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A recent thread from the Dr. Robert Forum:

Dear Dr. Robert,

In the Relationship Question thread, Jennifer said "How do you get rid of shame when you feel it even though you did nothing wrong?"

This is exactly what I've been thinking about today, although mostly in terms of religion... I had a pretty religious upbringing - Catholic parents, a Catholic (2 years) and then an ultra-conservative Christian (Protestant) boarding school (4 years). These are the types (conservative Christian) who when I see them now ask questions like "how is your walk with the Lord?"

These days, I certainly wouldn't call myself a "believer" - but there is often that nagging feeling like I'm damned for all eternity for rejecting it. That I'm failing God and my kids and everybody for not sticking with that faith. There is a Bible verse (in Revelation 3) that talks about being lukewarm "neither hot nor cold" — that being so would make God vomit you out of his mouth. This verse has haunted me for years! I go through phases of real fear about "eternal death" — i.e., separation from God (as I was taught death is defined).

I tell myself I don't believe it, but if I don't why do I still feel such guilt for ridiculous little things?

I usually feel pretty hostile toward people of faith (any faith - my sister is a devoted Muslim), but is this because it hits too close to home? How do I just not care?

Hi, EvangelineMade—

A very good question which applies in one way or another to almost everyone.

Children are programmed to have ideas, opinions, and views, including religious ones, long before they are old enough to test any of that received knowledge or to inquire within themselves whether it is true or not. Before a certain age, in other words, children believe without question whatever they are told. Once you believe something, whether it is true or not, that belief becomes a part of what you call "myself," which is part of the reason that I keep mentioning the importance of inquiring into what "I" am, what "myself" really is. Is it my ideas and beliefs? Or is it something else, something deeper , and ideas and beliefs are just an appearance on the surface of that something else?

Now this kind of programming—the child is told something and believes without question—takes place not just with regard to religion, but in regard to all of the child's views. In other words, the child's entire worldview is put there by parents and the larger community at large (primarily functioning through the parents when the child is very young). If you were born into a family of white southerners at a certain time in American history, for example, you automatically believed that African Americans were inferior people. You believed that they were lazy, untrustworthy, and less intelligent that you and your white friends. Probably you called them by the now-forbidden "N word," if not aloud, at least to yourself. Then, finding yourself an adult, and meeting black people who were not lazy, who were trustworthy, and who were not less, but more intelligent, your worldview was thrown into conflict. Of course, if you were deeply programmed enough, you would never even meet someone like that. In the first place, you would avoid such people—the ones with darker skin—and, in the second place, even if you did run across such a person, you would not see her qualities, only the color of her skin. Do you see how this is exactly parallel to the situation of the Christians in your life? In the first place, they avoid "pagans," and atheists, and, in the second place, if they do happen to meet a non-believer, all they see about that person is the non-belief in "God," not anything else.

But suppose that your programming did not "take" to that extent, so that you do begin to question it. And, suppose that you are intelligent enough, and honest enough to admit that the racist views were wrong, but somehow you were still affected by them. This is a conflict, and this conflict could cause shame. If you were stupid, dishonest, and stubborn in clinging to your programming, the racist views would not cause shame, because you would banish any doubt which arose, and insist to yourself that blacks really were inferior. In other words, it is only the more open-minded people who begin to be troubled by the conflict between childhood programming and reality. Congratulations, EM, on being among the more open-minded among us.

Now your case is difficult. You received this training as a child, and it penetrated deeply, so deeply, in fact, that you still believe it. You say that you would not call yourself a believer, but then go on to suggest that really you are "luke-warm," which is not the description of a non-believer at all, but someone who does believe, but has certain doubts. If you could get rid of the doubts--or more exactly the doubts about your doubts--you would lose the guilt and the fear of eternal death. You understand that, so you are asking how to get rid of the guilt and fear. "How do I just not care?"

You will always care until you are clear in your adult mind—completely clear—that your childhood programming was a bunch of preposterous nonsense which was forced upon you when you were too young to know any better—too young to know it was preposterous. Do you want to attain that clarity, or would you like to remain luke-warm? Sitting on the fence, as you are, can be uncomfortable (guilt, fear), but it does have one big advantage: you do not have to grow up and use your own adult powers to examine your beliefs. You can remain, intellectually, a child. You can remain intellectually lazy. This is a choice you, and only you, can make.

If you want to grow up intellectually, I suggest that you begin a serious inquiry into the truth or falsity of this "God" story with which you have been programmed so deeply. Here is what you should read:

First, Sam Harris, "The End of Faith."

Second, Christopher Hitchens, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything"

If you can read and understand both of these books, you will then have the right kind of information to carry on a reasonable argument, instead of an emotional one, against the religious programming with which you have been saddled. The emotional argument is a losing argument—one you cannot win. The intellectual argument, assuming you have prepared yourself to have it—you prepare by reading these two books (don't be lazy)—can be a winner.

A last word of advice: if you do decide to grow up intellectually, do not discuss any of this with anyone who is a believer. Do not argue with anyone about this. Just let them be. This is only about you, and no one else.

Be well.

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page last modified February 20, 2011

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