On the Morality of: Forgiveness

Today’s post on morality takes up the topic of forgiveness for wrongdoing. In superstitious times, forgiveness was obtained through magical rituals. Most of these assumed that guilt could in some fashion be transferred to an animal or other being, which was then killed or driven off to provide a symbolic expiation. Leviticus 4 explains:

Say to the people of Israel, If any one sins unwittingly in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then let him offer for the sin which he has committed a young bull without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering. He shall bring the bull to the door of the tent of meeting before the Lord, and lay his hand on the head of the bull, and kill the bull before the Lord. And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it to the tent of meeting; and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the Lord in front of the veil of the sanctuary.

Ironically, although Judaism no longer practices animal sacrifice, its primitive scapegoat theology has been adopted by its theological successor, Christianity. The Christian theologians did add the clever twist that Jesus’ divine blood, shed once and for all, makes a more perfect sacrifice than an animal’s and does not need to be repeated. Still, at the heart of Christianity lies the same ancient superstition: that one person’s guilt can be transferred to another and then absolved by punishing that other.

All these beliefs commit the fallacy of reification, treating moral responsibility as if it were a substance that has an independent existence and can be moved from person to person. In reality, an act and the responsibility for that act are necessarily linked; the person who commits the act bears the responsibility. By definition, one cannot be divorced from the other.

If a person has done wrong, what good does it do to punish someone else? It does not deter the offender from repeating the harmful act, nor does it make them understand why what they did was wrong. If anything, it sends the exact wrong message: that you can do as you wish, and someone else will bear the weight of your transgressions.

This is the problem I have with the Christian belief in grace: it emphasizes undeserved forgiveness. To dispense forgiveness indiscriminately, with no regard to whether it is deserved and no need for the offender to make restitution, threatens to make forgiveness a meaningless concept. The same holds true for any religion which teaches that absolution can be obtained by performing some empty ritual – chanting a prayer, performing ablutions, confessing to a clergy member, making a pilgrimage – that has nothing to do with understanding why the act was wrong or making up the injury to the one who was harmed.

In the secular morality of universal utilitarianism, forgiveness has a place, but a different place than the magic rituals of organized religion. UU teaches that human happiness is paramount, and refraining from causing others to suffer is our highest duty. When we violate that duty, we incur reponsibility – the responsibility of undoing that hurt if possible and restoring the lost happiness; and the responsibility of reforming ourselves so we don’t perform similar wrong acts in the future.

If an offender meets this burden, then forgiveness should be given, but it must be deserved. To deserve forgiveness, a person who does wrong must recognize and acknowledge the wrong they have done; must express contrition and a sincere desire not to repeat that act; and must express willingness to make restitution as far as it is possible. If any of these conditions are not met, then forgiveness is not merited.

When an act, such as murder, is of such a magnitude that no true restitution is possible, then it’s up to the people who were made to suffer whether they wish to grant forgiveness. If the offender is sincere in his contrition and is willing to make restitution as far as possible, then the people who are wronged may choose to accept that. But – an important corollary which I want to make note of – in this view, there can be no deathbed conversions.

A person who finds remorse only at the very end of life, when there’s no further chance of repairing the harm they caused, has come to their senses too late to find forgiveness. Words alone, without action, do little or nothing to alleviate suffering. This is a major break with religious traditions, most of which believe that a last-minute repentance can make up for a lifetime of evil. That view has always struck me as outrageous, and any worthwhile secular morality would do right to discard it.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • mikespeir

    All true, of course; but the notion of the atonement is perhaps the most powerful aspect of the Christian religion. It’s probably why Christianity is as pervasive as it is.

    Let’s face it, we’ve all hurt others badly. It haunts us that we have. We would love nothing so much as to be forgiven; for everything to be set right. But in Christianity wrongs are not seen solely as offenses against persons, but as sins against God. Indeed, it becomes almost irrelevant that some person was offended. The real crime is in that God was offended. The person may or may not forgive. God, we are told, always will. If you can’t secure the person’s forgiveness, so what? (I don’t mean that Christians are quite so cavalier about this in principle.) It’s God’s forgiveness that matters. Christianity–God, really–then becomes kind-of a clearinghouse for forgiveness–a place where forgiveness is assured. That might sometimes make people feel better, but I wonder if it doesn’t often lead them to be less concerned with doing what it takes to set things right with the one actually offended.

  • velkyn

    excellent essay, as usual. I find that this “forgiveness” in the bible and its required sacrifices, be it killing a bull or hanging a human up on a cross is ludicrous, especially when the Bible can’t make up its mind on whether “sins” are the responsiblity of the sinner or his/her children.

