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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

is guilt a religious emotion?

Stephen Asma recently heard a sermon at the bathroom sink:

Recently while I was brushing my teeth, my 6-year-old son scolded me for running the water too long. He severely reprimanded me, and at the end of his censure asked me, with real outrage, "Don't you love the earth?" And lately he has taken up the energy cause, scampering virtuously around the house turning off lights, even while I'm using them. He seems as stressed and anxious about the sins of environmentalism as I was about masturbation in the days of my Roman Catholic childhood.

And it's not just the younger generation that's gotten the green religion:

Not too long ago, at a party, a friend confessed in a group conversation that he didn't really recycle. It was as if his casual comment had sucked the air out of the room—I think the CD player even skipped. He suddenly became a pariah. A heretic had been detected among the orthodox flock. During the indignant tongue-lashing that followed, people's faces twisted with moral outrage.

I won't argue that there are many people who react this way about environmental issues. But is it really accurate to imply that this behavoir is "religious"?

According to Asma, the answer is yes. There are solid psychological reasons why:

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to notice that religious emotions, like guilt and indignation, are still with us, even if we're not religious. He claimed that we were living in a post-Christian world—the church no longer dominates political and economic life—but we, as a culture, are still dominated by Judeo-Christian values.

Asma compares Christianity with the pre-Christian world:

For the pagans, honor and pride were valued, but for the Christians it is meekness and humility; for the pagans it was public shame, for Christians, private guilt; for pagans there was a celebration of hierarchy, with superior and inferior people, but for Christians there is egalitarianism; and for pagans there was more emphasis on justice, while for Christians there is emphasis on mercy (turning the other cheek).

Fair enough. However, in the very next sentence Asma claims:

Underneath all these values, according to Nietzsche, is a kind of psychology—one dominated by resentment and guilt.

There are certainly churches that lean heavily in this direction. Many ex-Christians cite this as a factor in their leaving the faith. But to suggest that resentment and guilt are dominant factors in the formation of religious values, it seems to me, goes too far.

At some level Asma seems to recognize it too:

All this internalized self-loathing is the cost we pay for being civilized. In a very well-organized society that protects the interests of many, we have to refrain daily from our natural instincts. We have to repress our own selfish, aggressive urges all the time, and we are so accustomed to it as adults that we don't always notice it.

It is our well-organized (and, I might add, pluralistic) society that forces us to repress our instincts and leaves us with a sense of guilt. It is our culture that teaches us to take turns as children, so that as grownups we will wait in line at the coffee shop. Without these cultural values:

I wouldn't bother to line up in a queue, but would just storm the counter (as I regularly witnessed people doing when I lived in China) and muscle people out of my way.

So as Westerners become less religious, they become less guilt-stricken, right? Not so, says Asma:

Feeling unworthy is still a large part of Western religious culture, but many people, especially in multicultural urban centers, are less religious.…Now the secular world still has to make sense out of its own invisible, psychological drama—in particular, its feelings of guilt and indignation. Environmentalism, as a substitute for religion, has come to the rescue.

Now I don't doubt that this is factual. Many people in Western societies do feel guilt and indignation about environmental issues. But the mere fact that people can get so worked up about secular causes—doesn't that just point to the conclusion that these emotions are not inherently religious?

In the era of Christendom, when church and state were so intertwined that the same people were often in leadership positions of both, it was easy to confuse cultural values and religious values. But today, as Western society becomes more secular, we have an opportunity to tear apart the tangled web of values that have been passed down to us in the name of cultural Christianity.

Now this is only tangential to Asma's point. He doesn't want to see environmentalism turn into "one more humorless religion". I agree with him there.

But I think we can go further. Christianity should not be a religion of self-loathing and indignation. Certainly, we have the doctrine of sin. But more powerful than sin is the grace of God. Salvation doesn't just mean providing a free "get out of hell" card to a bunch of people undeserving of it. Salvation is supposed to transform us into the type of people God wanted us to be in the first place. Jesus became one of us so we could become more like God.

With grace like that, who needs guilt?

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