After Religion Group, Discussion 1: Path from Guilt to Shame

First discussion After Religion group: Syllabus and Summary

1.7.2016, 8pm CET

Syllabus First Discussion

We will spend the first discussion on talking about questioning religion and guilt that might come from it. If you agree with the format, I propose each of us shares his or her own experience. Before the call, please read Spirituality and the Highly Gifted Adolescent, an article by Stephanie Tolan.

For questions or if interested, feel free to write us an email.

The following schema will be useful to reflect on our relationship to religion.

Discussion 1 schema

Questioning and Current Situation

First, let’s address the issue of questioning the set of beliefs that has been given to us by our parents and by our tradition. We can also try to find out our current situation, namely what good religion gives us, how it enhances us, etc. How do we fit into our religious institution and beliefs?

We can think of three dimensions that play an important role in this process.

1) Dogmatic adhesion and involvement 

Let’s think about our personal adhesion to the set of beliefs imposed by our religion from a rational point of view. How seriously do I rationally agree on the articles of faith or dogmas that are imposed? And how coherent does this set of beliefs appear to me? What is the degree of my conviction? For me, a good test of my adhesion to a religion’s teachings is to ask myself how I would explain my religion to non-believers and how arduous a defender I would be.

Examples of rational questioning are many: questions about the existence of God, the possibility of evil, the strangeness of some beliefs (never ask me to believe in the Immaculate Conception dogma…), the interpretation and coherence of Holy Books, and also on the morality of believers and clergy members, the organization of the institution, the life conduct of my fellow religious practitioners.

2) Strength of our faith and state of indoctrination 

Reason is at some point put aside and even despised by religious systems. Good and faithful believers are supposed to wholeheartedly believe in order to fully grasp and live according to the religious teachings. They should not question, not think too much, not even look for rational explanations outside of defending or promoting their faith to nonbelievers; because doubting is a sin, they should trust what is taught, and in case of doubt, pray harder for illumination.

How strong is/was my faith? This means, how strongly do I justify religious phenomena and beliefs with faith instead of seeking rational explanations? If my faith is strong, I will be able to overlook a lot of rational questions and go on with my beliefs. Some naiveté and wishful thinking is required for faith to be stronger.

How much am I (was I) indoctrinated? The more indoctrinated I am, the more I seek out faith as a response to rational doubt and the more difficult it is to think “outside the box of faith”. Indoctrinated people may compensate for their rational doubt by an intense, exalted and emotional (‘mystical’) state of mind. Indoctrination reinforces cognitive dissonance.

Finally, is there room for a “rational revolt” in my head?

3) Community/Family/Religious environment 

Indoctrination goes hand in hand with the strength of community and religious surroundings. Do my family/community/clergy let me explore religious topics? Do they accept contradiction and are they ready for discussion? Or do they condemn me as soon as I express my doubts?

Does my own opinion count in the eyes of others? Do they give me quick and readymade answers, or do they challenge my opinion constructively? And are there consequences for my questions (bullying, threats, marginalizing, etc.)?

Guilt 

1) Guilt towards God 

Feelings of guilt towards God are challenging… When I think about God, what representation of him shows up in my mind? Is he (or she…) benevolent and forgiving, or vengeful and angry? And to what extend does he care about my questioning? Is he offended and wants to punish me, or does he encourage me toward better understanding? And do I feel guilty for challenging his existence/his church/…?

2) Guilt towards Others 

Is my questioning judged by my family/other church members? How easy is it to express my views with integrity? Do I feel fragmented and torn apart when confronting others? Do I feel submissive and try to avoid conflict? Do I feel scared to say my thoughts out loud, or is it easy for me to speak up? And lastly, do I feel like an untrustworthy person, unable to keep his promises made in front of the community?

3) Guilt towards Myself 

How can I respect myself after betraying God? Do I feel guilty for my vivid desire for coherence and truth?

What about Giftedness?

I had difficulty finding literature on the relationship between gifted adults and institutionalized religion. I found a lot about gifted children and their precocious sensitivity towards “the Divine” or the Transcendent. Apparently, gifted children and teenagers show a higher proclivity to live according to higher values and to connect with the idea of something bigger than themselves (be it God, Nature, Universe, etc.). How is the higher sensitivity of the gifted and his search for an Absolute meaningful in the context of religious institutions? Is there a peculiar way of the gifted to fit into institutions and to ask for more than other believers? What are your thoughts on that?

