Alcoholic SecretConfession. Its common definition outside of the law is an admission of sins or unrighteousness–often in order to gain absolution and forgiveness for breaking the laws or ideals of a deity. But since there is no deity, why should it ever apply to Atheists?

What is confession for atheists?

I’d like to re-brand confession for the secular audience. If it isn’t about sin and disappointing a god, then what is it and why should we adopt a seemingly religious word? I’d like to suggest the following definition:

Confession is an acknowledgment of something personal that perhaps needs improvement, is troubling or difficult, or opens one up to the inclusion of another person into the private parts of someone’s life. Confession may be an admission of wrongdoing, a kept secret, a story of emotional trial, or even a cry for help.

Do you know PostSecret? Then you get an idea of what secular confession is all about.

I grew up in a vibrant, passionate intentional community filled mostly with Catholics. The sacrament of confession is one of the most “holy” and beloved practices in that tradition. One of my closest friends attends a weekly confession with her priest. She meets with him in his office and talks to him about the struggles and frustrations in her life as she tries to become a better person full of love, mercy, and righteousness. I admire her for working so hard at improving who she is on the inside. If confiding in her religious authority brings her closer to what she truly feels is right, then good for her. She’s a gentle and loving friend, and I know she wants to be honest and real with me.

But why should a non-theist use a concept like confession if there is no sin or god to punish and shame us? One reason is because it works. When confession is used to better onesself and one’s community, it helps people open up to one another about the realities and struggles in their lives. Love and care is shared, and the community becomes stronger. The Christian system in particular is certainly a flawed system based on unrealistic expectations and needless guilt and fear, but when the “crime and punishment” aspect of confession is removed, it becomes more like therapy, honest intimacy, and consultation rather than an admission of wrongdoing. This portion of confession is what I desire in my own life.

Confession isn’t about feeling shame or fessing up because you have to. As an adult, no one is forcing you to admit anything. We still have free choice to tell one another about our secrets and our darker moments.

Why confess to another person?

Because there is no god.

Pardon the clichés, but this is all we’ve got. We are all family—despite how dysfunctional the relationships. We get one shot and life and shouldn’t keep our desires for independence and privacy pull us apart. There is no god to fix things or make things happier. It’s up to us.

Community.

Confession for atheists is about crossing a divide between people–much like holding hands to show emotional support. Our individualistic western culture and selfish “Me-focused” values have overtaken and done much to wipe out what a community could be.

Need to Talk Secret“Nobody can understand me.”
“I can’t wait to move out of this house and get away from my family.”
“That’s my bike, get off!”
“I don’t know any of my neighbors.”
“I just use facebook to get in touch with people now.”
“I’m saving up all this money and storing all this junk and clutter because it’s mineminemine! I earned it.”

I see a decline in closeness, and I think confession can be one step in bringing us back together.

Because living as an atheist is such a personal and individual path, there is no requirement or easy access to a group like a church or a temple. Sure, we have our meetup groups, organizations, and online communities, but these do not serve the same function. And that’s okay, don’t get me wrong. There is no common teaching or set of guidelines for being a freethinker, so we can’t confess to breaking any rules or ideals. We are empowered to figure out our lives and our decisions on our own. And that is what I find both exhilarating and lonely.

What I miss about being in community is the closeness of a common bond and experience with my peers. We lived, cried, and laughed with each other. In the ideal moments, we took care of each other’s needs and provided more than just friendship. We were co-humans, not just religious followers. I was forthright and intimately connected to the hearts of my friends. It was like the bond of knowing between lovers without the sexual component. This experience still holds a special place in my heart today, and I have a dream that I will again live in a community of shared possessions and experiences.

For secular people, all wrongdoing is against another person just like us—not a deity or imaginary ruler. So confessing a feeling of guilt or shame would directly involve the person harmed or affected by an action. If I lied to a friend, the only people that should be involved in fixing it are myself and the person I lied to. Confessing my deception would hurt and be difficult, but in the end, we could resolve our issues and become more mature and closer friends.

Confession brings others into our most intimate, complex moments. When we’re brutally honest about ourselves and our struggles, we are being as raw and real as we can possibly get. Have you ever had a long conversation with a friend or even a complete stranger when everything is out on the table? You found yourself telling this person things you’ve never confided in anyone else. You spoke about doubts and concerns in your mind. You discussed larger social issues and philosophical ideas, and you did it in total peace–listening to everything said and accepting the other person just as they were. The energy, openness, and warmth that comes from those encounters is what I think confession is all about.