    The notion of atonement in Christianity is, as mike says, one of the reasons it has lasted. IMO, it is the easy way out, just apologze to God, no actually restitution is required. Christianity is a religion that abrogates any self-responsiblity. It is also a religon that completely strips the words “love” and “forgiveness” of any meaning with its simplistic (and wrong) claims about God’s lack of “conditions” for it. “unconditional love”, what a useless concept.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    Just as a matter of interest, animal sacrifice is still practiced in Judaism through the Yom Kippur ritula of kapparos.

    One of the things that always turned me off Christianity was its unjust form of forgiveness – a multiple murderer could be assured of eternal bliss if he converted on the way to the electric chair, whilst a charity worker who devoted his life to helping others would be tortured in Hell for all time if he happened to be an atheist. That isn’t mercy, justice and forgiveness – that’s God being a total bastard.

  • goyo

    I always wondered how the jews suddenly didn’t have to practice all the sacrifices in the O.T., especially in light of rulings by the Supreme Court that practioners of Santeria can sacrifice chickens and goats in their backyards.
    How are they pleasing god if they can’t send that sweet-smelling smoke of burning animal flesh up to heaven?

  • Christopher

    I find this whole concept of “forgiveness” – as defined by our contemporary society – to be utterly ridiculous: while I understand poor fool experiencing the desire to shed the guilt society dumpped on him for whatever “sins” he committed, I see no reason why I’m obliged to give it to him. If this fellow doesn’t have a will strong enough to throw it off himself, I have no take it off for him – he will either learn to carry the burden or else figure out that it’s just an illusion that’s been forced upon him.

  • Bob Carlson

    Your discussion appears to presume the existence of free will, but there is increasing evidence to the contrary:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121450609076407973.html?mod=hps_us_inside_today

    If free will is a myth, punitive measures for crimes, as opposed to constraint and rehabilitation, make little sense, whether or not the perpetrator shows remorse:

    http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,3368460,00.html

    Rather than being preoccupied with atheism, which is, in essence, a negative concept, you might consider scientific naturalism:

    http://www.naturalism.org/

  • NoAstronomer

    The passage from Leviticus bears all the marks of the Golden Rule – whoever has the gold make the rules.

    How many people in ancient Palestine could have afforded a young bull? In this way the rich (major financial contributors to the clergy) are assured of a way to avoid punishment while the clergy still hold power over the majority of the population.

  • velkyn

    excellent observation, NoAstronomer. So much for the claims that God cares about the little people.

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl TheNerd

    I think this view of forgiveness, like many Christian beliefs, is based in fear. If one belives in a vindictive God, one would naturally be afraid that the God would be offended by an unknown sin, and deal punishment accordingly. In fact, life experiences would lead the superstitious person to believe such a thing. How many of us have had bad things happen that we “don’t deserve”? Many of us have had a fire, illness, or other “act of god” cause pain, despite the fact that we live good lives. The superstitious mind would say “God is punishing me for an unknown crime”, and then would come up with the scapegoat as an attempt to avoid that in the future. It is only when we can look past ourselves and see the universe as a place where it rains on the just and unjust alike, that we can abandon our silly superstitions for the peace which comes from reason.

  • velkyn

    “”You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them. So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”
    – Marcus Cole, “A Late Delivery from Avalon”, Bablyon 5 TV show.

  • Joffan

    On deathbed regrets, and desire for forgiveness…

    I wonder how much this happens, and how strongly it is associated with belief in an afterlife. If you are about to die, and your firm conviction is that death is the end, why would you change your thoughts and attitudes?

    On a loosely-related topic: I hear there’s a tendency in the justice system to shy away from putting people in prison for the rest of their lives. Now I think there’s way too much imprisonment (and not enough restitution) anyway, but I wonder whether that tendency of shorter sentences for older people (all other things being equal) arises from an idea of things forgiven at the end, or I should perhaps say, “at the death”.

  • Christopher

    I find the whole idea of of the “deathbed regret” equally foolish as what we tend to call “forgiveness” – if one has already done a set of deeds that can’t be undone, there’s no point in regreting them at all; let alone at the hour of your death. Once people realize that that which is simply is we can get rid of all this guilt that weighs on the mind of the average person.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Hear hear to this post, and to the comments, especially yunshui and The Nerd. I feel a need to quote Emo Phillips on this topic.

    “I was very religious as a child. I used to pray every night for a new bicycle.

    Then one day I realized that the Lord, in his wisdom, doesn’t work like that.

    So I just stole one and asked him to forgive me.”

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    To me forgiveness has never been about absolving the other person of their guilt; it’s about you yourself letting go of the burden of whatever they’ve done to you. It’s about, I suppose, closure (though I hate that term). If you forgive someone for what they’ve done, you can then better move past it yourself.

