Is Forgiveness a Secular Value?

Over the past few years I have heard some Christian apologetic speakers make a fascinating argument about secular societies. They argued that these societies have borrowed much of their morality from the previous Judeo-Christian culture from which they emerged. For example, a value of honesty is not based on a secular understanding of reality but because it has been rooted in the Judeo-Christian history, individuals in secular societies still appreciate honesty as much as when they lived in a religious culture. This argument implies that it will take quite a long time for us to see what sort of moral values are truly connected to a culture devoid of religion. I do not pretend to know exactly what that culture will look like. Truly secular societies are relatively new in our global society, and it is too early to know all of the consequences of a secular society. But with some speculation, it might be possible to get a preview of some values that may emerge in a secular world.

So I will predict one value that may develop over time and has already begun to surface in our society. I do this with the necessary caveat that social scientists often make lousy forecasters. However, it can be an interesting and useful exercise to consider the potential implications of a society without religious legitimation. Looking at a few social science studies and considering the ramifications of a secular philosophy may help us to anticipate what may happen in secular places like Europe and Canada and what might happen if those advocating secularization theory are right about the United States.

In the past, I have blogged about the lack of forgiveness in my society. When I first blogged about that, it did not occur to me that this may be linked to our growing secularization. However, as I consider the implications of a less religious society, it has occurred to me that what I was observing in the lack of forgiveness was consistent with the new attitudes that have developed in a secular ideology. Thus, one potential value that may change over time as we become more secular is a movement away from forgiveness and towards an expectation of performance. I struggle to find a good term for this and after a time decided on the term “mercilessness.” It is not a perfect term as there is an implication of cruelty that I do not wish to make. However, this term does explain the unwillingness to forgive that I do wish to enunciate. I am open to a better term, but for the remainder of this blog entry, I will use mercilessness as the description of this new secular value.

To see if forgiveness is compatible with a secular society, it is useful to see if there is a difference of willingness to forgive on an individual level. I did not want to do an extensive assessment of all available research on this research question but there are some studies indicating that religious individuals are more forgiving than secular individuals. I am open to being shown other research to the contrary, but it does not surprise me that the religious are more forgiving as I consider forgiveness to be a more innate quality for people of faith. There may be other religious systems where forgiveness is not seen as salient as it is in an evangelical Christian framework and I cannot speak for them. But there is a powerful motivation to forgive within Christianity. In my faith tradition, there is an emphasis on introspection and grace that naturally leads to a value of forgiveness. Of course this is not to say that all of us, or even myself, are perfect in implementing that value. Ironically, if we were perfect in implementing any of our values, we probably would not need to be forgiven.

I do not perceive forgiveness an important part of secular ideology is because it is based on the notion that humans are perfectible. So if humans are perfectible, then we must ask why we are we not perfect? The answer depends on what variation of secular ideology one accepts. Marxists envision class issues as corrupting the human spirit while feminists see the culprit as patriarchal values. And of course other variations of secular ideology will locate other possible barriers to human perfectibility. But the key common component is that humans are perfectible, or at least can become close to perfect, and thus in secular ideology, we must make an effort to obtain perfectibility. This creates little tolerance for those that are not towing the line of how humans should act. Society must change to support the new ideal human. Those who do not head towards that new ideal should face sanctions that encourage them to head towards that ideal. The sanctions would not only influence those individuals to act in an acceptable manner but would serve as a warning to others who may be future violators of the required norms.

This is where mercilessness comes into play as forgiveness can interfere with our ability to apply those sanctions with sufficient force. I have heard secular individuals complain about individuals who seek forgiveness after being caught in a transgression. They complain that this is an easy way out and, more importantly, that it allows people to continue to do what is wrong. I think this interpretation misses the point of what true repentance is about but that is not surprising since such individuals looking at the value of forgiveness from outside our faith likely lack the context of what is meant by repentance and forgiveness. But this attitude is reflective of how to handle shortcomings when using a value of mercilessness. People must be punished and ostracized so that we have sanctions that are powerful enough to allow the emergence of our ideal society. Forgiving those individuals weakens the sanctions and gets in the way of their effectiveness.

