Confession for Atheists

Two weeks ago I offered some general notes about how members of different religious or spiritual traditions practice Confession.

Last week I focused on those who practice Confession in the context of a belief in God.

This week I want to write about Confession for those who do not believe in God.

It may be surprising to think that those who do not believe in God would still benefit from practicing Confession which is ordinarily seen as a religious or spiritual activity.

But the Theravada Buddhist monks, who are avowed atheists, still practice Confession on a very regular basis as do the Mahayana Buddhists. The reason for doing this is explained clearly by Thannisaro Bhikku, a well respected American Buddhist monk and scholar, in his essay: “Introduction to the Pattimokha Rules 1994.”

….monks form a Community, reliant on the support of lay Buddhists, and anyone who has lived for any time in a communal situation knows that communities need rules in order to function peacefully.

It is simple. When people live together clashes, tensions, and inappropriate behaviors arise. There needs to be some agreed upon set of rules, and a well thought out process of reparation and reconciliation for those who break the rules.

In Theravada Buddhism the monks observe one collection of rules, listed in the Vinaya Pitaka, that specifies 227 rules. There are many more, but these 227, apparently, are the ones that form the core of community rules in the Theravada monastic tradition.

For the most serious offenses, a monk is expelled from the community for life. There is no second chance. Killing a human, including having or causing an abortion, stealing, or having voluntary sexual relations are examples of this category. Nor does there seem to be any confession called for. The person is simply expelled for life and that is that. I do not know if the civil authorities are contacted for further trial and punishment or not.

For a second class of less serious offenses a person needs to confess to every person in the community and to any visiting monk everyday for six days.

For a third class of offenses a monk needs to confess only to another monk.

These Acts of Confession are intended to help the monk or nun find the humility to admit what they have done and to realize they have disturbed the harmony of the community.

This example drawn from the atheist Theravada Buddhist tradition can serve as a model for atheist, secular societies or communities.

Rules are needed to maintain stable groups, towns, cities, and nations. Confessing transgressions of these rules is a visible sign that the person is aware they are losing the benefit of being in community. The humility one incurs in the act of Confession, and in the act of taking the steps necessary to be re-accepted into the main stream of the group or community, helps a person realize they do not want to repeat the infraction or error. This humility will help the atheist monk, nun, or lay person remove the self-centered tendencies that impede their progress towards enlightenment.

The sincerity of the acknowledgement (another word for Confession) and the sincere efforts to not repeat the offense is just as helpful to atheists as it is to God-centered believers.

Having a set rules, insisting that offending parties confess transgressions of those rules, having a means to restore to good standing the truly remorseful, and having the means to restrain or expel chronic offenders, these seem to be essential elements of all human cultures. Am I wrong?

Let me put it this way. Would you want to live in relationship, or be a member of a community, where no one ever admits or seeks to apologize for mean-spirited thoughts and acts? Would you want to live in a society where no one ever admits and seeks to atone for mean-spirited thoughts and actions?

Please let me know what you think. All constructive comments will be posted?

Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness: and Host of



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