  • TrekGirl

    Spot on, as usual. And I agree with Christopher on the inanity of the modern idea of forgiveness, where it seems more important to forgive rather than to earn forgiveness. My own family has actually pleaded with me to forgive my father (who made no efforts to seek my forgiveness or repair the damage he had done to our family), even after he died. They tell me that it’s impossible to heal psychological wounds without forgiveness, though I know that to be untrue. One aunt even said she was afraid I wouldn’t get into heaven if my heart was burdened by resentment. (I had to remind her of the whole atheist thing; she still doesn’t understand why even an atheist wouldn’t want to go to heaven. But that’s a topic for another day.) I completely reject the idea that forgiveness or “closure” is needed to “move on” with your life.

  • Brock

    Joffan said:
    “I hear there’s a tendency in the justice system to shy away from putting people in prison for the rest of their lives. Now I think there’s way too much imprisonment (and not enough restitution) anyway, but I wonder whether that tendency of shorter sentences for older people (all other things being equal) arises from an idea of things forgiven at the end, or I should perhaps say, “at the death”.”
    I have heard on the media lately that there is a move to have Susan Atkins paroled as an act of mercy, as she is apparently dying, and has very little time left. This seems to be exactly what you are talking about. This woman was sentenced to life imprisonment for horrendous crimes, and has been denied parole something like 13 times, despite her much publicized remorse and conversion to born-againism. She has in fact already been the recipient of an act of mercy, as she was originally sentenced to death, just prior to the State of California banning the death penalty. Without discussing the merits of our penal system, I fail to see how her impending death should make a difference in the way she should be treated. Doesn’t life imprisonment mean life imprisonment?

  • Joffan

    I think you’re confusing two concepts there, Chris S., which is not surprising as I think they have been thoroughly entangled.

    The first is forgiving; which means that someone wronged you but you’re promising (for whatever reason) not to exact any future price, or revenge, or whatever; you’re saying “I release you from the (further) consequences of your act”.

    The second, which you’re talking about, is acceptance that, whatever the wrong was, you’re not getting that time back. What you call there “moving past it”. It’s internal to you and doesn’t necessairly involve the other party. You might call it “grudge release”, in that you don’t allow the hurt done to you to preoccupy your thoughts and actions. It doesn’t promise that you will take no further action, should the occasion arise; but you won’t let it dominate your life.

  • Juan Felipe

    Great post. I agrre completely on the deathbed conversion thing. How can few a seconds of faith make up for years of non-belief? Seems like there is no point of being good unless one fears an accidentl death.

  • Valhar2000

    I strongly agree with Joffan, and with Trekgirl. Entangling those two different meanings of the word “forgiveness” is morally repugnant to me. Then again, it is just a direct result of that “turn the other cheek” garbage.

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar (India)

    Great post. I particularly liked this sentence, ” The same holds true for any religion which teaches that absolution can be obtained by performing some empty ritual – chanting a prayer, performing ablutions, confessing to a clergy member, making a pilgrimage – that has nothing to do with understanding why the act was wrong or making up the injury to the one who was harmed.” Your theme was “How religions handle Guilt & forgiveness”.

    If I could share some of my random thoughts on this at an interpersonal effectiveness level, I will say that there are two aspects to forgiveness. One is forgiving yourself and the other is forgiving others. With respect to forgiving yourself for your mistakes, you can choose either to chain yourself to the regrets of your past and suffer from guilt or forgive yourself and get on with the process of living a happy life. Feeling guilty is not enough. It can’t change the past. Learning from your past by not repeating the mistake, becoming a better person, and making amends and reparation to the other person is much more fruitful. W.r.to forgiving others, you can choose either to chain yourself to the grudges and resentments of your past, boil with anger & hatred or forgive others and get on with our lives. If the hurt is unintentional, forgive others. After all, to err is human. Even if the hurt is deliberate, forgive others for the sake of your own health or else the hatred and hostility will elevate your blood pressure to dangerous levels and you might have a stroke. Even if you can’t forgive completely, avoid the person but forget vendetta. As Mahatma Gandhi of our country once said, ” If we practice an ‘eye for an eye’ and a ‘tooth for a tooth’ soon the whole world will become blind and toothless.” Needless to say that none of us would like to leave a world like that to our children. LOL.

  • velkyn

    I find that forgiveness has nothing to do with “getting on with one’s life”. I can do that quite well. Keeping the memory of what someone has done to me allows me to be prepared for that eventuality which could come again. I do not see it as “chaining” myself to the past, but keeping a realistic view of what does happen and having a much better reaction to such things in the future e.g. if I don’t expect much from people, I am not so disappointed with them (which is quite a cynical viewpoint, I know)I can see no real benefit of “forgiving”. I can see that there is some benefit in ceasing to expect any repayment, but that doesn’t equate with forgiveness.

