I've been reading this excellent, wildly life-changing book that absolutely everyone has to read. It's called "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts," and it's about cognitive dissonance -- the uncomfortable-at-best feeling you get when things you do, or things that happen, contradict your beliefs, about yourself or the world. And it's about the justifications, rationalizations, and other defense mechanisms we use to keep that dissonance at bay.
I'll be blogging about this book a lot, and of course I'll be talking about religious apologetics as a prime example of "rationalization to avoid cognitive dissonance." But right now, the thing this book is making me think about is actually something that religion -- Christianity, at any rate -- does right.
It's an important thing, a genuinely useful thing. And it's a thing that atheists are going to have to find a replacement for if we're serious about creating a more secular world.
What Christianity does is provide a framework for forgiveness.
We all want to think of ourselves as good people. No, strike that. We all do think of ourselves as good people. Contrary to all the movie villains cackling over their beautiful wickedness or trying to lure the hero to the dark side, even people who most of us would call certifiably evil usually think of themselves as good.
And when we do harmful things that contradict our belief in our goodness, we're extremely adept at coming up with reasons why the bad things we did weren't actually bad. "I couldn't help it." "Everyone does it." "The person I hurt was a bad person, so they deserved it." "That resource-rich country will be so much better off if we invade it." Etc. Like the Threadbare Excuse in the Phantom Tollbooth, chanting endlessly to itself, "Well, I've been sick -- but the page was torn out -- I missed the bus -- but no-one else did it..."
All of us. You, me, everyone. This seems to be a universal human trait.
And the worse the thing that we did was, the more likely it is that we'll rationalize it... and hang onto that rationalization like we're glued to it. I mean, it's relatively easy to reconcile your belief that you're a good person with the fact that you sometimes make needlessly catty remarks and forget your friends' birthdays. It's a lot harder to reconcile your belief that you're a good person with the fact that you carved up a pregnant woman and smeared her blood on the front door.
So we have a truly fucked-up paradox: The more appalling your immoral act was, the more likely you are to have a rock-solid justification for it... or a justification that you think is rock-solid, even if everyone around you thinks it's transparently self-serving or batshit loony. And the more solid you think your justification is, the more likely you are to do the bad thing again.
The concept of Christian forgiveness cuts through this conundrum very neatly. It allows you to accept the fact that you've done genuinely bad things, and at the same time lets you continue to think of yourself as a good person... without coming up with a bunch of cockamamie justifications for why the bad stuff you did really wasn't bad after all.
Which is important. Justifications are very self-perpetuating... and they're stubbornly resistant to logic and evidence. When we hang on to them, we're a lot more likely to repeat the unethical things we've done. But when we can find ways to let go of them and accept that we've done wrong, we find it a lot easier to change, and to move on.
And I think the Christian concept of forgiveness helps with that.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think this is an argument for Christianity. I still think religion does more harm than good, by a wide margin. If for no other reason, I think religion is mistaken, and I think mistaken ideas almost always do harm. What's more, as Daniel Dennett points out at length in "Breaking the Spell," religion is shot through with a whole passel of its own rationalizations and justifications... which stalwartly defend it against facts and ideas that contradict it, and serve to both justify and perpetuate its more grossly unethical practices.
Besides, Christian forgiveness is arguably just another elaborate rationalization. There's a whole class of rationalization that basically involves saying, "It wasn't really me." I was sick; I was tired; I was drunk or high; I wasn't in my right mind; etc. I did that bad thing, but I wasn't myself... so it wasn't actually me who did it. And it could be argued that Christian forgiveness is just another version of that. "Yes, I slept with the babysitter and told my boss I was visiting my sick mother when I was really in the Bahamas... but I did it before I was saved, and I was a completely different person then, so it wasn't really me who did it."
Besides, it's clear that Christian forgiveness isn't the only way for us to accept our bad deeds and move on with our lives. Atheists -- and for that matter, believers in non-Christian religions -- are clearly able to accept responsibility for bad things that we've done, deal with it, and move on. At least some of the time.
In fact, there are already examples of secular structures for contrition and forgiveness. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the end of apartheid leaps to mind. So it's not like we'd have to start from scratch.
I'm just saying: The tendency of human beings to justify our bad decisions and bad behavior isn't going away. And we probably wouldn't want it to. It can be very irritating and very harmful... but it's also necessary. Without it, we'd be paralyzed with guilt and shame. Perpetually. We'd be having dark nights of the soul every night of our lives.
As long as there are people, people are going to make bad decisions and do bad things. And as long as people make bad decisions and do bad things, people are going to rationalize and justify those decisions and things, even when they're neither rational nor just. We need ways of getting ourselves out of the self-justification loop... and we need structures to support ourselves and one another in doing it. I think this is one of the reasons people find Christianity -- and the Christian idea of forgiveness -- appealing. And if we want to move towards a more secular world, we need to find a replacement for it.