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Religion and childhood trauma 02: guilt and atonement

Sin and guilt – psychological effects on children


It is essential to talk about the psychological impact of religious upbringing on children. Religion has an effect on individual ethical values and even on the legal system in some societies to the point of deriving jurisprudence directly from religious norms.

Terms: sin, guilt and atonement

In psychology, sin is a violation of personal or social norms that leads to feelings of guilt and psychological suffering.

In psychology, guilt is also the emotional and psychological weight of responsibility that weighs on moral transgressions. It appears as self-reproach and remorse.

Atonement is then, in turn, linked to forgiveness, self-forgiveness, and release from this inner tension and emotional pain, if necessary, and supported by therapeutic interventions, but primarily through self-reflection and insight. Religious practices such as sacrifices and prayers can also contribute to the release of feelings of guilt in a psychological context. They allow us to seek forgiveness and ask for spiritual cleansing, thereby alleviating feelings of guilt and improving psychological well-being. Psychological perspectives can, therefore,  interpret these theological concepts as the result of unresolved emotional and inner conflicts caused by social norms and expectations and formulate practices to manage guilt and promote emotional well-being.

Theological perspectives on sin and guilt

In a theological context, sin is often defined as a failure to fulfil divine commandments or a deviation from higher moral principles.

Guilt arises from this as a feeling of responsibility for sins committed or moral transgressions against the higher powers, which demands remorse and repentance.

Atonement, on the other hand, refers to the liberation from this guilt and sin through the grace of supernatural powers or obtained through religious practices, such as religious purification, sacrifices or prayers.

Personal responsibility in relation to sin and guilt plays a vital role in all belief systems. Individuals are always required to obey laws and religious rules and take personal responsibility for their actions.


Taboos in tribal societies are part of the pairs of opposites that serve to organise and maintain social and cultural order. These pairs of opposites – such as purity and impurity, sacred and profane – are essential for the structuring of human cultures and for the maintenance of boundaries within a society. Taboos thus act as social mechanisms that regulate behaviour and interactions within a group by prohibiting or restricting specific actions, objects or thoughts.

Sin and guilt can thus be understood as culturally constructed categories that are defined and formulated by a society’s taboo system. Sin is an act or condition that violates the system of fundamental binary opposites that maintain the moral and social order of a culture. Accordingly, guilt is the awareness or attribution of such an offence that causes a disturbance in social harmony or the fundamental structures of society.

Redemption, in this context, is the process that cleanses or neutralises the disturbances caused by sin and guilt. In many cultures, ritual practices or myths exist that serve to restore the disorder caused by taboo violations and to renew the social and cosmic order. Such rituals and myths are symbolic, which means societies reorganise and harmonise their structures.

Therefore, taboos are more than just arbitrary prohibitions; they are central to a complex system of meanings and relationships that maintain moral, social, and cosmic order. Sin, guilt and atonement are not simply religious concepts but an integral part of the way cultures understand and organise their world.


In the so-called Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the concepts of sin and guilt differ but are also similar. In all three, an end-time concept is formulated in which believers must live according to the rules demanded by their deity to be rewarded.

In Christianity, sin is seen as a violation of God’s commandments, whereby guilt is the personal responsibility for this sin. Sin leads to guilt, which can only be redeemed by repentance and forgiveness from God. Christian ethics is based on the concept of guilt and reparation, with deontology emphasising the fulfilment of moral duties.

In Judaism, guilt is seen as responsibility for one’s actions, while sin is seen as turning away from divine commandments. The idea of “original sin”, which goes back to the story of Adam and Eve, plays a role here.

In Islam, sin is any action that violates the teachings of the Koran, and guilt is the personal responsibility for these actions. The violation of divine commandments must be atoned for through repentance and good deeds.


In religions of Indian origin such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism, there is a direct link between ethical behaviour and the repercussions in the present and future life through the concept of karma.

