And we can't. We really can't.
It's not that religions create this idea: as I stated above, it's there from the beginning, children barely old enough to speak have grasped from somewhere the idea that if they hurt another kid, they can balance the metaphysical scales by letting the other child hurt them back - "Quick, you bite ME now!" - or by hurting themselves - "See? I hit myself with the block! Now you mustn't tell!" - in order to escape the potential for worse punishment by parental involvement. The concept of buying our way out of unfairness seems to be as innately human as the notion of fairness is innate in many social animals.
But religions - at least all the ones that I am familiar with - having notions of atonement, let alone systems of atoning, codify and reinforce this belief, and I can't find it anything but a) wishthink, b) pernicious, upon long reflection and study. Pay off the gods to ritually pay off each other when you can't actually "pay back" what's been taken, and everything's okay now - at least until the next time, when you do it all over again. And pain and suffering are the payment methods, meted out on various installment plans.
To the extent that beliefs in future justice actually work as restraints on wrongdoing, to the extent that they serve to make people more mindful of their own behavior, of connectedness to a wider world, of responsibility to others - then no, that's not spiritually ruinous; but how well do they actually work?
Contra the very few who assert that the only reason they don't go out rampaging like miniature Apocalyptic Riders is their faith in their religion - and who have no clue as to why this makes most people recoil from them as if they had confessed to actual wrongdoing, or to being the Ticking Bomb - for most people who behave more-or-less decently, what restrains them from attacking strangers or relatives or stealing from customers or slitting throats or raping targets of opportunity is not fear of punishment either earthly or infernal, but because they just don't want to. Because that's not how their personalities incline, because they've been socialized not to respond to situations that way, and trying to untangle which comes first is a DNA strand-egg puzzle that makes the old chicken one look like a knock-knock joke.
I, in the course of my Arctic night of the soul (or rather night on one of those planets where night lasts many Terran years) was forced to admit that even if I came to the conclusion that there was no God and the cosmos was an empty uncaring waste that I would not go out and do the wrong* things I was tempted to do in my worst moments, even if I thought I could get away with them. It wasn't fear of Hellfire that was holding me back, ultimately, it was my own self-respect, where the wish to not hurt people wasn't enough.
There's ye olde logic chopping again - if/then as a blade to hack through the thornbushes a thousand feet tall - but it took me a lot longer even to tackle the whole mess of the idea that whether or not The Numinous Is Real, my - or anyone - either hurting ourselves, or being hurt and just putting up with it instead of doing what we could to end it, was a Good Thing that could right some sort of Cosmic Balance.
Books by famous theologians didn't help; they just tangled up the tangles even more. Different Christian denominations - and different traditions within each denomination - have different interpretations and stress different aspects, but you really can't get away from it, if you accept the Atonement doctrine. You start out with the premise that God has to engage in self-harming behavior to "pay the debt we owe for sin" and from there you pretty much roll inevitably into the pitfall of "if I fast and say fifty rosaries on my knees on the hard floor I can get myself/my loved ones/total strangers out of Purgatory/Hell/specific life problems X/Y/Z" and any number of possible points on the continuum from donating great big gold platters and/or herds of cattle to temples to punching holes in sensitive bits of your anatomy with sharp pointy things to donating other people to temples to have holes punched in their anatomies or, less bloodily but not necessarily much more happily in the long run, to pray umpteen hungry rosaries on cold and stony floors to keep Osiris from tossing your heart to the thing that looks like a hippopotamus crossed with a giant anteater--
It's a perverse notion - the idea that pain is currency, metaphysically speaking, that it's anything but, well, pain - that The Gods get something out of us suffering, and thus we can buy Heavenly favor with our own suffering, or even proxy sufferings. Any gods that get off on suffering aren't worthy of the name, imo, or at least not worthy of worship. If "Sick Fuck Above All Sick Fucks" is part of your deity's Litany, even if you never sing that part, then you'd be better off being not atheists but antitheists. --Morally speaking.
It's sick, it's destructive, and it's ultimately - from a Christian perspective, at least - heretical, and the worst kind of heretical behavior: attempted magic against God. I haven't read enough internal theological debate from other faith traditions to know how gravely trying to force divine assistance is regarded: I just know that a) we all do it no matter what religion we belong to, and b) it's not considered really great, spiritually speaking, any more than imperfect contrition is. But trying to make God/The Gods do what we want by paying up front for services is so inherently human that trying to talk ourselves out of it doesn't seem to work no matter how much we try.
