I have friends in Texas who did some pretty questionable stuff in their wild teen years — we’re talking lying, stealing, animal cruelty, just plain meanness to each other, and yes, a certain amount of socially-unapproved sex — who have become extremely religious as they’ve gotten older. I often suspect there’s a direct mechanism that makes this happen. Here’s how I imagine it working:
Inevitably when you’re younger and you have a childish sense of right and wrong, a childish sense of other people’s or other creatures’ feelings and rights, you do stuff that seems fun or exciting in the moment, but which can spark remorse in later years.
The thing is, if you’re a decent person at all, your level of understanding and compassion rises throughout your life, and things that seemed cool when done in your teens can later disturb you very much. An adult-level conscience looking back on teenage acts can generate immense amounts of guilt. But most of us have no idea how to process that guilt.
My view of how to deal with it is this: You just have to feel the guilt, live with it, to keep it as a reminder that you have to do better. But also, you have to understand that kids do crazy shit. If you’d forgive — or at least understand — some other kid that age doing the same thing, you can somewhat forgive yourself for those early-life acts that now bother you. And after all, the guilt is an indicator that you already are a better person. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feel bad about things you did 30-40-50 years ago.
But not everybody is this self-aware, or thoughtful. And certainly we have no formal social organ to propagate that message.
Fortunately or unfortunately, we have religion, which replaces wisdom with faith. The religious paradigm that God will forgive those bothersome acts — IF you devotedly believe and pray and all that — provides a tool that allows believers to imagine forgiveness (*). But it also locks them into the goddy framework. If they give up the belief, it brings the guilt surging back into consciousness.
(*) That there may be a drawback to the practice — it could make repeated acts more palatable — is a mere side-effect.