    As for the “eye for an eye”, you seem to forget the context of that verse. It was to limit the retribution, not make it extreme. I really have little difficulty with that verse, even though it’s Biblical (but hey, even a broken clock is correct twice a day). I do not agree with the usual claim that if this idea was in force, everyone would be eyeless and toothless. If so, that would mean that people can’t learn, ever.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    One of the things that always turned me off Christianity was its unjust form of forgiveness – a multiple murderer could be assured of eternal bliss if he converted on the way to the electric chair, whilst a charity worker who devoted his life to helping others would be tortured in Hell for all time if he happened to be an atheist. That isn’t mercy, justice and forgiveness – that’s God being a total bastard.

    Yunshui, the infamous Christian blogger Rhology made that exact same claim. He said that if Jeffrey Dahmer sincerely repented his sins and embraced Jesus Christ as his savior before he was killed, then Jeffrey Dahmer is in heaven, while the atheist (or non-christian) goes to hell regardless of whatever good deeds they may do. By implication then, Rhology and others who take the same line believe that the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust are experiencing an even worse torment in the afterlife than the unspeakable suffering they experienced in the death camps.

  • ComplexStuff

    “If a person has done wrong, what good does it do to punish someone else? It does not deter the offender from repeating the harmful act, nor does it make them understand why what they did was wrong. If anything, it sends the exact wrong message: that you can do as you wish, and someone else will bear the weight of your transgressions.”

    I think your logic on this point is seriusly flawed – I imagine “if you do that again I’ll chop your childrens’ arms off” would be quite a powerful deterant to most people. Indirect punishment can work. Christians understand this – it’s why bible is clear that future generations can be punished for the sins of their parents: it’s based on the same principle (and also an answer to the question of why bad things happen to ‘innocent’ children/people). Extrapolate this up and the idea is that the whole human race bears the weight of the sins of the whole human race – to argue, as you do, about an isolated transgression, misses this point entirely.
    This point made, and trapped as we are, under the entire weight of the sins of ALL MANKIND, nobody could possibly expect to ‘deserve’ forgiveness. I believe you and the UU movement are wrong in believing forgiveness can be earned – indeed, this idea truely cheapens forgiveness. Undeserved forgiveness, grace, IS valuable because it costs the person DOING the forgiveness, not the forgiven. That is why Christians value grace.

  • Juan Felipe

    the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust are experiencing an even worse torment in the afterlife than the unspeakable suffering they experienced in the death camps.

    And Hitler is in heaven in case he had a late minute repentance!

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    Yeah, but Hitler can’t be, Juan, because he committed suicide. A true Christian would not do that.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    If the verminous John Hagee is correct, Hitler was doing God’s will: he was encouraging the Jews to return to the land of their ancestral covenant by, one supposes, showing them that they would be massacred anywhere else. If that theology is true, Hitler might have been welcomed into paradise for successfully carrying out God’s plan.

  • Christopher

    Tommy,

    “I think your logic on this point is seriusly flawed – I imagine “if you do that again I’ll chop your childrens’ arms off” would be quite a powerful deterant to most people. Indirect punishment can work.”

    And thus the reason I don’t want anybody to have that power – if my descendants can be punished for something I do, I’m put in a constraining position: forced to bow to the will of society for fear of my family being harmed by my rebellion against them, I can’t act against thier wishes – thus I can’t be free to be who I am. As far as I am concerned, I’m the one who should be sovreign – not the social order.

    No joke, I would happily kill anyone who seeks to put this kind of power in the hands of the social order – as it’s a power too great for most dissidents to fight against, allowing the social order to surpress non-conformists (like myself) with all but perfect impunity. To this achieve the end of keeping this power away from society, I consider no means off limits.

    Fortuantely, I know of nobody trying to accomplish this travisty against the individual – but may the “god” of such an individual have mercy on him if anyone does try it, for I certainly won’t…

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Rather than being preoccupied with atheism, which is, in essence, a negative concept…

    Why do you consider atheism to be a negative concept? Is it negative simply because some people put forth outrageous fantasies and we don’t acknowledge them? I would say that it’s not a negative concept, but a concept grounded in rationality and reason, and very positive.