It differs in several ways from the concept of sin and guilt in Christianity. In these Eastern religions, karma is understood as a law of nature in which an individual’s ethical or unethical actions have direct consequences in their present life or, due to rebirth, in future lives. The idea of karma is based on the principle of cause and effect, according to which a person’s actions determine their future experiences. This concept is radically different from the Christian concept of sin, where it is believed that man is inherently sinful due to the original sin of Adam and Eve, leading to the need for redemption through faith in Jesus Christ.

Exploring the concepts of sin, guilt and atonement for children

The teaching of concepts such as sin and guilt to children varies considerably between different belief systems and religions. These differences reflect the respective theological foundations, cultural contexts and pedagogical approaches.

Taboo-based societies

In taboo-based societies, where traditions, customs and unwritten laws play a central role, the concepts of sin, guilt and atonement are often transmitted in subtle yet profound ways. These societies use a combination of oral tradition, ritual practices and social norms to pass on their values and beliefs from one generation to the next. The transmission of these concepts is closely intertwined with the everyday life and spiritual practices of the community.

Through myths, legends and fables told by elders or other members of the community, children learn about the concepts of sin and guilt and the consequences of undesirable behaviour. These stories often contain moral lessons that show how specific actions create or disrupt harmony and what atonement is needed to restore balance and social peace.


Children are often taught in Sunday schools, through Bible stories and in the family setting. The stories of Jesus and his teachings play a central role in teaching love, forgiveness and the importance of repentance.


Religious education is provided by teaching the stories of the prophets, learning the Five Pillars of Islam and participating in communal prayers. Parents and educators emphasise the importance of guiding children to imitate the Prophet Muhammad.


Children learn by participating in religious holidays, studying the Torah and through everyday Jewish life. Stories from the Torah and rabbinical writings are used to teach concepts of right and wrong behaviour.


Education focuses on guiding children to live according to their dharma to accumulate positive karma and overcome the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (samsara). They learn about the consequences of actions through stories from the Vedas, the Puranas and epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. The teachings emphasise the importance of righteous action (dharma) and the effects of good and bad deeds on individual karma.


In Buddhism, there is no concept of sin in the Abrahamic sense, but actions are considered wholesome or unwholesome based on their impact on one’s well-being and that of others. The teaching aims to teach children about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to overcome suffering and ultimately reach Nirvana. The focus is on developing compassion, mindfulness and understanding the impermanence of all things. Children learn about the importance of ethical behaviour through examples and stories from the Jatakas (stories about the previous lives of the Buddha).

These representations naturally simplify cultural imprinting, specific religious orientations and personal convictions within the faith communities.

Psychological effects on children

Doctrines of faith play an essential role in forming a child’s image of God and their ideas about the world. These beliefs also convey values and ethical convictions that determine the child’s behaviour and attitudes.

Faith practices, including rituals and prayers, provide structured ways for children to connect with their faith and have spiritual experiences. Children can develop a sense of safety, community and belonging through regular rituals and prayers. These practices can also help to reduce stress and promote emotional stability.

Faith communities, church institutions and community activities allow children to meet other like-minded people, form social bonds and internalise moral values. Involvement in a faith community can strengthen self-esteem and foster a sense of belonging. Community activities such as church services, lessons, and joint projects can help improve children’s social skills and interactions.

In particular, how sin and guilt are taught profoundly impacts children’s worldview, moral values and self-image. The effects range from strengthening moral and ethical understanding to fear or low self-esteem.

Positive effects

Sense of belonging and identity: Involvement in religious and cultural practices can give children a strong sense of belonging and identity. Understanding sin and atonement in the context of community can provide ethical guidelines and a sense of connection to a larger tradition.

Resilience and a sense of responsibility: Learning how to deal with mistakes, guilt and the possibility of making amends strengthens children in the face of challenges and promotes a sense of responsibility for their actions.

Negative effects

Fear and guilt: An excessive emphasis on sin and guilt, especially without an equal understanding of forgiveness and love, awakens fear and feelings of guilt in children.

Authoritarian beliefs: Strictness without room for question or doubt results in authoritarian beliefs and a limited ability to think critically.

Internalisation of negative self-images: Children who constantly hear that they are sinful or evil cannot develop a lasting positive self-image and self-esteem. Their well-being is impaired.

