The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode #19: “Confessions About Confession”

Unless you grew up Catholic (which neither Randy or I did), the idea of confession seems strange.  Not confessing itself — Randy and I both advocate for taking full personal responsibility for your actions — but the method by which any person “comes clean”.  As a movie writer, I love confession booths.  Since there’s only so much to look at, it becomes all about the dialogue — the confessor and the confessee.  

What does the confessor feel compelled to confess and why?  And what makes the confessee any more qualified to hear that confession than a drunk guy on the next bar stool?  

Is confession — as practiced institutionally — nothing more than glorified blackmail?  Tell us everything or you’ll burn in hell?  Does institutional confession offer more than it can deliver?  Does institutional confession undermine confession’s very real value?

It doesn’t take having religious faith to see the value in confession and contrition.  

In this episode, Randy and Alan both “come clean”.

The Faitheism Project Podcast Episode #19: “Confessions About Confession”
The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode #19: “Confessions About Confession”


It is important to get clear on what we mean by “confession”.  The stereotype these days (religious or political) is focused on “a confession of sin” or “a confession of moral failure”.  But the term as it developed has a two-fold meaning and the one which does not fit our stereotype is the primary meaning.

That is, the English word “confess” which shows up in the 1th century having come from Latin through French to our language meant “one who avows his religion in spite of persecution or danger but does not suffer martyrdom.”  

Edward the Confessor (c1003-1066), a late Anglo-Saxon king may not have lived as pious of a life as fits the title.  But he may have gained the name, not because of his life, but to distinguish him from Edward the Martyr who died for his faith (c. 962-979).  

The use of confession in the Bible has this dual meaning as well.  It can mean true sorrow for moral failures, but it can also mean speaking aloud one’s faith in God.  In the Gospel of John such confession of Jesus as Messiah could mean expulsion from the Temple.  Confession of Jesus is encouraged in Paul’s letter to the Romans (10:9-10)

However, the dominant use of the term came to the forefront in contexts with large Christian populations with the goal of regaining the grace of God lost by sin and to heal the soul.   By the 8th century a “sacrament of penance” had developed in the Roman Catholic church  with 3 acts of contrition, of confession, and of reparation. 

The idea of confession in this second sense is common among world religions: 

Buddhism:  in monastic framework shangha, regular confession of wrong doing to other monks is mandatory.

Islam:  direct to God but required.

In Hinduism confession is part of Prāyaścitta, a dharma-related term and refers to voluntarily accepting one’s errors and misdeeds, confession, repentance, means of penance and expiation to undo or reduce the karmic consequences.

Roman Catholic:  sacrament of penance.  between baptism and death.  to bring healing to soul and regain the grace of God.  Priest acts as Christ to do this.

Orthodox:  choose an individual to trust as spiritual guide.  Ote a parish priest.  

Lutheran:  confession and absolution (unlike other Protestants) 

Reformed:  corporate confession

C.G. Jung:  the beginnings of psychiatry are to be found in its prototype, the confessional.  (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933, p.31)

In the AA Twelve-Step Program, confession is made in Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Confession has also had an impact on Western literature:

Augustine:  Confessions 5th century

Rousseau’s Confessions 18th century:  in contradistinction to Augustine, an individual using confession as a forum for self-justification.

Leading William Blake to write in the 19th century:

“Rousseau thought Men good by Nature,

he found them Evil & found no friends.

Friendship cannot exist without Forgiveness of Sins continually

The Book written by Rousseau call’d his Confessions,

is an apology and a cloak for his sins & not a confession.”

-Jerusalem  pl. 52

Thankfully, other authors, like Oscar Wilde, saw that Christ as the supreme artist because of his forgiveness of aberrant behavior.  (De Profundis). And Yeats thought of confession in a different way:  “Great literature is…the Forgiveness of Sin,” (“…the sympathy of all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ.”  (Essays and Introductions, 1968, p112). Yeats was concerned tha tin authors like George Eliot literature was becoming the accusation of sin.  (Essays and Introductions, p. 102). James Joyce also saw the act of writing as a confessional.   Other more contemporary authors use a “confessional mode”:  Defoe in Moll Flanders and Joyce in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

Confession has been common, and in some situations, profoundly helpful in national politics:

South Africa (Apartheid)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice body assembled in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

The TRC, the first of the 1003 held internationally to stage public hearings, was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa. Despite some flaws, it is generally (although not universally) thought to have been successful.  (Wikipedia)


The reconciliation process in Rwanda focuses on reconstructing the Rwandan identity, as well as balancing justice, truth and peace and security in the country. Different measures have been taken by the Rwandan government towards achieving the goal of perpetrators and victims living side by side in peace.