  • ComplexStuff

    Christopher, the idea of punishing groups/others for the (real or perceived) crimes of individuals has existed in many societies – it’s where we get the word ‘decimate’ – from the Roman practice of killing one man in every ten in mutinous legions. I’m pretty sure that was an effective deterrent.
    The idea also exists in many ‘civilized’ societies today. In England a company director can be held personally financially liable for the actions of other directors e.g. if one steals money from clients the others must pay the price. Also in 2006 there was discussion in the courts over whether parents of persistantly truant teenagers (themselves over the age of criminal responsibility) could be jailed for their children’s wrong-doings.

    On to your admission that you’d happily kill anyone who seeks to put this kind of power in the hands of the social order – this arguments essentially boils down to ‘if you disagree with me on this I would kill you’. This puts you on a par with the religious teachers who would do the same for people unwilling to accept the biblical/koranic/pick your religious text teaching that you may be punished for the sins of your forebearers.

    In any event, your offspring, quite literally, DO have to bear the burden of decisions you make – if you kill a man you’ll be jailed. Your children will grow up with one less parent. I could argue that a sin is, in this snse, simply a wrong decision (it goes against what God, who after all should know best, says).

  • goyo

    I could argue that a sin is, in this snse, simply a wrong decision (it goes against what God, who after all should know best, says).

    God should know best? Exactly what does he know best?
    How to treat a slave?
    How to kill a homosexual?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    “I think your logic on this point is seriusly flawed – I imagine “if you do that again I’ll chop your childrens’ arms off” would be quite a powerful deterant to most people. Indirect punishment can work.”

    Christopher, I didn’t write that, Complex did. When you respond to someone else’s comments, make sure you are responding to the right person!

  • velkyn

    “I believe you and the UU movement are wrong in believing forgiveness can be earned – indeed, this idea truely cheapens forgiveness. Undeserved forgiveness, grace, IS valuable because it costs the person DOING the forgiveness, not the forgiven. That is why Christians value grace.”

    complexstuff, just what “cost” is there possible for an omniscient/omnipotent being? This is the usual poor reasoning that gets all Christian apologists in trouble.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    CS

    I think your logic on this point is seriusly flawed – I imagine “if you do that again I’ll chop your childrens’ arms off” would be quite a powerful deterant to most people. Indirect punishment can work.

    But at what cost? Would you kill someone’s child for doing you wrong and feel that you had committed justice? Yet, god has punished all of us for things that we had no control over and no voice in – things that happened before any of us were even born. This is not justice, it’s sadistic control. If god is trying to be just, then he has missed the mark. If he is trying to instill fear and control the population, then his tyranny is duly noted.

    Extrapolate this up and the idea is that the whole human race bears the weight of the sins of the whole human race – to argue, as you do, about an isolated transgression, misses this point entirely.

    So, I bear the sins of the people who have done wrong to me? This is nothing more than blaming the victim. Add to that the fact that our “sins” amount to not much more than being human. Yes, being human is itself a sin, so how can we be held accountable for being created sinful?

    This point made, and trapped as we are, under the entire weight of the sins of ALL MANKIND, nobody could possibly expect to ‘deserve’ forgiveness.

    And here we get the standard anti-human, Xian concept that we are all deserving of hell. How disappointing.

    I believe you and the UU movement are wrong in believing forgiveness can be earned – indeed, this idea truely cheapens forgiveness. Undeserved forgiveness, grace, IS valuable because it costs the person DOING the forgiveness, not the forgiven. That is why Christians value grace.

    Yes, how silly to think that one should strive to try and right the wrongs that one has committed when it is much better to simply sit back and wait for the wronged party to give more of themselves. And, as velkyn notes, what can an omni-max being give up?

  • Christopher

    Complexstuff,

    “Christopher, the idea of punishing groups/others for the (real or perceived) crimes of individuals has existed in many societies. I’m pretty sure that was an effective deterrent.”

    I know it has – thus the reason I don’t want it to exist in this one. I want the social order to have as few deterrents against the individual as possible.

    Also Complexstuff,

    “On to your admission that you’d happily kill anyone who seeks to put this kind of power in the hands of the social order – this arguments essentially boils down to ‘if you disagree with me on this I would kill you’. This puts you on a par with the religious teachers who would do the same for people unwilling to accept the biblical/koranic/pick your religious text teaching that you may be punished for the sins of your forebearers.”

    I don’t care if people believe that such measures work or don’t – but I’ll be damned if anyone tries to actually implement the idea into our “legal” system! Such power doesn’t belong in the hands of anyone – let alone society (a fucked-up concept if you ask me…) – and I will do whatever I must to see that it doesn’t happen.

    And, BTW, this is the opposite of was a religious zealot-tyrrant would want: such people want the social order to be as powerful as possible so they can impose their will on the individual, I stand for keeping power AWAY from the social order so they CAN’T impose thier will on the individual!