Summary of the Discussion

Five of us took part in a very interesting first discussion: two of us from Switzerland with a Catholic background, two from the US with a Mormon background and one from Estonia with an atheist background. Thus, our experiences with religion are quite diverse.

Being that the Mormon religion is rather strict and “totalitarian”, we discussed how difficult it is to express discontent with and/or leave the church (as everything from jobs to family relationships linked to the church family). Leaving Mormonism requires a lot of courage, determination and strength, as family bonds and one’s entire personal life is put in jeopardy. Catholicism in Switzerland is less strict and has been more relegated to tradition and culture; thus questioning and leaving the church is less dramatic and less threatening.

Our discussion focused mainly on the difficulties of leaving religion as an institution. However, it was also interesting to hear the story of one of our members, who was raised atheist, but began to question the absence of religion as an adult. He studied religion out of curiosity, an exploration which ultimately led him on a more spiritual journey.

Our discussion covered three main points:

1.  Experience of Guilt

The experience of guilt was strong and omnipresent for several of us in our everyday actions and thoughts. Whatever we are doing, we question ourselves: “Am I doing the right thing?”; but this is a no-win situation because we know that, whatever we do or think, it will feel wrong or evil. The indoctrination that human nature is inherently corrupt has been so strong for us that right actions and right thoughts are simply impossible. There is no way of feeling unsuspicious or simply proud and good about ourselves.

Seeing guilt in this way makes us ask: “Wait! How is it possible that everything I think or do is evil?  Other people act as they deem appropriate, and they cannot all be wrong all the time!” This is felt as a need for us to wake up, and an imperative to free ourselves from a threatening and stifling authority (god) figure.

2.  Creating Values for One’s Life

From this state of intense and all-compassing guilt, how is it possible to know what is right or wrong for oneself? And, moreover, how is it possible to live a life that seems right, without feeling guilt?

It was interesting to hear that this step of determining one’s own values was difficult, but very rewarding. Remnants of guilt and of the image of a corrupt nature is hard to overcome, but living without guilt and finding what is right for one’s life isn’t so impossible after all. When talking about morality, religious people usually argue that, with Dostoievsky, “without God, everything is permitted” (and thus dangerously anarchical), and that people who do not believe in god lack a moral compass.

I discovered in our discussion that this is far from the truth: indeed we were all highly concerned with creating values for ourselves and finding a purpose in life that are independent from a religious authority. It is in fact possible to know within oneself what is right or wrong, and the purpose of one’s life. For some of us, precepts received by religious education are still valid for basic moral judgment; for others, the intention of an act defines what’s right or wrong.

In addition, looking at what is behind or beyond religion is a good way to understand the purpose of our life and actions. Finding similarities between the main religions and looking at religion in the bigger picture of human history and beliefs helps us contextualize our sense of guilt and the possibilities of discovering a more personal meaning of life. For example, we mentioned the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and of Kriya-Yoga: religion might be the reflection of a fight between Evil and Good within ourselves. Interpretations like these could give us new ways to interpret our actions and purpose.

3.  Spirituality versus Religion

It was particularly fascinating for me to see that, in fact, the experience of religion wasn’t necessarily associated with an experience of spirituality. I shared how I experienced spirituality and contemplation within religion as an adolescent: religion was a doorway (or a stepping stone) to an intense spiritual relationship with what I used to call the “Absolute”. I could picture a Loving God that I personally and emotionally defined as being the God of the Catholic doctrine and the scriptures. As the years went by, however, it became difficult for me to find a symmetry between these two ideas.

But, as far as I understood, in the case of our formerly Mormon members, God was never experienced as Love nor spiritually felt as such. Religion was rather cut off from the spiritual dimension: since God was experienced as more of a tyrant, it was impossible to associate him with Love.

So, the way out of an authoritarian religion feels like a re-appropriation of spirituality through independent thinking, reading of self-development literature and the practice of different forms of meditation (such as yoga).

What’s next?

We will spend some time individually reflecting on these questions of religion vs. spirituality, and determining one’s own values. We will read some of the literature we discussed, and come back together for a second discussion when everyone is ready to share what they’ve learned and discovered.

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