The United States

“The political confession is pervasively flawed. It provides ammunition for envious attacks on politicians. It arouses and gratifies the public’s prurient, voyeuristic interests, and it motivates politicians to turn to theatrical performances to salvage their careers. Yet, to the extent that it allows the public to evaluate whether the transgressor is truly remorseful for betraying the public trust, even if the confession is theatrically staged, it remains one of the best litmus tests for determining a politician’s capacity to accept responsibility and care for his constituents.”

Though confession does “heal the soul” and is just as important in our day as it has been for generations of humans before us, I think it may be more important to revive “the other meaning” for our time.  That is, can we confess what we believe?  In a generation of “post-modern”, “post-industrial”, and “post-everything that has gone before as being bad and wrong” can we state in an elevator pitch what we actually believe rather than defining ourselves against whoever our chosen enemies are (which, by the way, only empowers our enemies impact in our lives).  Can we not only confess succinctly what we believe, but can we defend that belief?  And with our lives if necessary? We need more of this kind of confession in our culture if we are doing to move forward together.


I’d sum up my take this way: confession is another concept better handled spiritually (that’s to say personally) than through any organized religion I can think of.

There’s something distinctly Kafkaesque about having to enter a large building in which there sits a little box inside of which one must go to “confess” to an unseen confessor who will absolve you — the assumption being that they never need absolution themselves.  

Institutional confession starts from the premise that the institution is standing in for God.  Otherwise, why not just confess to God?  For some reason, the institution must be involved in the process.  Though Jesus said “talk directly to God,” his church says, “No — talk to US instead”.  

Why’s that?

I’m happy to read that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church agrees.  Per their web site ( —

“…the biblical evidence, private confession to an individual, specifically a priest, is simply not supported. There is confession of sin to God alone, there is a place for public and corporate confession of sin, and from James 5:16 a place for confessing sin to another believer (is this tied into Matt. 5:23-24?) But the Roman Catholic idea of auricular confession (confession into the ear of a priest) does not have biblical support or warrant and seems to have originated during the Middle Ages.” 

In the same vein, let’s define our terms.  What do we mean by “confession”?  What do we expect from confession if a confession isn’t confessional enough?  

Next — who, really, is qualified to “hear” another person’s confession — provided anyone needs another person to whom the confession goes?  I’m not saying there aren’t qualified people to hear the confessions — there absolutely are!  I’d love the right people to hear those confessions — if they’re coming.  It seems sucky that the wrong people hear confessions.  Seems wasteful of the confession’s potential for good.

Personally?  I’m completely down with confession.  In fact, I wrote a whole book to that effect — a memoir of my depression: “How To Live Bullshit Free — A Practical Guide To Not Killing Yourself”.  

There’s a perverse flip side to confession mentality — confession for things you either didn’t do or aren’t responsible for.  

Mea culpa, as it were.  

I kept a secret from myself for 45 years. That is, I refused to confess that something happened.  I knew it did — it was burned into my memory.  But I denied it.  And the refusal to confess that truth literally haunted me.

You can’t get right with the world if you can’t get right with yourself.  And you can’t get right with yourself if you refuse to tell yourself the truth.

Confession has to start inside one’s own head.

In addition to denying that something terrible happened to me, I denied I was in deep emotional crisis.  I denied that I needed therapy (until I started it and was grateful I did).  I denied I needed medication (which I did but feared almost as bad as the darkness that was consuming me).  I denied I was heading down a terrible, one way street toward self-destruction.

Once I started to come clean however — once I sought help — I had a shot at being helped.  

Confession is an action.  

It as much a statement about what you’ve done as WHO YOU ARE.  

Here’s where I agree with Randy (again) about what confession is and in what value it can hold.

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