Imagine a young girl told by her parents that, whenever she masturbates, the king become very displeased with her, and if he were to come and take her away to die most unpleasantly in his dungeons, she would have certainty brought it on herself for violating his masturbation law, a law that had been written on her heart. The young girl ponders all this, and upon noting the extreme shame she experiences when masturbating, concludes that such guilt and shame is a validation that 1) she is indeed guilty of violating the king’s law, 2) she is deserving of a horrible death due to her violation of the king’s masturbation prohibition, 3) the king is real, and 4) the guilt she feels is the spirit of the king bearing witness to the three previous notions. Has our young girl made any kind of rational blunder? After all, she knows her parents honestly believe what they’ve told her. She perceives no other reason for the shame she feels when masturbating other than the convicting spirit of the king. And the shame is so salient. How could such shame not be strong evidence that her masturbation truly does make her worthy of a slow horrible death? Surely her shame is not simply some emotional response to cultural and familial cues, is it?
Young people across many region and religions are told by their elders that there is some God watching their every action, and who finds some of their actions worthy of eternal damnation. These young people are also supplied a list of behaviors the God of that culture allegedly finds abhorrent, and are told that the sense of guilt they feel when violating this list of behaviors is undeniable evidence of the presence of the locally-affirmed God, of their culpability, and the appropriateness of their awaiting damnation. In some cultures, this sense of shame is painfully felt by young people when they fail to pray, have uncovered heads in public, have sexual thoughts, listen to secular music, or read books banned by the culture. The accompanying guilt is considered a validation of the existence of 1) their culpability, 2) their deserved eternal damnation, 3) the existence of the damning God, and 4) that the spirit of this God is directly behind the sense of guilt.
We can easily identify an incoherence here. There are far too many Gods with disparate codes of conduct. We must logically conclude that some, if not all, of these experiences of deep guilt are not caused by a divine spirit, but are simply products of the social or familial codes of behavior. This can be confirmed by visiting cultures outside our own in which particular behaviors evoke deep pangs of guilt for those within that culture that we ourselves do not experience. It is also confirmed by relationships we can examine within our own communities. Some women will stay with abusive men, believing those abusive men when they claim the abuse is deserved due to the woman’s failure to strictly follow the will of the man. Guilt can be manufactured. Even our pets exhibit guilty responses when they realize they have violated our wills, in spite of how arbitrary our rules may be. Guilt is therefore demonstrably not tied to some objective morality. Feelings of guilt do, however, fall quite neatly along cultural lines. This is not to say that there are not some behaviors across all cultures for which we all normally feel guilty, but only that guilt is like any other emotion: largely shared by those of the same species, but tweaked by cultural and familial traditions. There is no rational connection between feeling guilty and a convicting spirit of a God.
Guilt is but one emotion. Consider other human emotions. Do we assign divine causation to them? When you feel jealous about someone else speaking to the focus of your affection, do you think that jealousy validates the fact that the focus of your affection truly belongs to you? When you feel bitter over not getting a raise, does that bitterness validate the notion that you objectively deserve the raise? When you feel shame and worthlessness after failing to accomplish a goal, do these emotions make your worthlessness objectively real? Of course not. Why then should we suppose that the emotion of guilt has some special status in that it corresponds to some objective fact?
Emotions are highly useful motivators, but these same emotions can be clearly artificially bloated and abused. Many unscrupulous promoters of various Gods have co-opted our natural sense of guilt as a bludgeon to force both belief in and conformity to their God. Don’t be fooled into thinking that piercing sense of guilt corresponds to some deserved eternal damnation when it is simply a motivator to assess and, if necessary, modify your behavior.