Whip Me: Controlling Guilt with Pain

Over at The Economist, our correspondent reports that “religion got it right: pain seems to assuage guilt.” This conclusion is based on an Australian study that primed the usual guinea pigs (undergraduates) with guilt by having them write about something “immoral” or “unethical” they had done. Compared to a non-primed group who wrote about cupcakes and ponies (i.e., “daily life”), the guilty ones subsequently subjected themselves to more physical pain than the others. The pain was cathartic and significantly reduced feelings of guilt.

This is all very interesting and it surely says something about the way guilt-oriented religions work. Of course not all religions revolve around the notion of guilt, and its Abrahamic concomitant: sin. Because the study participants were Australian and 65% of Australians are Christians of one variety or another, most have been taught that guilt and pain are connected. The study, therefore, may have done nothing more than measure the internalization and efficacy of such teachings.

There is a chance, however, that the study measured something more fundamental. Before considering what this might be, let’s consider two famous paintings, the first by Francisco de Goya (“A Procession of Flagellants”) and second by George Catlin (“The Cutting Scene: Mandan Ceremony”):

Here we have two very different groups — medieval Christians on the one hand and historic Mandans on the other — engaged in activities that appear to be similar and rooted in ritualized pain. The similarities, however, end here. The Mandan ritual has nothing to do with guilt, immorality, atonement, penitence, or sin. Mandans who skewered their chests and suspended themselves were seeking power and visions — through pain they could contact the spirit world and negotiate with it.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that this practice, which is historically ancient and known to have been practiced by hunter-gatherers around the world, was transformed by later traditions and that Christian and Islamic penitence — of the flagellating kind, taps into these ideas. It seems also that shame, which in pre-state societies is the primary method of social control, was eventually transformed into the twinned ideas of guilt and sin. The latter, of course, are also techniques of control.

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