    Oh… to Tommy: my apologies – I attributed the quote to the incorrect person. I really should pay more attention to poster names…

  • ComplexStuff

    First of all, apologies for my many spelling errors in previous (and no doubt this) post… there always seem to be ones I miss, even when I read back through a few times. Still, I’ll try and respond to you here – as there doesn’t appear to be a facility for separate threads for separate discussions you’re getting all your respnses together. Sorry but it’s late where I am and I need to sleep…

    Goyo: Assuming God exists, by (standard Judeo-Christian) definition he would be all-knowledgeable. Therefore: i) Well, everything. ii) Yes, I guess he would. But a Christian would say he knows how to have a one-to-one relationship with a friend too. iii) Ditto.

    Velkyn: Fairly good question, maybe I got that one mixed up – I’m very much writing as the thoughts come up. I’ll try again: I still believe the UU interpretation is wrong – to say man can earn forgiveness stll cheapens it. Most Christians would dismiss the idea as very arrogant in the first place but I’ll accept your point and carry on: who do you think should judge whether or not a person has ‘earned’ forgiveness? What if I feel I have but you don’t feel I have?
    Maybe taking in terms of costs was an error on my part, if God is omniscient/omnipotent then perhaps forgiveness doesn’t ‘cost’ him anything; but still, why should he do it – we can’t say we deserve forgiveness. Perhaps the value of grace lies in this – that it IS given, even though we DON’T, indeed can’t, deserve it. I’ll have a longer think on this and maybe get back to you again.

    OMFG: Would I feel just in killing someone’s son to avenge a wrong they’d done to me? Well, possibly if that wrong were killing my son. Harsh on the children? Yes. Just to the wrong-doer? Well, that’s the question isn’t it – do you believe justice should be retributive or restorative? Either way, justice has to be proportionate; but I don’t believe anything I’d written implied otherwise.
    Group responsibility doesn’t blame victims for the wrongs they suffer – it blames the whole group for the wrongs they commit. As they all commit wrongs these wrongs variously impact on all the other members. But the blames is placed on the whole group – to pick any ‘victim’ out for isolated analysis is an error within the framework of the point I was making.
    I’m not familiar with Xian. Could you enlighten me and I’ll have a think. I agrre that religion does appear, for the outside at least, to blame us simply for being human. But that implies acceptance of the fact that we’re incapable of doing everything right. Why do you believe that is impossible, even in theory?
    Finally, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try and right our wrongs – who would say that?!? I’m pointing out that, from a Christian perspective, particularly with the original/transferrable sin doctrine, it just isn’t possible. Of course we should still try to do our best. On the Omni/max thing, see above.

    Christopher: If we lived in an ideal world we would all be free. Great. But we don’t and we aren’t. Fight for it all you wish. I was simply pointing out that in threatening to kill your opponents in this struggle you had gone just as far down the path as those you were criticizing.
    Your libertarian ideals are sweet – but you appear to want to impose them on everyone else too, even if that means killing opponents, which is sort of self-defeating isn’t it?
    Finally, a religious zealot-tyrrant would want the social order to be as powerful as possible so they can impose their will on the individual, I stand for keeping power AWAY from the social order so they CAN’T impose thier will on the individual! I agree with the first part. Any tyrrant, religious or otherwise would want this. But on the second point, you seem to be getting religion and politics mixed up too much. If you’re problem is solely with religion then the proper separation of church and state should solve this, no? If your problem is with any form of anyone telling anyone else what to do then I think you’re in the same boat as Rousseau before he thought of his social contract. Anarchy simply isn’t a solution to the problem – it’d be worse.

    Man, apologies for length. I’m off to bed…

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    CS,
    Simply because god knows best doesn’t mean that he is passing that knowledge to you, acting upon it, or that what is best for god aligns with what is best for you or humanity in general.

    …we can’t say we deserve forgiveness.

    More of the Xian doctrine of anti-humanism. Why do Xians hate humanity so much?

    Would I feel just in killing someone’s son to avenge a wrong they’d done to me? Well, possibly if that wrong were killing my son.

    You had a point when you chided Christopher for his statement about killing anyone he disagrees with…and then you go and say this. What makes you any better than him if you’re willing to kill someone who did no wrong to you simply to avenge the death of your child?

    Well, that’s the question isn’t it – do you believe justice should be retributive or restorative?

    True justice would be restorative in the ideal. In practice it should be some of both. Your way is retributive and immoral.

    Either way, justice has to be proportionate; but I don’t believe anything I’d written implied otherwise.

    No, actually it doesn’t, and our justice system does not operate that way. Besides, what is proportionate about visiting the sins of one upon their off-spring? That is way out of proportion. For us to suffer because of the actions of our ancestors is immoral and ludicrous.

