This took many years for me and I'm still working on it. So keep at it. You will probably have to try many different activities before you find several that are meaningful to you and can accomplish 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 your limbic system, and is not directly related to anything you 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.
Many Christians have been taught that they were evil before they were born, a genetic disease that could only be cured by killing their best friend, Jesus. Random misfortune did not exist, because anything bad that happened to you was God’s will. The destructive power of this belief was made much worse by the fact that God never told you what you did, or did not do, to cause him to allow/cause bad things to happen to you. If you had financial problems, was it because you were not faithful enough? Or was it too much pride? Something else? God didn’t say. You had to guess, and if you guessed wrong, your life might get even worse. Maybe it was lots of things. Maybe it was some things that you haven’t even thought about.
Your Christian beliefs might even have made you feel guilty when bad things happened to other people. Did God allow your grandmother to die, despite your fervent prayers, as a way of “chastening” you for some un-confessed sin? Did you not have enough faith? Were you “holding back” something from Jesus?
God never explained his reasons for any of this. So you were left only with Christianity’s “explanation” that you were guilty, guilty, guilty, and you didn’t even know why. An army of evil psychologists could not have devised a more effective belief system for creating extreme, persistent, intractable, dysfunctional, soul-sucking guilt.
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 many 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. Many 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. You should become proficient at identifying and labeling them, so that you can think about them for a few seconds when they arise, immediately counteract them with healthier thoughts, 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.
Some kinds of inappropriate guilt involve things that you should not feel guilty about at all. They simply weren’t your fault. Other inappropriate guilty feelings do have some legitimate basis, but you are feeling much too guilty, compared to the offense(s) that you committed.
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.
Many times, simply identifying a particular guilty feeling as irrational or extreme is all that you need to do to transform it into a healthier emotion. Other guilty feelings will require more work for you to transform them. I have found that the methods used by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) work quite well. With CBT, you sit back and ask yourself (or discuss with a friend or counselor) whether a particular feeling has a factual, rational basis. If not, you make a conscious decision about how you want to feel about whatever has been making you feel guilty, based on some objective criteria, then you substitute the new, healthier thought/feeling for the old, irrational thought/feeling. This is often easier said than done. Sometimes, you have to have to “have a talk with yourself” many times to make this work. Also, you can use the techniques described in Step #3 above.
A detailed explanation of CBT is too long to discuss here. Books by Aaron T Beck and William J Knaus will provide more information that can be very helpful to your healing process.
There is also a technique called “Paradoxical Intention”, developed by a psychiatrist named Viktor E Frankl, which can help people resolve persistent, inappropriate guilt. Dr Frankl describes this technique in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. This is a truly life-changing book. It is short and very easy to read. I highly recommend it whether you are feeling guilty or not.
Legitimate Guilt For Which You Can't Apologize Or Make Restitution
One of the most powerful things that you can do, to heal any kind of “real” guilt, is to try to make it right with the living thing(s) whom you have harmed. (“Real guilt” is a guilty feeling which is valid because you unnecessarily hurt another living thing), You do this by apologizing, making restitution and doing other things that will help to heal the hurt that you caused to them. This is true whether or not your guilt is related to your former beliefs.
But what if that is not possible? Although it is usually best to help the living thing(s) that you harmed, you can't do that if you can't find them, they have passed away, they refuse your help, or there are other legitimate reasons why apologies and restitution just can't be done.
If this happens, there are still many things that you can do to heal your own guilt.
One of the most self-healing things that you can do is to become a wiser, better person, so that you will not repeat the mistakes that you now feel guilty about. Becoming wiser not only reduces the number of times that you will repeat past mistakes, it will also help you avoid making many broad categories of different kinds of mistakes in the future. One of the most effective insights that can heal your guilt is for you to look back and truthfully be able to say, "I sure screwed up in the past, but I have learned and now I rarely do anything that hurts anyone badly enough for me to feel guilty about it".
Frankly, that was only the first step for me. It helped, but I needed to do more. So I started doing things that I call "Substitution Restitution".
The concept behind Substitution Restitution is simple. If you can't make restitution to the living thing(s) that you feel guilty for harming, you make "restitution" to other living things, whom you have not harmed, by doing kind and generous things for them. Ideally, these actions should be similar to actions that would have brought healing to the living things that you did harm.
For example: when I was a Christian, I was involved in various churches and para-church groups who believed that the only "help" that you should provide to anyone was to try to convert them or make them more intensely Christian. Food, clothing, housing, medical care, education, civil rights, etc., were God's responsibility, not ours - they were "Social Gospel", which was a terrible sin because it was "Liberal". All of our time, labor and (especially) money had to be given to our church or other Christian groups who were doing "God's work", even if these organizations insulted our generosity by blatantly wasting it.
This was crap, and I am ashamed to say, I knew it. But I trusted my Christian leaders, so I "submitted to their leadership", thereby wasting many precious years of my life and gargantuan amounts of my "sacrificial giving". Eventually, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, "Christianity has turned me into a shallow, hypocritical piece of shit. Christianity made me not give a damn about anything that actually makes any difference for anyone." Disgust at my own hypocrisy was one of the biggest reasons why I rejected Christianity.
So nowadays, I always buy extra canned goods and other non-perishables when I go to the grocery store. I save them until I have a box full of food and then I take it to a local food bank. This helps people who badly need it, and helps me feel better. Besides, although I am not wealthy, I have enough to share and it's the right thing to do whether it makes me feel better or not. For me, this is more rewarding than simply giving money, because it requires more personal effort from me. Also, I buy and donate the kinds of food that I like; being poor and hungry is stressful enough without having to eat bad food. (I also give money, although now I place reasonable limits on my giving.)
You can use "Substitution Restitution" for many different kinds of guilt. Someone who has damaged the environment could plant trees or pick up trash from hiking trails and public areas. If you harmed an animal(s), you could volunteer your time at an animal shelter or adopt a neglected/abused animal. Someone who used to be sexist or racist could donate money and time to organizations that work for the rights of women or minorities. Ad infinitum.
The important thing is to involve yourself emotionally and physically in activities that are tangible, reasonable and truly help other living things. Be careful about your motivation. If you are doing it for yourself, it probably won't make you feel any better. But if you do it out of a genuine desire to help others, it can be a powerful healer, for you and for them.
A couple of words of caution. First, Substitution Restitution only works if there are good reasons why you cannot make restitution to the living things that you actually harmed. If you are able to work to heal the ones you hurt, but you simply don’t want to, Substitution Restitution is unlikely to bring much healing to you, or them.
Second, don't obsess about Substitution Restitution. Performing reasonable, healthy acts of altruism can bring great healing to yourself and to those who benefit from your generosity. But if you are giving so much that it hurts you personally, then you are probably not achieving an effective personal healing, and you may not even be helping others in the most effective ways. Christian leaders may have taught you to practice very dysfunctional forms of "sacrificial giving", which often benefitted themselves. Now that you are no longer a Christian, you can use your rational mind to decide what is a reasonable amount of giving, which helps others without unnecessarily harming yourself.
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.
If you have used these techniques for months or years and you do not see much progress, then the causes of your guilty feelings might be too deep for you to self-heal. In that case, you might benefit from talking with a secular, non-religious psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor.