Category Archives: Personal Philosophy and Heuristics

Forgiveness as a Secular and Religious Topic

This is a little off topic, but it is the Personal section I suppose, and I haven’t written anything else in a while, so beggars can’t be choosers.

I read a fairly interesting post by Leah Lebrasco recently talking about a conversation she had with an athiest about coming up with good secular definitions of forgiveness that jived well with religious definitions or practices:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2014/08/whats-the-difference-between-forgiveness-and-self-deception.html

With the for-knowledge that I’m not really talking or interacting with the post at this point, my best input for OP would be that secular forgiveness could be less about internalizing incorrect information and more about willingly eating the consequences of an action even though you don’t have an obligation to.

So even though I understand that I’m taking a disproportionate risk in the future, or suffering in the present, or treating another person better than they deserve, I’m doing so consciously because it sets that person up to be in a better position for the future than they are now.

And if I “forgive” someone but still think negative thoughts about them or let that influence some type of passive aggressive action towards them, I’m not really relieving them of the entire burden of what they’ve done. But I can still relieve someone of that burden and still accurately and honestly acknowledge how this event effects the way I view their probable actions in the future, and the pain it caused/causes me.

If I were following that definition, I don’t think I would look at forgiveness as being a universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ quality to have, but a tool that needs to be applied in the right situations and in the right ways.

And I like Leah’s justification in that altering your behavior towards other people actually influences the way they act, although I can think of plenty of other reasons you might choose to bias a set of odds or privileges towards another person at your own expense.

All that being said, I think what you would look at as “religious” forgiveness would generally be more complicated than that because it would also take into account an idea of “wrongness” or telos, which would probably be a slightly foreign concept to a purely humanistic worldview, or at least most variants of that worldview that I’ve interacted with.

I know my own views of forgiveness center more around restoring “personhood” I guess (that’s not a very good word for it)? – Acknowledging an idea that wronging other people breaks the wrongdoer (and their telos) in a fundamental way, and forgiveness is more about repairing that thing rather than fixing the effects of that breakage, although restitution/restoration are often important and even crucial after-steps.

My guess is that most Christians I know don’t think of restoration/restitution as being extremely binary good/bad actions either – sometimes wronging others carries consequences to you, sometime’s you’re spared those consequences.

So when a Christian says that everyone should do their best to forgive others all of the time, they’re not necessarily referring to the same type of forgiveness that a secular person would be referring to if they said the same thing – it’s just that I think most Christians would insert a pre-step they’d call real ‘forgiveness’ and refer to the second part as something like ‘restoration’, with its own set of rules.

I realize this is going beyond OP’s original topic, but none of that means that a purely secular individual can’t rationally use or act on forgiveness, even if their mechanics might differ from a more religious person. I don’t think of forgiveness (in general, not going into specifics or implementation) as being an exclusive concept to one particular worldview. And in any case, I’m sure there are plenty of other people, both religious and atheist, who have thought longer and harder about this stuff than I have, so I would always be hesitant to start a conversation like this by saying “No, that’s OUR word, stop using it”.

In any case, closing down that part of the discussion might  prevent me from learning about something really interesting or useful for myself in the future.  A little while back, I got really interested in the concept of restorative justice, enough that I played around with a whole bunch of game mechanics and trying to relate them.  It didn’t result in any actual projects, which is good since there’s plenty of other stuff on my plate, including The Organizer, but it was really rewarding at the time.