Study Shows: People who Don’t Go to Church are Haters.

Ok, now that I’ve got your attention, the study doesn’t say that… exactly.  But it does show that non-religious persons are much less willing or able to forgive themselves or others than religious people.

…those who leave a religious tradition entirely (i.e., those who were religiously affiliated and no longer were at the time of the survey) are less likely to forgive themselves and others compared to those who stay in a religious tradition. What seems to matter in promoting forgiveness, then, is that a person adheres to a religion or denomination; on the whole, the religiously unaffiliated have less of a propensity to forgive.

Previous research has pretty well settled the notion that religious people are more forgiving of themselves and others than non-religious people, but this study wanted to understand what the mechanism of that forgiveness really is.  The study identified three factors that contribute to the more forgiving nature of religious people, the degree to which you exhibit these factors as a religious person tends to determine how forgiving you will be of both  yourself and others.

 (1) one’s relational disposition toward God—in other words, beliefs about who God is, what God does, and the appropriate interactions a believer should have with God;

In other words, the degree to which you believe God is a loving, forgiving God (as opposed to an angry, spiteful God) has an impact on the level of forgiveness you display toward both yourself and others.

(2) the extent to which a person imitates God’s qualities and actions; and

Fairly self-explanatory.  The more you feel you are obliged to treat others as God treats you (assuming point #1; i.e., that you think God is loving and forgiving) the more likely you are to be forgiving to yourself and others.

(3) the extent to which a person believes her religion (and therefore its injunctions and teachings) is or should be pervasive in life.

Also pretty straight-forward.  The degree to which you see your religion as a blueprint for living as opposed to merely a path to personal enlightenment/reflection (as is the case with those who are “spiritual but not religious”), the more forgiving of yourself and others you will tend to be.

If these factors have a signficant impact on forgiveness levels, it also makes sense why non-religious people may have a harder time forgiving.  For example, athiests like Richard Dawkins certainly don’t profess to believe (or even not believe) in a merciful, loving God.  The God they reject is perceived to be pretty angry and spiteful.  Because of that, they certainly don’t see the value in imitating what they perceive to be “God’s” immature, tantrumming behavior, and they therefore reject that any religion that worships such a God should have anything to do with life.

Not having a positive model for forgiveness or a more cohesive definition of what forgiveness looks like outside of their own experience, the non-believer would have a more difficult–if not impossible–challenging himself or herself to be as forgiving as a believer who is consistently challenged by a faith community to at least imagine that it is possible to be more forgiving than he or she has actually witnessed in his or her own life.

QUESTION:  What offenses tend to be the hardest for you to forgive in yourself or others?

——Having difficulties forgiving the difficult people in your life?  Check out God Help Me, These People are Driving Me Nuts!  Making Peace with Difficult People


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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit

  • Theodore Seeber

    This reminds me of an anecdote that came out of Vatican II. Not sure how true it is. But basically, the committees that would eventually write Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate, and who would recall Fr. Feeney to Rome for questioning, were doing research into missionaries. One unknown missionary told them that wherever he went, a form of the Gospel had already preceded him- that the people already KNEW Christ, but not necessarily by name. They knew Him through the great wave of forgiveness that sweeps through a culture when missionaries arrive- so that a missionary forgiving some slight from some dockworker, created forgiveness in a family, which creates forgiveness among friends, and so 30 people down the chain, the good news of Forgiveness is already present when the missionary begins preaching.

    While I can well see “once guilty always guilty” being the norm among atheists and agnostics, just due to their philosophy, forgiveness is also contagious.

  • kenneth

    What do these findings really establish in the way of “news value”? All is establishes is that people who don’t believe that forgiveness is obligatory don’t worship at churches which hold that value as one of their central tenets. Those who see forgiveness as a central tenet of their faith and a major life goal, work harder at it and get a bit better as a result.

    You’re measuring people by an outcome they never aspired to, saying, essentially, that atheists are failed Catholic forgivers, when in fact they don’t share that value with you or your Church. You seem to say they would live up to that value they don’t hold if only they got themselves to church and saw more modeling of that behavior they have no interest in imitating.

    The sorts of studies you cite are problematic for another reason. They ask people what they believe, in the abstract. Whether they practice it or even believe it, devout Catholics are conditioned to say they model the lesson of their Savior. Atheists or unaffiliated people have no such inclination. The real test is how people live those values or not. Several years ago, we saw polls in which the highest support of torture, by far, was among Catholics and Evangelicals and church-going folks in general. The causal link between religiosity and forgiveness is, at best, complicated.

  • vytas

    From my own experience I find non-believers more forgiving. The may not have a moral obligation to forgive, but, usually being of above-average intelligence, they normally have a fairly good understanding of the limitations (or even non-existence) of free will and how our actions and thoughts depend on prior causes. So, for unbelievers it is much easier to understand “bad” behavior. Anger and in particular revenge is fueled by the idea that people that have hurt you MUST/OUGHT to have behaved differently and thus deserve retribution. That is reinforced by the belief in the existence of the last judgement and eternal instrument of revenge and punishment – hell. If God can be so cruel, why shouldn’t we? That’s why when you look at the world, you see secular states having the most human treatment of criminals and punishments, primarily limited crime prevention and isolation rather then punishment, and then you see all those religious countries, primarily in the Muslim world and USA, which have the harshest, most cruel systems, allowing even the death penalty.

    • Dr. Greg

      I thank you for your comment, but your understanding of god has more in common with ancient Greek and Roman mythology than it does Christianity. There are some emotionally unstable people who call themselves “Christian” and believe in the god you describe, but that is their own god, not the Christian God.

      There is no research that confirms that atheists are of above-average intelligence. There is research that shows that atheists are significantly more likely to be autistic, and/or have poor relationship skills, and/or exhibit less happiness in life than believers, but we won’t hold that against you. The idea that atheists are “brights” is a self-indulgent myth.

      Finally, if you look at the history of crime and punishment, you’ll see that the humane treatment of prisioners has always been championed by Christians, not secular humanists. I appreciate your thoughtful response however, and I hope you will be a regular visitor/commenter.

      Happy Easter,