    Group responsibility doesn’t blame victims for the wrongs they suffer – it blames the whole group for the wrongs they commit.

    Because you can’t separate out specific crimes? Well, then you are guilty of murder.

    But the blames is placed on the whole group – to pick any ‘victim’ out for isolated analysis is an error within the framework of the point I was making.

    The framework you are using is that we are guilty of being human and that that makes us sinners and worthy of infinite torture, which is vile and disgusting.

    I’m not familiar with Xian.

    Xian = Christian.

    I agrre that religion does appear, for the outside at least, to blame us simply for being human. But that implies acceptance of the fact that we’re incapable of doing everything right. Why do you believe that is impossible, even in theory?

    Alas, Xianity actually teaches us that we are incapable of doing anything right, not that we sometimes do something wrong. Even then, we are still not deserving of infinite torture/punishment. And, again, why should we be held accountable for being created human?

    Finally, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try and right our wrongs – who would say that?!?

    Why should you? Isn’t it that much more glorious (for god) when he can forgive you and you don’t give a rat’s ass and have made no attempts at atonement? That way, he can be even more magnanimous, right?

    I’m pointing out that, from a Christian perspective, particularly with the original/transferrable sin doctrine, it just isn’t possible. Of course we should still try to do our best.

    If it is impossible to atone, then why try? No matter what you do, you still believe that you are deserving of hell unless god decides to give you grace, so nothing you do will improve your situation or make you any less likely for hell.

    On the Omni/max thing, see above.

    And I refer you back to the OP where Ebon makes the counter-argument for this…that undeserved forgiveness is cheapening. This is all the more true given that you’ve already admitted that an omni-max being can’t give anything up. Therefore, it is by definition empty and cheap for god to “forgive” you. The waters get even more muddled when you throw in the concept that god is ultimately responsible for all of our sin, etc. Now we get to the part where god throws us in hell for HIS immoral actions, which goes back to blaming the victims. We are humans, so you blame us for being human.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    ComplexStuff:

    I still believe the UU interpretation is wrong – to say man can earn forgiveness stll cheapens it.

    I have to admit, I’m baffled by the position that something is made more valuable when it’s given away for free, and cheapened when you have to work for it and earn it. How is this not the total opposite of the truth?

    …who do you think should judge whether or not a person has ‘earned’ forgiveness? What if I feel I have but you don’t feel I have?

    That’s an important question, but it’s no different from how things are now. In our world, God does not descend from the heavens with an illuminated scroll of pardon to announce when someone’s sins have been forgiven. And just because someone claims God has forgiven them doesn’t mean he actually has, which is a statement I think atheists and Christians alike can agree on. Human beings always have to make judgments about whether to forgive each other, and that’s not going to change any time in the foreseeable future.

    Would I feel just in killing someone’s son to avenge a wrong they’d done to me? Well, possibly if that wrong were killing my son. Harsh on the children? Yes. Just to the wrong-doer? Well, that’s the question isn’t it – do you believe justice should be retributive or restorative?

    Killing someone for the crimes of someone else is not only not restorative, it’s not just at all. This hearkens back to the primitive idea of retribution, of revenge – which is not at all the same thing as justice, and which only binds society into an endless, bloody spiral of retaliatory vengeance.

  • Christopher

    CS,

    “If we lived in an ideal world we would all be free. Great. But we don’t and we aren’t. Fight for it all you wish. I was simply pointing out that in threatening to kill your opponents in this struggle you had gone just as far down the path as those you were criticizing.”

    I think you misunderstand me: I’m not threatening to kill anyone, hell – I’d rather not if I can help it. But if anyone attempts to ensure that my whole family will suffer punishment for an action one individual within it, his days are numbered (not a threat – a promise) – I can live with a society that may try to assert itself over me by threatening my person with all manner of punishment, but I won’t dare let those bastards in power do a damn thing to my family. I’m not going to just lie down and let me and my whole family be destroyed like the biblical character of Achan did – I will fight (to the death if need be) to ensure that such a day never comes.

    Also CS,

    “Your libertarian ideals are sweet – but you appear to want to impose them on everyone else too, even if that means killing opponents, which is sort of self-defeating isn’t it?”

    1. I’m not a Libertarian – I’m a Nihilist.

    2. My goal isn’t to impose them on anyone – my goal to to ensure that no one else can gain the power to impose their will upon me: be it through such illusions as the concepts of “guilt” and “forgiveness” (which can be beaten by pure force of will) or through collective punishment (which requires more forceful methods to defeat).

