Guilt, Absolve – Rinse and Repeat

I don’t mind reading David Brook’s columns in the New York Times. I kind of like his format, he starts in the first two-thirds of the article providing context and background on his topic, with which I often agree. It’s the last third of his articles that makes me groan. He has a way of taking all that agreeable stuff then twisting it into something unrecognizable and conservative. Last week’s article,The Strange Persistence of Guilt  is based upon the assumption that secular society is in trouble due to a loss of influence by formal religions. He suggests they have the required proficiency to address this growing guilt glut. I don’t see the problem myself, but he says it is there.

If one accepts his premise: that massive volumes of guilt have no place to go because religions have a diminished role in society, then there is work to do.  We must repair the damage. I accuse guilt-inducing theologies – they manufacture the stuff faster than anyone. The two main functions of religion have always been to: 1. create an elite set of membership rules that exclude “others,” and 2. induce guilt through shaming those who don’t follow those rules (sin). Once a follower has been shamed sufficiently, the inducers of guilt offer absolution from the pain they’ve caused, often at a price. Religions spin this vicious cycle of guilt/absolution, but they don’t actually solve anything of substance. The thrill of sin, the guilt, then the joy of absolution become the ultimate cocktail of spiritual highs provided by that old dope peddler, religion. Sin, absolve, rinse and repeat – its almost orgasmic.

Sin is a stain, a weight and a debt. But at least religions offer people a path from self-reflection and confession to atonement and absolution.

David Brooks introduces the idea of sin and justifies religion (in the last third of his column) with the back-handed argument: “at least” they offer “absolution.” He also places self-reflection as the beginning point to achieve the endpoint of absolution. I would argue that self-reflection is both the beginning and the end point in a healthy secular mindset. Self-reflection requires an honest appraisal of the situation, make use of due diligence and research, deliberate the options with oneself and perhaps others, derive a conclusion, then stand by the conclusion with consistency. The key word in this is honesty. Without honesty the process does not have merit. Secular society expects its members to maintain their integrity.

The natural devolution of religion’s influence in our secular society will take time. Guilt exists as a problem because they have done an excellent job of magnifying its normal potency. The sin/absolution cycle is addictive, it should be kept away from the addicts.


  1. Anton Mates says

    But at least religions offer people a path from self-reflection and confession to atonement and absolution.

    What doesn’t offer people that path? 99% of philosophies, communities, organizations, and self-help books have some sort of norm about “Did you do something you shouldn’t? You should do something good to make up for it!” That’s not unique to religion, it’s just how people tend to behave.

    Does Brooks think that secular society hasn’t heard of apologies, community service, restorative justice?

Any Thoughts?