Confession. 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.
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.
“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.
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.