    Also CS,

    “I agree with the first part. Any tyrrant, religious or otherwise would want this. But on the second point, you seem to be getting religion and politics mixed up too much. If you’re problem is solely with religion then the proper separation of church and state should solve this, no? If your problem is with any form of anyone telling anyone else what to do then I think you’re in the same boat as Rousseau before he thought of his social contract. Anarchy simply isn’t a solution to the problem – it’d be worse.”

    You got the first part correct – any tyrrant would love a strong social order.

    As to the second, I’m not talking about anarchy (at least not complete anarchy, anyway) – I’m talking about the ideal of an individual living as a law unto himself. Yes, I acknowledge that some form of government would have to exist to keep the proverbial trains moving on time – but I envision a society that’s too weak truly force itself into the affairs beyond what is absolutely necissary to ensure that some semblence of order is preserved.

    Such a world doesn’t exist today, but I’m doing my part to ensure that at least me and mine can be as independent of this power-drunken social order as possible.

    P.S. some people might think that this post is off topic, but I beg to differ: for the whole concept of “forgiveness” is tied directly to the concepts of “guilt” and “punishment” as that’s the means society created to to dispose of “guilt” to avoid “punishment.” Without a threat of “punishment,” “guilt” has little power over an individual and thus eliminates the need for “forgiveness.”

    Otherwise, why seek “forgiveness” for “guilt” that will yield no consequense (i.e. “punishemnt”)?

  • He Who Invents Himself

    I must say, I’m surprised to find a “On the Morality of …” post on forgiveness, of all things. I hadn’t ever pondered the question thoroughly. It seems you’re carrying on your tradition on this blog of not only promoting freethought, but humanism as well, Ebonmuse. Personally, I’m waiting for you to get around to posting something about the morality of sex-related issues. :) (Pornography, strip clubs, prostitution, premarital sex, non-conventional sex acts, swinging/polyamory/gamy, etc.) I think they are all relevant to the table of discussion on religion, given religion’s more conservative requirements for it. And I think you recognize that easily. (You have Greta Christina and Sexual Intelligence on your blogroll, so I won’t be surprised if you take that tangent at some point or other.)

    On topic: The claim that someone should deserve forgiveness before he/she should be forgiven seems like a self-evident intuition that’s finally been explicitly formed. But that a person shouldn’t be forgiven on his/her deathbed when its (external) moral practicality has expired is a real shocker. I’d like to challenge that claim as it stands, under the moral system of UU.

    You say forgiveness is futile “when there’s no further chance of repairing the harm they caused.” True, but everyone’s happiness and suffering must be measured equally, and there is still one more variable that can be changed for the better, and that is the suffering or happiness of the dying person. In terms of the happiness and suffering of all those around the person, it may be the case that nothing can be gained or lost by forgiving the soon-to-be-snuffed (if the parties damaged by that lost soul are of good nature and willing to forgive, of course). If it is the case that nothing can be gained nor lost by the people living, then why not forgive that dying person? It can only result in relieving that person’s suffering and giving him or her some solace, and maybe even a bit of undeserved joy before returning to non-existence.

  • Alex Weaver

    Would I feel just in killing someone’s son to avenge a wrong they’d done to me? Well, possibly if that wrong were killing my son. Harsh on the children? Yes. Just to the wrong-doer? Well, that’s the question isn’t it – do you believe justice should be retributive or restorative?

    …that’s the sort of response that would seem just to some, but not all, five year olds.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    He Who, Ebon has already done a post on the morality of prostitution, among other things.

  • Alex Weaver

    Wait, how are non-conventional sex acts or premarital sex a moral issue at all?

  • Alex Weaver

    As an excellent case in point of the popular, wrongheaded view of forgiveness, I’m now being harangued about being “disrespectful” for observing that, due to the evil policies he pursued as a Senator and the fact that he never repented or attempted to atone, the world is a better place without Senator Helms in it.

  • Christopher

    Alex, the world is a “better” place (for me, anyways…) with one less politician in it: be it Helms or anyone else!

  • He Who Invents Himself

    Tommykey: You’re right! I didn’t see that post at all.

    Alex Weaver: I don’t personally see them as *moral* issues, but a lot of theists do think these acts are immoral, and even try to use secular reasoning to support their views.

  • Simone

    I so agree with not only the essay but many of the comments. I am personally looking to learn how to forgive. I find that I am angry and I am so sure it has to do with holding anger. As an atheist I don’t have the luxury of just asking god so how do I forgive when I don’t get the apology or acknowledgement most don’t give. I want to learn to let go. As a woman I find most of us never let go and this is very unhealthy. I obsess over wrong doings both of me and others on to me. I want to live a life free of this. How do I do this with in my self? Has any one found a process that works for them?


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