One of the underlying—but usually unmentioned—reasons that people embrace atheism is a desire to be unbound from the moral constraints that accompany religious belief. Atheists are like twelve-year-olds who fantasize about how cool life would be if they are on their own without their parents and all their pesky rules to deal with who rarely really stop to consider what the consequences of such “freedom” would really mean.
For them no God means no hang ups about sex, self-indulgence, or openly and enthusiastically pursing a hedonistic lifestyle. Along with this comes an unstated assumption that no God also means no guilt.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the don’t worry, be happy guilt-free forever party. Even as society turned away from religion and became increasingly secular guilt and the “problems” associated with it didn’t go away. In fact, it seems to have become a larger preoccupation for people than ever before.
Wilfred M. McLay has an excellent article in the May edition of First Things called The Moral Economy of Guilt: The curious process by which notions of sin and guilt have become both illusory and omnipresent. In it, he explores why the modern effort to escape guilt has failed and also how modern notions of guilt are connected to forgiveness:
We still value forgiveness, but we are very confused about it, and in our confusion we may have produced a situation in which forgiveness has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight as well as its moral meaning and been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of release it brings us. Like the similar acts of confession or apology, and other transactions in the moral economy of sin and guilt, forgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards entirely, standards without which such transactions have no meaning. Forgiveness makes sense only in the presence of a robust sense of justice. Without that, it is in danger of being reduced to something passive and automatic and empty. A sanctimonious way of simply moving on.
We live in an age in which being nonjudgmental in our dealings with others is increasingly viewed as part and parcel of being a civilized person, the only truly generous and humane stance. But without the exercise of moral judgment there can be no meaningful forgiveness, as surely as there cannot be mercy without a prior commitment to justice, or charity without a prior respect for private property.
Forgiveness can’t be understood apart from the assumption that we inhabit a universe in which moral responsibility matters, moral choices have real consequences, and justice and guilt have a salient role.
Forgiveness in its deepest sense is something different from “letting go of anger” so that we can individually experience wholeness and healing. It involves an extraordinary suspension of the normal workings of justice: of the normal penalties for crimes, and the normal costs for moral failings. By definition, it is something that can be done only rarely without undermining the basis on which it rests and without creating an entirely different set of moral expectations. The famous admonition from Tuesdays with Morrie that we should “Forgive everybody everything” is perhaps appealing as a psychological instruction, but it is appalling as a general dictum. It resembles the child’s dream that every day should be Christmas.
His article also explores the rise in the desire to be identified as victims:
But victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor and, in projecting that guilt, lift it off his own shoulders. The designated oppressor plays the role of scapegoat, on whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, one can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this should have become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt. At least in the short run.
There is no doubt that none of this would have happened absent the influence of Christianity. Such a story would not have been credible in ancient Greece or Rome, for example, whose pagan virtues did not notably include compassion, humility, and willingness to forgive. There would be no moral status there to be drawn from identification with the victim. Indeed, such reflections cause one to remember the shocking contrast between the proud glories of the classical world and those of this strange emergent Jewish sect, which believed in an incognito God who came into the world as the least among us, emptied of all majesty, and submitted without resistance to a horrifying and humiliating death. As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has insisted, the great moral reversal wrought by Christianity was the indispensable source of most of today’s commonplaces about universal human rights and human dignity, equality, sympathy, compassion, generosity, and much else that the secular world proudly claims for itself.