The problem rests on a couple of key points: one is the feeling we have that we have a right to bribe anybody if the bribe is good enough, that a really good bribe really does obligate people to us, that there is no such thing as a gift of stuff or service with no strings attached; and the second is the feeling that feelings weigh anything outside our own heads.
The first part, the feeling that gifting entails undefined & open-ended obligation (even if you assure the recipient it doesn't) is why the Sacrificial Impulse so easily becomes corrupted in religion (well, that and the whole showing-off-to-the-neighbors thing) and so rarely is a matter of Joy or even real Gratitude when things are "Given To [A] God", but either done out of a sense of fear that an insufficiently-bought-off deity will send His/Her minions around to slash a few tires, maybe burn the place down, like piqued and immortal Mob leaders, or out of hope that a deity pleased with the "gratuity" will not only not deal out grief but will perhaps send some good business our way. The second part is why the emphasis is on "Giving till it hurts" (at least towards those who are capable of being hurt through want) and this is what is boasted of, because the hurting is what makes it valuable.
Because our God is a sick fuck who gets off on people hurting themselves to prove how much they love him.
He isn't? He doesn't? Then what's the explanation of the whole offering it up business? Like the whole "God's masculine because of the Male Principle" mess, I'd really like to see some defense of it that doesn't boil down to "God's a dick", in the end. But I haven't found ary a one in all the great theologians and mystics that isn't either "Because He's the Biggest Dick around" or "It's okay because He hurts himself too!" and that's just more of the same illogical arguing that feelings can balance and pain is coin--
It doesn't have to be like this, but it usually is
It's possible - and even does happen, too - for people to be simply grateful and to dedicate things to deities without it being a bribe, a buying-off of punishment or an "encouragement" to provide favors; the worship relationship doesn't have to be one of a hanger-on at a corrupt Emperor's court, where all try to compete to give the nicest presents to the One Who Has Everything in hopes that He'll give them back something even better, or give them a leg up on a rival, or protect them from a rival's power - but it's so very difficult to purge this from our thought patterns, individually or collectively.
And it creates a God who is nothing but a Monster, a fickle, vicious, petty and depraved deity no better than a mortal tyrant - a god cast in our own image, very much so, molded into a mirror of humanity's worst flaws elevated to justify our flaws and put them beyond reproach as aspects of the Divine.
In short, it's blasphemous. Which only matters if you care about such things, of course.
For everybody else, it matters because it's effective in all kinds of nasty ways in our everyday lives. Forget about the pathetic and embarrassing spectacle of a Supreme Being whining I put so much hard work into making you people, I was in labor with you for
One of the most frequent arguments for the general benevolence and positive impact of religion, and Christianity in particular by Christians, is the Argument From Utility - which is inescapable, keeps cropping up even in the mouths of those who at other times and formally deny it, and was debunked by John Stuart Mill over a hundred years ago but as we all know, rebunking is like the tides and not to be stopped. What the Argument From Utility</a>s says, on one level, is that we need organized religion and specifically the Hope/Fear afterlife aspect regardless of whether it is objectively true, because it makes us better to each other as a society.
Again, trying to prove this from history is very difficult, and wanders very quickly into Tiger-Repelling Rock territory. But what it says on another level is - we don't even care about the Hell/Hells/Reincarnated-as-a-Rat part of it, we know that all that really matters is how things go in this life.
It's not just an argument of Unfaith** but an acknowledgment that Natural Science is the real Queen, and Theology only a decoy. You only ever appeal to a higher authority to validate a lower, and not the reverse. (This is also found in all the justifications for theologically-warranted gender-based discrimination, which inevitably turn to appeals to Nature and Science to "prove" that God isn't just a sexist bloke made in our own sexist-bloke image, but that's another essay.)
So let us look at whether or not this specific religious belief has any social utility - or rather, how wide and general a social utility it has. Convincing you that God wants you to do everything I say has a great deal of usefulness for me, but not so much for you.
I'm tempted to say "as below, so above" and vice versa, because I don't see that much of a difference in either causes or effects between the Metaphysical Emotional Blackmail column and the Temporal Emotional Blackmail one. But there may be important differences, so let's see.