It is an important moral question on whether forgiveness or mercilessness should be the higher priority in our society. Like any value, there is a downside to forgiveness when it is misused. There have been times when we have forgiven others before it was even asked by them. In those situations there is no real repentance and little chance for the person to learn from what they did wrong. And then there is the tendency to forgive those we like or agree with more readily than those we do not like or agree with. In that case, forgiveness merely becomes another weapon to use in intergroup conflict. As much as forgiveness is part of my belief system, I recognize that it is not a panacea nor is it a value that cannot be abused. The abuse of forgiveness is why there is a certain appeal for mercilessness to correct these externalities.

While there are times where forgiveness gets in the way of what is needed in our society, I am not sure if we want to live in a society where forgiveness is not easily available. Consider how easy it is to be in trouble today. If we do wrong when we are young, then that can cost us a job many years later. Ask Josh Dugger. If we make a bad joke, we can lose our current status. Ask Martin Brashir. If we get in a fight with our daughter and say awful things it can cost us our reputation. Ask Alex Baldwin. In no way am I defending the actions of these men (or woman like Paula Dean). And of course when we are caught doing wrong once, we should be watched more carefully to see if we have truly repented. This justifies continual criticism of Dugger and Baldwin who are multiple offenders. But let us be honest and stipulate that there are those who will never offer forgiveness after the first transgression as they subscribe to a type of mercilessness that discounts any relief from punishment. And I wonder if people must pay for the rest of their lives because of a past failing?

It is so tempting to condemn individuals who have done admittedly horrible stuff. But, here is the question we should ask ourselves. What if the moment you did the worst thing you ever did, or said the worst thing you ever said, was caught on a camera and then played for the entire world to see? Would that action or that statement be as bad as some of the actions alluded to in the previous paragraph? Should you lose your job and be treated as a leper the rest of your life because of that action or statement? I am guessing most of us would be very ashamed to have the worst moment of our lives recorded for the entire world to see. Most of us would want to be forgiven for that transgression. As a Christian I know that I enjoy a grace I do not deserve and have been forgiven for my transgressions against God and against others. So while I want to be careful not to misuse the value of forgiveness, I know that it is something I should not withhold from those who honestly repent and truly seek it from me.

So I do mourn the loss of that quality in our society. Perfectibility demands perfection and if our society is going to become more secular, then I envision a loss of an ability to forgive as one of the costs of that transition. But I do not know if we really consider how much it costs our society. We might think that if we are not caught on camera engaging in an awful act or saying something terrible, that we will be alright. But already I am catching myself being extra careful in what I say and how I say it. Even as I write my blogs I am very careful in how I express my ideas (I am certain that one day someone will pull a statement out of context to make me seem like a monster. That is one of the reasons why I use qualifiers in my writing). For some individuals, that may be pleasing in that I am kept in line with the current orthodoxy. But something great is lost. As an academic, I know how to write for scholarly journals and books. One must be careful to frame assertions with the proper qualifiers and passivity to allow precision in one’s arguments. However, I have also written Christian books where I can be more personable and am free to make stronger assertions in my language. The freedom I gain when writing to non-academics is part of what is lost when I feel the need to be so careful with my language that I cannot be truly myself in public. In a merciless society, we will see individuals work harder at managing their self-presentation, and it will be more difficult for us to get to know them on an intimate level because they will be afraid to show others aspects of themselves for which they will not be forgiven.

In some ways, this trend is a paradox. For years, I have heard how judgmental and how intolerant Christians are to those who do not follow Christian morals. Naturally, I do not deny that there are some judgmental Christians. I still remember, soon after I became a Christian, talking with those who seemed way too concerned that I dared to go to dance clubs or listened to rock music. Yet, in the past few years, I have seen a great deal more judgment come from non-Christian segments of society. Dare not affirm one of the tenets within education dogma and you will be stigmitized as Islamophobic, homophobic, racist, sexist or whatever the new “ist” or “phobic” is today. Engage in the wrong microaggression and prepare to be stigmatized. As bad as I have seen in some Christians as it concerns being judged, I never felt as on guard as I am today around certain secular individuals. And it is not just myself who feels this way. Many individuals understand that perfection is to be expected from those who have some degree of status.

