On My Use of Shame

After publishing my previous post, “Why I am an Atheist,” I received several thoughtful responses, but I also received, through snail-mail, a friendly and heartfelt letter from a Catholic priest whom I’ve never met. I do not want to publish that letter here, but I would like to publish my response to it, if only to clarify some things for other readers who might have read my previous post in the same way. In short, the priest wrote that he felt sorry for me, and that he was sorry — “sad and apologetic” — that my “experience with religion was so dominated by shame.” Here, in edited form, was how I responded to this friendly priest.

There is no need to feel sorry for me. My experience of religion was not dominated by shame. As I wrote in my original blog post, the concept of shame I was talking about had less to do with the vernacular use of shame and more to do with the process of discerning right from wrong. I used the word “shame” to connote the visceral sense of this discernment, the feeling that what I was about to do or what I had done was wrong.

My blog post was an attempt to convey the feeling of belief, rather than the intellectual stance of it. As I proceeded through the post, I reformed the notion I introduced as shame into the idea of “recognizing a moral imperative.” Unfortunately, the latter phrase, by virtue of its use of “recognizing” (a term which is connected to the concept of “knowing,” rather “feeling”) lacks the bodily sensation I was trying to evoke in my description of belief as a sensory experience.

As a creative writer rather than a philosophical writer, I attempt to use words in an evocative sense, rather than a philosophical one.

Given that I wanted to communicate the sensory experience of the moral imperative, I found that the word “shame” carried more sensory weight than any intellectual phrase that came to mind. I suppose I could have gone with the sensation of love, which would have implied a positive moral force rather than a negative one, but if truth be told, when I believed in God, I was a teenager, and the negative moral force — as in, “don’t do that” — held more sway in my life than the positive one.

But again, this is nothing for you to feel sorry about. As I wrote in the blog post, I don’t (and didn’t) conceive of this sensory experience in a negative light. It played the same role in my life as a stitch in one’s side does during a basketball game, a simple message that says, “Something you’re doing is wrong, so stop it.” Shame is a message; nothing more, nothing less.