Change.

Better yourself; improve yourself—but not because you have to in order to meet some standard someone else has set. Grow into a person who lives up to your own values about trust, honesty, love, and compassion. Do it for the community of humankind that will benefit from the small ripple your choices make. Choose to do good and be good because it makes life better for you and everyone around you.

Confess because we’re all in this together.

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9 thoughts on “Confession and Why It Works for Atheists”

Jaki · March 4, 2010 at 12:25 am

Lovely piece!!! I’m so glad your writer’s block is gone!
I’m especially in agreement with you when it comes to the fact that we are all that we’ve got. The people that surround you should be your support system and like you said – we only get one shot at life. I try to make sure that the people I am around care about me just as much as I do them. I don’t have the time to waste on people that really don’t have my best interests in mind. I do this because I want to remain happy and not stressed and worried.

Thank you for writing this =)

    Godless Girl · March 4, 2010 at 1:07 am

    It seems like you’re doing your best to create a close-knit community of friends around you. When I first moved to this state I felt so alone because none of my friends and supports were here anymore. It helped me realize how to do things on my own, but I’m an even better person with other people around.

DrMatt · March 4, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I find it fascinating that you focus on the confessing! I can do that on my own …..

The key to confession is the forgiveness. A priest can forgive sins. He can give you homework to do, penance, which leads to the forgiveness of sins.

I don’t grant the holy man to have such power. Others aparently do.

Admit mistakes and move on, yes. Confess sins to a holy man, accept and perform penance in hopes of forgiveness falsely given, no.

    Godless Girl · March 4, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    What good is confessing something to nobody and nothing? It neither rights a situation, solves conflict, or opens up your life to the friendship and closeness of others. Perhaps you missed the part about this being an atheistic concept without religion, priests, or gods?

Jeff · March 5, 2010 at 9:23 am

A lot of people think they need forgiveness from someone else. Really, it’s about finding the space to forgive yourself, since you can’t actually control what anyone else does or thinks of you.
.-= Jeff’s last blog ..Yes, dear, we make it up as we go. =-.

Steve · March 10, 2010 at 12:27 pm

How can you really even wrong a person? Isn’t it all just relative? I don’t see the point in confessing if I can’t really wrong someone in the first place.

Roof Woofer · March 14, 2010 at 8:16 am

@Steve, I don’t understand what you mean. There’s criticism that if you believe “everything’s relative”, you’d eventually get to the point of saying there’s no such thing as justice or injustice, opression, irresponsibility or anything. Until now, I’d never heard anyone actually state that that’s what they think.

Seems to me that telling lies about someone, agreeing to do something and then not doing it, taking something that belongs to them, being cruel, etc. are all ways of wronging a person.

@Jeff, in my opinion, forgiveness is to repair a relationship, not to just make them like you. If something damages a relationship, forgiving yourself may make you feel better, but it’s not a step toward fixing anything.
.-= Roof Woofer’s last blog ..RoofWoofer: RT @Cozelle Apparently I’m this horrible/broken person for viewing a major event in my life as "tragic," and responding as such.// So sorry =-.

    Steve · March 22, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I guess what I’m saying is, how does one define “wronging a person”? You said “seems to me” but what is this based on? Is this just your personal opinion or is stealing, being cruel, and lying wrong for me as well? If it is wrong, can you explain why? I’m genuinely curious as to how one reaches those conclusions?

    I can’t really deny the obvious that confessing things does seem to have many benefits, I guess I’m just more concerned about the “why” question. Most people would agree with you and say that the things you mentioned are in fact “wrong” but I’m not sure if many people could say why.

Harvey · May 2, 2016 at 9:27 am

I don’t really believe that God exists but am I an atheist if:

I go to Mass every week and on high holy days and feel uncomfortable at the thought of missing it?

If I pray often to believe in God but don’t?

If I feel left out because I don’t take Communion as it wouldn’t be right if I don’t believe?

If I want a sacramental marriage to my loving Catholic fiancee?

If I feel a need to go to Confession and receive Penance?

Comments are closed.

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