Once again I understand that many individuals want a society where we are “on guard.” Perhaps such fear will make us better citizens. There is an argument that we should be merciless against certain social evils. I really am not trying to make a strong argument against this perspective. Indeed, if I were more secular I might want to have this perspective. I might not have the values of forgiveness and grace my faith has provided for me. I could see why I would want to make sure we have the proper social sanctions to produce whatever my idea of a utopian society is at that current time. So while my preference is for a society where we understand human frailties and shortcomings, I understand why others feel we need to punish those who do not measure up. I understand why the value of mercilessness is so desirable. But it simply is not the sort of society I want.

This has been an interesting thought experiment as to what a truly secular value system may look like. If mercilessness is, as I believe it to be, a value tied to a secular society then we should see more of this quality emerge if the percentage of irreligious individuals continues to increase. I do not know what other values might become part of a secular moral system. I envision mercilessness as an early precursor of other possible secular values. It would be fascinating, and useful, to consider what those values are as well as consider if this is the sort of society we want to have.

Conservative Sins, Progressive Sins and Forgiveness

Right now Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford are trying to become Bill Clinton. Not that they are trying to become president of the United States, at least not at this time, but they are trying to overcome past sexual “indiscretions” and renew their political careers. Who can forget the big hullabaloo over the sexual mores, or lack thereof, of President Clinton? Except that we have largely forgotten about it. Clinton today is seen as a respected elderly statesman instead of a lecherous pursuer of young flesh. While part of the Clinton legacy will always include a mention of Monica Lewinsky and his sex scandals, he has largely marginalized those incidents so that now when we think of him we focus on his presidential accomplishments instead of his shortcomings as a husband.

The three men I mention above would love to be in the position Clinton is in today. They deeply desire to create a new image where their sexual infidelities, while not completely forgotten, pale in comparison to their other accomplishments. You know what? I think they have a chance to achieve this. In our society we seem to have a high level of tolerance for these types of sexual immoralities. If they have a solid political career from this point forward, then they will gain that second chance.

This brings me to Paula Dean. Our society is not so eager to forgive her of her immoralities. The best I can see for Dean is that she will maintain a certain core group of fans who will keep making her money. But generally she is always going to be linked to racist comments and seen as a racist by the general public. I cannot see the scenario by which she can get her reputation back. Can you? Has anyone been guilty of making a racist, sexist, or homophobic statement and been able to shake that statement from their reputation to the degree that President Clinton has been able to shake from his reputation the image of sexual infidelity? We like to think of ourselves as a forgiving society, but we are selective in whom we are willing to forgive, or more specifically what we are willing to forgive.

Dean can still be judged to some degree on her culinary skills. Years ago the pitcher John Rocker made a series of racist, xenophobic comments. He did not automatically lose his job. He could still get batters out and that is what matters to a MLB team. But even as he kept his job, his reputation as a racist never went away. So I am not arguing that if a person makes a racist or sexist statement that he or she will lose his/her job or be thrown in jail. But the taint of being a racist or sexist will never leave that person. If you think I am wrong then please provide the name of a person who made such a statement and recovered to the degree that President Clinton has from his mistakes.

Perhaps we should not forgive Dean or Rocker. That is a moral question I am not attempting to address right now. But as a scholar I am curious as to why certain acts of deviance can be forgiven in our society and others cannot. Note that we are not talking about illegalities as most sexual infidelities and intolerant comments are not illegal. What occurs to me is that there are progressive “sins” and there are conservative “sins.” In general sexual infidelities tend to be conservative sins. This is not to say that political and religious progressives do not care about people who cheat on their spouse or visit prostitutes, but generally political and religious conservatives show more concern about such shortcomings. Exhibitions of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia tend to be progressive sins. Once again I am not arguing that religious and political conservatives do not care about those issues, but my observation is that political and religious progressives care more about these transgressions. If I am correct about who tends to care about certain human failings, then I have some insight into why some actions are forgivable and others are not. It seems to me that conservative sins can be forgiven but progressive sins cannot be.

