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Sex + Relationships

“Oh God!”: The gravity of religious guilt in dating

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

I’ve grown up in what would typically be described as a Christian home. I went to Church every Sunday with my mum (the Reverend herself); we say a short grace before we eat; and the pillars which my family are supported by could be described as predominantly Christian values of love and generosity. I realise it’s a very shallow summation of what it means to follow God, but it set the tone for opening the floor up to my growing questions on all things faith and Church.

I remember sitting in Sunday school as a young girl: a small attic room at the very top of my Church and playing games, through which the leaders would teach us the biblical stories. I was taught about the love of God and how he had made each one of us in His image; about self-respect and self-esteem and how both of these things could be found and upheld in a life of choosing to follow Jesus; and about identity, and how I can gain mine in Him.

In my personal experience, I didn’t experience ‘religious guilt’ until I became more aware of my surroundings outside of my home Church. Suddenly I was exposed to a new wave of criticism and anguish at the teachings of the church, particularly, it seemed, aimed at personal and intimate relations with others in the world of dating. What I formerly understood to be a faith that liberated me, was marked by a restrictive fear.

Do I have to date a Christian? Is pre-marital sex a sin? Should I even be dating?

For a young Christian navigating the secular world of dating, the ‘Sunday scaries’ take on a whole different meaning. So, what is the real relationship between religion and guilt?

Now, I’m not about to unpack religious trauma in dating for everyone. I have no authority on the matter other than my own lived experience. So, that is where we will start and end. Within that I recognise the limitations but hope to open a conversation about religious guilt in dating.

Sometimes the comments made on religious guilt are tongue-in-cheek, with common jokes in sitcoms referring to Catholic guilt, Jewish guilt, Baptist guilt… the list goes on. To pick on one of my own guilty pleasures, in the Big bang Theory for example, Bernadette and Howard’s relationship is literally built on the foundation of its ‘unlikely’ pairing, as one is Jewish and the other Catholic. On other occasions, this guilt stems from a more serious place when someone is suffering from a deep sense of inferiority or hopelessness brought on by an overly strict religious upbringing.

However, having been on many an (awful) date, and having remained firm in my Christian faith, religious guilt in dating is something I have had no choice but to ruminate on. I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘guilt’ so often referred to actually needs reframing as self-accountability. In which case, in some senses it would be safe to assume these feelings could be healthy.

I’m always joking with friends that I’m a ‘bad’ Christian. Whilst I make that comment in jest, there is some truth to it as well. I’m far from perfect in my beliefs. I benefit from the frivolity and stupidity that comes with student life, but then also dedicate time and energy to pursing my faith. Marrying the two sides of my personality sometimes feels like a lot of pressure and when I fail at that, it can appear to manifest in guilt. This is usually a warning for myself that it’s time to recentre myself on what I value. Thankfully, the premise of the Christian faith having a focus on living to love him as He loves us, helps to absolve any ‘guilt’ that can crop up from merely ‘breaking the rules’.

This is similar for many others with religious values in the broader sense of the term. Religion, with its values, ideals, and beliefs, helps those who follow it to clarify what living with integrity means. Self-accountability, in these circumstances, lets us know about threats to our integrity. Given that self-esteem and positive sense of self-worth is dependent upon being true to ourselves, this accountability afforded to believers through religion can in some senses be positive.

The church as an institution has got many things wrong, and it distresses me so much to think of the pain this has caused so many. But a loving religious community of like-minded individuals can challenge believers to think more deeply about whether they are really living according to the principles they say define their sense of personal integrity.

Uni of Bristol student studying French and Politics.