How do we atone for our sins? Will they catch up with us?

Up until age 16, I generally believed in God. My family is Irish-Catholic, so it’s no surprise that I was Baptized, had Communion, and was Confirmed. As a youngster I went to chruch on Sundays and had Catechism. As I grew older, we became the stereotypical “Christmas and Easter” Catholics. After my mid-teen years, however, my outlook on religion and a “higher power” changed.

I learned in Catechism that we sin because of “Original Sin”, an immutable condition of being human. Original Sin is derived from the story of Adam and Eve. When they sinned and fell from Paradise, the rest of humanity was stricken with original sin forever. Catechism also taught us a “fire and brimstone” view of our religion: if you are a sinner and don’t repent, you go to Hell and burn in pain for the rest of eternity. Alternatively, if you are a good Catholic (and put money in the collection plate each week 🙂 ) you can go to Heaven, if not purgatory to get rid of your evils.

I gave up on religion after my second semester in College. It seemed so harsh and rigid; so unforgiving and demanding; so insistent that we must participate in organized worship of God that undoubtedly gets clouded by human interests. For example, look no further than the Priest Abuse scandal that plagues the Catholic church to this day. Even more important, look at the opulence and wealth which Priests, Bishops, Cardinals, and the Pope enjoy. For people that take a vow of poverty, the Vatican City ain’t a bad place to live (nor any other religious dwelling – they live tax free don’t forget).

I’ll talk about the events which led to my falling out of Catholicism another time, but essentially it boiled down to a couple issues: 1) Why is there so much suffering in a World that is supposedly looked after by a “Loving” God? 2) What is the justification, religious or otherwise, for certain events in my life that have fundamentally damaged me forever? Why me? (The Book of Job Complex) And perhaps more selfishly, “What has God done for me lately?”

According to Catechism, “God has reasons for everything beyond explanation”, and in order to appease him/her we must live pure lives, do good, and repent for our sins. This is where the famous “Confession” aspect of church comes into play: if we tell a God, vis a vi a Priest, all our sins and confess our remorse for committing them, we will be absolved after Confession and a few “Our Fathers”, “Hail Marys”, or even “The Rosary” for the especially wicked among us. We continue confessing until we die, when our soul is judged for entry into Hell, Heaven, or Purgatory.

Since I’ve tossed religion out of my life, one lingering thought I have is how we, as humans, either to ourselves or among others, atone for our sins. In society, we are held to standards governed by the Law, which if broken, results in a punishment and/or incarceration. Human law is rather clear about what is and is not acceptable, and the ways by which we pay our debts and return to society as free individuals.

The Law aside, I’ve asked myself how we can makeup our sins, or at least shed the heartache that they give us. More importantly, is there heartache because of my Catholic indoctrination, or because my “conscience” objects to what I have done?

Nowadays, I choose the latter of those two. I think a conscience essentially rules most people’s existence, save if they are profoundly mentally ill or incapable of rational thought. When we do something “questionable”, the conscience will often chime in and advise us about our wrongs. For example, our conscience might speak when we download MP3s for free instead of compensating the artist for their work; or steal $5 from our parent’s wallet because we want candy; or participate in illicit criminal activity. On the more extreme end, our conscience may become like a ball and chain if we constantly do wrong, like a Mob Hit man, someone who molests children, or a business executive that steals from someone’s retirement fund or medical benefits.

In my mind, feeling “wrong” about something ranges the entire spectrum, and the more wrong we do, the more it pains us. Alternatively, the more wrong we do now, the more unfortunate events will come our way later. This is the concept of Karma. Give and you will recieve; take, and you will be taken from.

I must admit (or confess) that I have done a lot of wrong in my life, including but not limited to breaking the law and doing things which are wrong and in some cases perverse. Why did I do these things? Perhaps out of selfishness, perhaps because I am hard wired to do certain things, or perhaps because I choose to allow myself to succumb to my weaknesses. But why was I given certain weaknesses opposed to others? Surely, for example, I’d prefer to be a purse snatcher over a hardened drug lord?

If I were a “perfect” citizen, I would report to court and advise them to send me to jail for my wrongs (and believe me, there is a substantial list of them). In reality, I don’t, however, because the thought of going to jail for things that society hasn’t “caught me doing” doesn’t seem right. Instead, I feel like Karma will catch us one day, and remind us of how wrong we are, even if we’ve never actually been caught breaking the law. An example might be an alcoholic who causes a fatal drunk driving accident, or a murderer who sees his/her own child die at the hands of another, or a Peeping Tom who is caught red-handed and publicly humiliated for the rest of his life.

If things work this way, it seems fair. On the other hand, surely if we recognize our wrongdoings, there must be some way to balance out Karma so that it doesn’t whiplash us later, for sins that came about from our own weaknesses and disposition?

My answer to this question is essentially simple: everyone does wrong at some point in their lives. If so, you need to give back, or at minimum find some way of doing good to balance the equation. Even if you’ve never been caught by the Law or called out by another human being, you still should make an attempt at being good for your own sake and the sake of others.

So I guess I believe in “conscience” balancing act: whether or not society knows about what we have done, we still need to makeup for things that aren’t right. The question is, how can we do this now while “on earth” in order to avoid some sort of “Hell” for an afterlife? Or, is there no afterlife and we simply do what we want while alive?

I would like to think there is something beyond an earthly existence, whether or not it conforms to the Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or Islamic faiths. After all, the “Higher Power” could really be anything. In that vain, what can I do NOW to atone for all the wrongs I have committed?

THAT’s definitely one of the mysteries of life that bothers me…