Both of them "work" on the premise that you can obligate people towards you by hurting yourself and claiming it was meant as a prezzie for them which is a deeply fucked-up notion, not made better by the fact that certain ritual qualifiers are placed on the process - someone who claimed that random strangers "owed them" various unspecified things because s/he'd been hitting themselves on the head or hand with a hammer would be (ideally) taken away to a decent hospital and looked after both mentally and physically. But we accept something just as irrational when we claim someone is entitled to special privileges, immunity from prosecution or other consequences of their bad actions or rights to extra goodies, "because they've given up so much" or even because they've already suffered pain as a result of their actions. Think of all the people who say after someone kills or maims another due to reckless driving, "they shouldn't be punished because it's so hard on them, what they've gone through already" - as though the suffering which they caused to themselves somehow fills up the balance scale for the suffering inflicted on others by their actions, so that justice has already been done and anything further would be overkill, injustice as a result.
In Christianity we see this play out in several ways: the first and most obvious one is that according to Atonement doctrine, God, being a masochist as well as a sadist, has obligated us permanently and irrevocably and without any choice in the matter on our part by committing painful suicide "for our sake." It's okay, he's into unsafe/insane BDSM so that makes it all right for Him to subject us to non-con h/c, see? What's that, you don't? Well, neither do I, actually. But lots of people do.
Then there's the "I can obligate God towards me by suffering hard enough" which is theologically unsound but done even by theologians, q.v. St. Teresa of Avila complaining to God about how badly He treats His friends, and encouraged from an early age by religion teachers with the blithe assurance that God will reward our sufferings and time dedicated to Him with gifts on earth as well as in Heaven - if it doesn't work, then you just weren't suffering enough, you weren't throwing your whole soul into it, you just need to keep trying harder, hurt yourself some more to get His attention, only whoops, that's bad when pagans are doing it so let's just sort of handwave how it's supposed to work--
Then there's the lateral manifestation of this, which is really the earthly sort, but with a dragging-in of the vertical two-way binding ritual to rationalize it: this is the argument for why cloistered clerics aren't selfish for retreating from the world - they're actually acting as a sort of direct pipeline to get God's presents down to us, by depriving themselves to guilt Him into doing things for them, and passing those savings on to us, they obligate us in turn to support them and refrain from criticizing them because hey, they're hurting themselves to save our souls and obtain blessings for you, you ungrateful wretch, even if you didn't know that they were doing it, never asked them to and don't want them to do so, either.
Which is kind of like the whole "I gave up X for you and so you OWE me" thing,
Again, if someone were to go around with a ball peen hammer in their pocket and bang on themselves to get out of parking tickets or failure to obtain a burn permit or smacking their SO or kids around or raping their underage students, very few of us would accept this as an acceptable substitute for either punishment or stopping doing the bad stuff, even if bones were broken and blood spilled. This is clearly whacked. However, if someone tries to pass themselves off as morally superior because they hurt themselves more, actively or passively, through self-denial, but always deliberately, because that's what they like to do OR because they think the rewards they gain from doing so are worth it, and to claim authority as a result, we may or may not accept it. It all depends on the social status of the one playing the martyr, really. And that comes down to what, and who, we value most in society. Machismo plays as much a part of it as masochism, but so does relative social status, and it's fluid, dynamic, and complicated, varying across situation and subgroup. But it's given us a situation in which emotional blackmail and self-harming behavior are allowed to be used as social leverage in ways that have no objective logic nor reason to them.
And it's corrosive, it ruins the ability of persons to relate to each other honestly and graciously, and it enables all kinds of vile abuse to go on unchecked, what we have done and what we have failed to do.
