You certainly don’t need religion to have a sense of guilt. You don’t even need religion to be totally overcome by guilt. All you need is a sense of an ideal self—some version of a hero-project going on in your head—and you are a lifelong candidate for guilt.
The atheist is always tempted to believe guilt is somehow an invention of religion. Following Freud’s logic, religion is responsible for repressing sexuality, and hence why we are neck deep in a myriad of neurotic disorders. Today psychologists develop endless theories of causes and cures for guilt.
Other irreligious types are persuaded that guilt is something like an evolutionary hiccup, some defect in brain wiring specific to the human species, and that religion serves as a positive restraining factor for people too weak to overcome it.
Then there is Christian theology which holds that guilt is a full-orbed spiritual-psychic response to turning ones back on God. Guilt is directly tied to sin, and sin is directly dealt with by the forgiveness which can come but from God alone.
But we are no longer a Christian society. We are experiencing today what Nietzsche feared would come once society had ‘killed God’. He saw that people would not be able to simply abandon guilt, but would instead inherit the notion of guilt without the religious means to deal with it. This would enact a hellish existence that Nietzsche was probably quite happy to have avoided.
No sooner did our society throw off Christianity than it dove headlong into the most complex system of virtue-coding ever developed in the history of mankind; a rapidly changing system that holds all people to account, with deadly seriousness, for each new code violation developed the day before yesterday. Something never considered an offense suddenly appears as conflicting with the new standard and renders the offender ‘cancelled’. Virtue is gained by cancelling others for their sin (social sins as defined by the omniscient gods of social media). And the more one cancels or attempts to cancel the higher up one is allowed to climb out of their own sickness of guilt and shame. Without a legitimate Forgiver nobody is safe.
Christianity understands guilt as the result of turning from God, but, and this is the important distinction, sin is ultimately an offense against God alone—whether the sin is directly against him or any aspect of his creation, including oneself—and therefore ultimately only forgivable by him. Today with the advent of the ‘death of God’ there is no metaphysical root of sin nor any ultimate source of forgiveness. Far from finding personal peace and societal utopia through abandoning Christianity, we have been stuffed deeper into the prison of sin consciousness.
In “Moses and Monotheism” Freud described the process by which the Jews sought to overcome their sense of guilt:
The people met with hard times; the hopes based on the favour of God were slow in being fulfilled; it became not easy to adhere to the illusion, cherished about all else, that they were God’s chosen people. If they wished to keep happiness, then the consciousness of guilt because they themselves were such sinners offered a welcome excuse for God’s severity. They deserved nothing better than to be punished by him, because they did not observe the laws; the need for satisfying this feeling of guilt, which, coming from a much deeper source, was insatiable, made them render their religious precepts ever and ever more strict, more exacting, but also more petty. In a new transport of moral asceticism the Jews imposed on themselves constantly increasing instinctual renunciation, and thereby reached—at least in doctrine and precepts—ethical heights that had remained inaccessible to the other peoples of antiquity.
Much is said here and almost all of it applicable to the irreligious psyche today. Most people have a sense that they are special, that they have a special purpose or gift for the world. This feeling can be squashed by a shit childhood, but for the most part this is a common disposition. We tend to think of ourselves as “chosen”. But what happens when reality sets in and one begins to flirt with the notion that he is not chosen, not important? What happens when this inner movement casts seriously doubt on one’s hero-project? When this happens a form of guilt sets in, call it existential guilt. The guilt of not amounting to what one expected of oneself – or even, perhaps, what the cosmos expected.
Without the luxury of finding one’s identity and peace in the forgiveness of God, what is one to do? The answer today seems to be exactly what Freud here describes: the need for satisfying this feeling of guilt leads one to desire punishment, to “render their religious precepts ever and ever more strict, more exacting, but also more petty.” In short, the instinct is moral and ethical puritanism.
The trouble today, though, is far worse in that there is no prescribed moral standard – no transcendent, God-breathed law or code of ethics. We are left to create our own (and humans are truly terrible at creating their own). Where religion was keen on defining the limits of sexual life, paganism today has only a few sacraments, one of the most sacred of which is limitless sexual promiscuity. Where adultery got you a big fat scarlet letter “A” to wear around town in colonial Massachusetts, adultery today is likely to get you a reputation of a woke free-thinker, or just liberated in general.
Where religion would check you on greed, lying, hate, arrogance, selfishness, etc., paganism today celebrates all of these so long as they are rightly practiced within the complex virtue system. Besides these traditional biggie moral issues, there are many extra codes added to the main en vogue issues of the day, subject to change, of course, with the next breeze over the hill.
The system is about as stable and easy to navigate as the US tax code. Even if one stays up-to-date with the daily changes and is able, for a time, to pilot the minefield of the new virtue system, eventually a wire is tripped. Once tripped there is no redemption. One cannot be made ‘anew’ through repentance. One can never shake a slip from the past. ‘Missing the mark’ is a permanent flaw, and the person—not the sin—must be deleted.
It’s not pretty and there is no foreseeable solution. As the rules gain in complexity and pettiness, guilt runs alongside at an equal pace. At some point neurosis is a given.