The question becomes why we, as a society, forgive conservative sins more than progressive sins? One possibility is that the value of forgiveness is more prevalent among conservatives than it is among progressives. Why might this be? Research has shown that political conservatives have higher levels of religiosity than political liberals. (This does not mean that atheist conservatives or highly religious progressives do not exist, it is just that they are not the norm within their respective political group). It is possible that forgiveness is a value they learn through their religious beliefs. Thus, if we perform activities conservatives hate, then we have more of a chance to be forgiven due to their religious beliefs. This explanation has potential, but it is not convincing to me. Quite simply, this explanation assumes that all religions emphasize forgiveness. That is an unwarranted assumption. Furthermore, this seems like a surface explanation for what seems to me to be a fundamental difference in how conservatives and progressives understand social reality.

My speculation begins at the basic worldview of conservatives and progressives. I contend that religion matters, but not because religious individuals are taught how to forgive. Since research has shown that conservatives are more religious than progressives then conservatives are more likely to envision the need for supernatural assistance. They are more likely to see themselves as incomplete without that assistance. They are also more likely to see others as incomplete without supernatural assistance. This is a point of view that expects humans to fail. Forgiveness is an expected response to these failings. This is not to say that forgiveness is always provided. Often conditions placed upon individuals so that they can receive that forgiveness. However, I suspect there is a general expectation to forgive others among religious individuals since they have a religious ideology where those individuals expect to fail themselves and may one day need that forgiveness.

An alternative understanding of human nature is one born out of a more secular, humanist perspective. This perspective is based upon the idea that humans are perfectible. Human reason and ability are the keystones to a healthy society. Progressives seek for our society to “progress” to a state where we can use our human abilities to our fullest extent. This is not only the idea exhibited in documents such as the Humanist Manifesto, but it was an ideology I heard time and again in my interviews with atheists and read in answers to the open ended questions I gave to cultural progressive activists. Our emerging enlightened society is one that will be free of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. So individuals who exhibit these qualities are bridges to a new and better world.

This by itself does not explain the lack of a willingness to forgive progressive sins. Theoretically, we can help those who have engaged in racism, sexism or homophobia to overcome those failings and then forgive them after they have made their transition to a progressive human. But since redemption is not usually given to those who have committed those offenses we should ask why would forgiveness be denied? I speculate that when we have the vision of human perfectibility then we have less sympathy for those who do not obtain that perfectibility. While the religious conservative understands that he/she is also vulnerable to doing wrong, the non-religious progressive may not understand how individuals still have intolerant attitudes. This provides less empathy towards those who participate in progressive sins and thus they are not likely to gain the benefits of forgiveness. The stain of their sins can be linked to their reputation forever. With this theory, forgiveness is tied to whether we think we are likely to engage in future societal sins and thus may need that forgiveness ourselves. If conservatives believe that they are likely to “mess up” while progressives do not have such fears, then it is reasonable that conservatives will be more forgiving of those that violate norms that they hold dear than progressives.

This is speculation as I have no sociological data to back up my assertions beyond the argument of who receives forgiveness in our society. I wish I could say that this is a research direction I would be undertaking in the near future, but alas that is not the case. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to question individuals in an effort to learn why they are more tolerant of certain shortcomings as opposed to others. Whether there are religious differences in how people forgive is also a question of empirical interest. I am not certain if anyone has looked into that question. Finally, one can argue that society is better off not forgiving those who transgress certain moral boundaries. While forgiveness is an important quality for our mental health on the individual level, providing such forgiveness on the corporate level may encourage more transgressions. Exploring whether forgiveness of shortcomings encourages more problems is another fascinating direction for future research.


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