I realize that one could go into a great deal of examination of the differences between pain suffered by being endured and pain suffered that is sought out, and also what is going on in the implicit attempt to equalize the status gap by suffering so much that you gain the benevolence and favor of a superior - the Grizelda Game being played with either God or a mortal who has legal or practical power and standing over one, there's something fascinating psychologically going on there in this attempt to weight the cosmic balance, but this sermon is already a week late (I meant to finish it last Sunday but it got all snarled up) and the thing which is most prominent to me, given this liturgical season and my upbringing, is the way that Repentance becomes an end in itself, and how the emotional sensations of suffering that accompany it become a hollow substitute for the actions of Being Repentant
Remorse is like Nausea - natural, but of severely limited utility
I'm not saying - don't be remorseful. (That is, if you've done something wrong.) For one thing, feelings aren't something one can (easily) command; they come or not, they're just there like the weather, so saying "don't feel X" is like saying "don't let it rain" - all you can do is work through it or not. But it doesn't mean anything; remorse doesn't make you superior, feelings of remorse won't repair whatever it was you're feeling remorseful for having done, so assuming that you're feeling justifiably remorseful and not unreasonsbly guilty, it still is pointless. It might be a necessary stage, like puking up something poisonous, but indulging it, staying in the feeling or even encouraging it, as if the emotional state of misery were itself virtuous, is very unhealthy...and can be used to justify things even less healthy than staying stuck in the Slough of Despond.
Hurting yourself? Doesn't do a damn thing to right the wrongs you're feeling bad about. Beating up on yourself physically, beating up on yourself emotionally, depriving yourself of nice things, even killing yourself won't fix whatever it was you broke. Nothing you can do can undo what you did. And nothing can "make up" for it - going out and doing good deeds to others won't undo the bad ones, won't repair the things damaged or destroyed, won't help restore balance and increase the sum total of Good in the world by any other than the mundane means of here is something, some situation left better than it was - there's no mystical Rube Goldberg linkage that will allow either your pain or your prayers to level Libra where it hangs in the hands of the Virgin--
Or maybe you can pay off your Cosmic Bar Tab that way - I'm a believing agnostic, I have faith that whatever Powers may be are not as mean, stupid and irrational as humans at our worst, but I could be wrong - but you can't provably make a penny's-worth of difference here in this worlds-realm, this life, for any other living person. It would be nice to think that such things were possible (for X values of "nice") but wishthink is weightless, worthless, not something you can take to the bank.
And using self-inflicted emotional suffering to try to get out of the other consequences of wrongdoing - is deeply and terribly twisted. So you're miserable because you've harmed - well, that's just just, isn't it? So you've recognized that you've fucked up, broken things that can't be fixed, and you're in anguish over this realization - well, that's the consequence of getting outside your own head, and it's a healthy one - IFF you use it as the starting point for not hurting people and wrecking stuff in the future. "I should be let off for the destruction I am continuing to cause as well as the destruction I have done in the past because my mortification and regret for what the havoc I have wrought makes me so unhappy" is just sick.
And yet we keep on doing this, feeling sorry for our
So what do we do, with our remorse and our repenting, what useful Good can we make of it? Nothing, in itself. It just is, a purgation and as repulsive and unpleasant as physical catharsis naturally is. It's what we do when we get up from kneeling over the toilet puking our guts out (or worse) that matters, really--
~Here pauseth the lesson~
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
* This includes both "subjectively" and "objectively" wrong, the merely-Unlawful, and the actually-Evil - things against The Rules which could not be construed to do any material harm to anyone except a hypersensitive and exceedingly-neurotic deity (Yes, Ceiling Cat really does get het up watching U masturbate!), and things which would hurt people, if done (or have the potential to harm, and done regardless) and the latter encompassing both harm done only to myself, and others on a spectrum from comparative innocence to guiltiness with respect to me. People thought I was joking in college when I said I'd be a Tyrant, if I could pull it off, if I ever went to the Dark Side, and never a Concubine. Then they freaked out, when they realized I wasn't.
** "If religion, or any particular form of it, is true, its usefulness follows without other proof. If to know authentically in what order of things, under what government of the universe it is our destiny to live, were not useful, it is difficult to imagine what could be considered so. Whether a person is in a pleasant or in an unpleasant place, a palace or a prison, it cannot be otherwise than useful to him to know where he is....The utility of religion did not need to be asserted until the arguments for its truth had in a great measure ceased to convince. People must either have ceased to believe, or have ceased to rely on the belief of others, before they could take that inferior ground of defence without a consciousness of lowering what they were endeavouring to raise. An argument for the utility of religion is an appeal to unbelievers, to induce them to practise a well meant hypocrisy, or to semi-believers to make them avert their eyes from what might possibly shake their unstable belief, or finally to persons in general to abstain from expressing any doubts they may feel, since a fabric of immense importance to mankind is so insecure at its foundations, that men must hold their breath in its neighbourhood for fear of blowing it down."