Jul 16

Does shame always come with religion?

Is religion all about shame? This question was raised, in a round-about way, of course, on Facebook recently. Certainly when I’ve spoken with friends who are disenfranchised from Catholicism, shame and guilt have played a big part of their decision. (I have only rarely met someone disenfranchised from another religion, but I’d be pleased to get that viewpoint as well.) Yet I’m speaking to them in the context of their current religious path, usually Unitarian Universalism, so the guilt or shame that came with one religion does not translate, for them, to all religious paths.

In addition, for those who are currently practicing members of Roman Catholicism, shame does not seem to play into their religious value system. I certainly could raise the question to more followers of this path or even just ask it directly; I have not done so, and I’m only speaking from what I sense from them. (A dangerous thing to do, to be sure.) Have things changed in the Catholic church in the past 25 years? We know the focus shifts with every new Pope, and even within a single Pope’s tenure, so perhaps there really has been a change of focus from guilt to love in that time.


Another potential answer is in the age or spiritual maturity level of the practitioner. Those whom I know that left Catholicism were never adults within that tradition; they left as teenagers or before. It’s possible that the rules and regulations they rallied against are ones that, though valid, would not have been deal-breakers to someone more developed spiritually.


Thinking of this makes me think of the stages of spiritual development. {Margaret Placentra Johnston has done a very comprehensive job gathering this information into one, easy-to-read webpage, in preparation / support for her upcoming book, Faith Beyond Belief. For a quick overview of various theorists and their theories, click here, and for a development scale based on collating the different theorists, click here.  I look forward to her book!} There are almost always disagreements about stages of development of anything. Some people develop out of the timeline or in a different order, etc. Among the various theorists, there are also different numbers of stages and different names for the stages. For the purpose of this discussion, the big shift is from a lower stage – let’s just call it “black-and-white” – to a higher stage – “grey.” This is VERY simplified, but it will do for this short blog post.

  1. Black-and-white: During childhood, and sometimes into adolescence and beyond. At an age when everything in and regarding the world is black and white, good and bad, religion and/or spirituality follows the same pattern. Firm rules must be in place; if you disagree with the rules or disobey them, you will be punished. This punishment could be external, like Hell or a beating from one’s parents, or internal, in the form of guilt or shame. Conversely if you behave or believe properly, rewards come your way, such as eternal salvation in Heaven.
  2. Grey: Usually reached sometime in adulthood. At this level, shades of grey are allowed in. It’s possible for an authority figure (like the Pope) to be right on some things and not-so right on others. Aspects of a religion that we personally don’t agree with can be good-naturedly ignored, while continuing to follow those aspects that do resonate for us.


It is simply hypothesis, but it seems possible to me that either those friends of mine that left the Catholic church around issues of shame and guilt were either, themselves, in the lower stage of growth, which makes good sense for children or teens, or those that were teaching them were in that stage themselves. I have also heard it said that, since children only understand in black and white, it doesn’t make sense to try to teach them about the greys. So even if the teachers understood the greys, they might have presented the material in very black and white terms to make it digestible for the kids.


If this is the case, is this a fault of teaching methods or a fault of the religion? Or is there no fault, and the combination of spiritual growth level and teaching methods combined to turn these children, now adults, against an otherwise reasonable religion?


What is your perspective? We can have disagreements of belief, while still being respectful. With this in mind, do some religions inherently teach guilt and shame – or do all forms of religion and spirituality teach guilt and shame? Or are guilt and shame in the mind or heart of practitioners due to their own or their teachers’ level of spiritual development, where a more realized level of development would not be allowing the same result?


What do you think? What are your stories?


Please follow, like & share: