It was in Notre Dame Cathedral where I was intrigued by a drop-in confessional in practice. Behind the glass wall, was some unknown believer opening their heart to the resident priest. I could not resist an illicit photograph. Apparently they were talking to Father GaGa! Ok a cheap jibe at a Catholic ritual but you must admit, it is pretty funny.
Confession is supposedly good for the soul. But if you don’t have a soul then it is good for the mind. Guilt can be a corrosive mental state and so I expect that much of the benefit of confession must be the relief of “getting it off one’s chest.”
This is because intrusive thoughts can be surprisingly difficult to avoid and in attempting to do so can use up so much mental effort and resources. The more one tries to ignore or forget a thought the harder it becomes. Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner describes this in his white bear studies. In these experiments participants were asked to ignore the image of a great white bear. The trouble is that once you have been told not to think about something, there is a paradoxical increase in the strength of the idea such that it soon becomes an overwhelming obsessive thought. These automatic thoughts are the sorts of ideas that seem to have a life of their own.
If you are immature, brain-damaged or have an anxious personality then you are likely to suffer from intrusive thoughts. The character of Basil Fawlty was arguably deficient on all three counts and hence his hilarious “don’t mention the war” sketch. If you have not seen this, then prepare to wet your pants as you watch this (and major apologies to all my German friends).
But back to guilt and confession. A cynic might argue that religion first makes us suffer from guilt and then provides the antidote through ritual. Where do the rest of us non-believers confess or do we need to?