Where does guilt come from?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
This topic was referred to The Guy after it emerged during discussions at a monthly lunch group consisting of a liberal Catholic, a liberal Protestant, a Unitarian and an evangelical.
Guilt interwoven with religion is a continual theme for humor. The late entertainer Robin Williams, for instance, used to say he was an Episcopalian because it’s “Catholic light. All the pageantry, half the guilt.” Jews themselves continually joke about Jewish guilt.
In 21st Century America, guilt ain’t what it used to be -- on the surface. It is often portrayed as a needless, even damaging, burden. Or consider a memorable moment at a 2015 “pro-family” rally in Iowa. Presidential candidate Donald Trump said, quite candidly, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness.” No guilt-ridden soul there.
Both high and low culture promote moral relativism by which age-old rules that were officially upheld if sometimes violated are now eradicated. And yet socio-cultural liberals who cherish such freedom will readily turn absolutist against, say, guns or global warming or #MeToo misconduct. Polls continue to show high opprobrium against adultery. Think of the careers recently wrecked by sexual sin in these supposedly unbuttoned times.
Is guilt disappearing as religion is moved from the center of cultural influence in the West? Quite the opposite, contends University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred M. McClay. His 2017 Hedgehog Review essay “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” said intellectuals expected guilt to fade with secularization but instead it “has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element” of life. We cannot “banish guilt merely by denying its reality,” he wrote. Secularization makes matters worse because so many can no longer rely on Jewish and Christian forms of absolution that make guilt bearable.
Psychological experts indicate guilt is essential to the very definition of what it means to be human.