How do I tell my child

Parents, community and religious teachers can help foster and shape children’s understanding of sin and guilt by actively modelling and explaining values. They can select stories and teachings from the religious scriptures so that children experience an understanding of moral behaviour. They can raise children’s awareness of proper behaviour and the consequences of wrong actions through discussions, examples and prayers.

Emphasising love and forgiveness: Communicating that mistakes and sins are part of the human experience but that forgiveness and love are always accessible creates a healthy psychological environment.

Inclusive discussion and education: Encouraging questions and expressing doubt within the religious and ethical learning process allows for a fuller understanding and a more personal connection to moral and ethical principles.

Positive role models: Providing positive examples and role models who show how to deal with and learn from mistakes helps children develop a healthy understanding of sin and atonement.

These concepts must be taught to children in a balanced and supportive way that is appropriate to their capacity for understanding and personal development. Parents and educators must offer religious and cultural teachings in a way that allows children to develop in a psychologically healthy way.

Guilt induction in religious education

Mechanisms of guilt induction in religious education are intended to align behaviour with religious norms and, at the same time, strengthen ties to the religious community. Their psychological effects range from deep moral understanding to fear and feelings of guilt.

Teachings and sermons

Direct instruction: Concepts of sin and guilt are conveyed through sermons, teachings and religious texts. These teachings identify sinful actions and their consequences.

Moral stories: Stories and parables that teach moral lessons illustrate ideas of sin and the importance of atonement.

Ritualised practices

Confession and repentance: In many religions, there are practices such as confession (e.g. in Catholicism) that allow individuals to admit their sins and seek ways to atone for them.

Purification rituals: Rituals that symbolise purification from sins can also induce an awareness of guilt and, at the same time, show ways of purification and reparation.

Community standards and social pressure

Social expectations: The expectations and norms within a religious community exert intense pressure on individuals to conform. Deviations evoke feelings of guilt, especially if they are publicised.

Social sanctions: In some cases, social sanctions such as exclusion from the community or public reprimands reinforce feelings of guilt.

Symbolism and metaphysics

Symbolic representations: The use of symbols and metaphors that represent sin and purity evoke deep emotional and psychological responses.

Eschatological teachings: Ideas of the Last Judgement or heavenly and hellish destiny after death emphasise the importance of moral behaviour and the avoidance of sin.

Personal reflection and self-assessment

Formation of conscience: The development of conscience is a central element of religious education. Children learn to judge their behaviour in the light of religious and moral teachings.

Meditation and prayer: Practices that encourage personal reflection and prayer make individuals think about their actions and may awaken feelings of guilt.

These mechanisms are deeply embedded in the structures of religious education and practice and play an essential role in individuals’ moral and ethical development without a balance that promotes healthy moral awareness without unnecessarily reinforcing feelings of guilt or causing emotional pain. Only a balanced approach to forgiveness and the possibility of change can enable children to grow spiritually and positively.


Belief systems deal with topics such as guilt, sin and atonement in the context of ethical and moral values. Belief systems organise the handling of guilt and sin as well as the search for redemption very differently. Religious founders, ethical norms and the position of moral laws in the religions play an essential role.

A conscious approach to religious education requires parents and educators to teach ethical rules and moral values in an age-appropriate way. Children must be able to ask questions without feeling pressured or guilty. An open, respectful introduction to religious topics while promoting empathy and compassion contributes to a healthy understanding of guilt and redemption.

Recommendations for parents and carers:

– Talk about these topics age-appropriately and understandably explain them.

– Create an open and tolerant atmosphere for religious discussions and questions.

– Communicate ethical values and moral principles in a caring and motivating way.

– Encourage empathy, compassion and self-reflection in children.

– Help children to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem.

– Be a role model for ethical behaviour and show understanding of different faiths.

– Emphasise the importance of forgiveness.

– Encourage children to talk about their feelings and thoughts and offer support in processing them.

Resources for further support and information:

– Psychologists or therapists with expertise in religious education and mental health.

– Literature and books that deal with the psychological development of children in a religious context.

– Seminars or workshops for parents and carers to raise awareness of religious education and psychological health in children.


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