A common complaint against religion is that it is guilt-inducing. Sometimes the complaints are tongue-in-cheek, as when sitcoms and comedians make jokes about “Catholic guilt,” “Jewish guilt,” “Baptist guilt,” etc. Other times, the complaints are more serious; for instance, when a client in therapy is suffering from a deep sense of inferiority or hopelessness brought on by an overly strict religious upbringing.
So what is the real relationship between religion and guilt?
Healthy v. Unhealthy Guilt
It might be helpful to start by looking at guilt in general. Is guilt ever useful? And if so, what separates healthy guilt from unhealthy guilt?
The truth is, there is such a thing as healthy guilt, and healthy guilt can serve a positive role in leading a healthy life. Guilt belongs to the family of reactions (like pain, fear and anger) that we might call “warning emotions.” That is, these feelings tell us that something is amiss and that corrective actions may need to be taken if we want to be healthy and happy.
Just like healthy pain lets us tend to a physical injury, and healthy fear alerts us to a potential threat to our safety, and healthy anger alerts us to a possible injustice, healthy guilt lets us know about threats to our integrity.
Research consistently shows that self-esteem and a positive sense of self-worth is dependent upon “being true to ourselves.” In other words, we can only truly feel good about ourselves if we perceive that we are living up to the values we claim to hold. That is, if we maintain our integrity. Healthy guilt protects our integrity, and by extension, our identity strength and self-esteem.
3 Functions of Healthy Guilt
Guilt can be thought of as healthy if it does three things.
~First, if it alerts you to potential threats to your integrity (and, by extension, your self-esteem).
~Second, and even more importantly, guilt is healthy if it motivates you to take some concrete actions to address the offense to your integrity (and, by extension, your self-esteem). The function of guilt isn’t really to make you feel bad. Its function is to help you do something to fix a problem that poses a threat to your healthy functioning.
~Third, to be healthy, guilt should decrease as you work to resolve the threat to your integrity.
Guilt vs. Scrupulosity
By contrast guilt becomes unhealthy if…
~it is free-floating and not tied to specific offenses to your integrity.
~it doesn’t motivate you to take any action. Unhealthly guilt is just happy to make you feel awful about yourself without giving you anything to do about it.
~it doesn’t decrease once you’ve addressed the perceived offense.
A better label for unhealthy guilt is “scrupulosity.” Interestingly, both psychology and religion view scrupulosity as problematic. For the psychologist, scrupulosity can represent a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which moral contamination replaces the more common germophobia associated with OCD. Likewise, for the religious person, scrupulosity is actually (and, perhaps, ironically) a sin, in that it separates us from an experience of God’s love and mercy. (N.B. that, by the way, is the definition of “sin”–i.e., “a privation of the good” or to put it another way, sin is settling for less than what God wants to give you.)
Religion and Guilt
So now we come back to the relationship between religion and guilt. Ideally, religion, with its ideals, values and beliefs, helps believers clarify what it means to live with integrity. Where non-believers can more easily convince themselves that whatever they are doing is just great–whether it really is or not–religious people have a community of like-minded individuals who challenge them to think more deeply about whether they are really living according to the principles they say define their sense of personal integrity.
When this system works well, you have a community of support that helps you both identify threats to integrity and self-esteem and develop a plan to efficiently overcome those threats.
Of course, people are broken, and some are more broken than others. When a person is raised in a family of seriously broken people, or in a community that celebrates brokenness as a virtue, religion, like many other things, can become a tool of manipulation and coercion. In these environments, healthy guilt is replaced by scrupulosity which, as I mentioned above, is actually condemned by both psychology and most authentically religious persons and institutions.
”Religious Guilt” is What you Make It
So, in conclusion:
~Healthy guilt is good because it facilitates integrity, which is an essential component of self-esteem.
~Unhealthy guilt is actually scrupulosity, which is viewed as a disorder by both clinicians and authentically religious persons.
~And finally, religion is a tool, like many other things, that can be wielded by psychologically healthy people to facilitate actualization and fulfillment in an extraordinarily efficient and powerful way, or by unhealthy people to facilitate oppression, coercion and destruction of the person.
Just like hammers can be used to either build homes or bludgeon people, it makes little sense to blame the tool for how it is wielded. Religious guilt can be good or bad depending on what you make of it.