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Actually. I don't agree with you. The Christian concept of forgiveness **fails** at this, because so long as the group can invent a sufficient justification for why what you did was OK, and can mangle reality enough to proclaim that God forgives, because you are doing his will, not only is *everything* that is horrific, and which you might invent absurd justifications for yourself to allow, also supported by this idea of forgiveness, you get a free support group to tell you how *good* you where, not *in spite* of doing it, but *because* you did it.

In other words, when used as a way to side step your own guilt, so as not to be crushed by it, it works fine, but its entire purpose has generally been to allow the group to justify not just the small evils, but the great ones, like mass murder, so long as the justifications built into Christian (or other religions) concept of "forgiveness" can me bent to allow, "because you don't need to be forgiven for doing what God *wanted* you to do anyway."

The worst example of this, despite being fiction, makes it quite clear that as a coping mechanism, its useless so long as the *group* gets to define what is forgiven in the first place. Specifically, the assassin in, "His Dark Materials: The Subtle Knife", who is pre-absolved of his sin of murder, through years of prayer and penance, so that when he finally commits the act, he can do it with the clear conscience of knowing that God already forgave him for it.

While the church hasn't, as far as I know, ever done such a thing itself (at least on such an abhorrent scale), its *is* the justification often given by some murderers who have high belief in religion and God given forgiveness. To them, they are already pre-forgiven, or in some Islamic contexts, possibly even promised rewards, for what they **must** do.

Ok, yes, we might need some structured system that allows us to forgive each other in some similar fashion, with the recognition that some choices are only marginally in our control (teens can't be expected to not overestimate the benefits of doing something stupid, no matter how sure they are about how negative the results could be if things go wrong, for example), but it needs to be bounded by two things - 1. The recognition that some people will lie about why they did it and 2. We need to be as sure as we can be that they did make an honest mistake, before we just arbitrarily tell them its all OK. Religion tends to presume that no one seeking the religion for forgiveness could be lying, and worse, often presumes that mistakes (or even intentional acts) are somehow never the fault of the guilty party, so long as they a) don't effect the church itself (and not always even then), and b) it can somehow be justified as an act that their god intended to have happen anyway.

This is a bloody stupid system to be arguing that we should look to for guidelines on building a, "Its OK, you didn't intend harm or couldn't help it.", style support system.

The idea is sound, I just think you are a bit nuts to claim that Christianity came up with something that doesn't cause *worse* problems when inevitably abused or twisted to fit their goals, than the rest of their theology is when so applied. If anything, its often at the heart of where they go wrong *when* they bend and twist the rest of their mythology to support some insanity.

the chaplain

A blogger who calls himself A Thinking Man recently completed a really good series on forgiveness. If you want a thumbnail analysis of the Christian concept of forgiveness that offers a contrast to yours, check out my comment (#5) to his January 6, 2008 post.


I also am of the view that religion has a warped and twisted sense of "forgiveness" and that it is detrimental to the healing process. Religion teaches you that you can be forgiven, but only if you hate yourself for what you did. You must accept that you'll never get it right, and all you can do is beg on your knees that you aren't struck down for your shortcomings.
It has been my distinct experience that the religious version of forgiveness is really just a pile of steaming guilt--and this also leaves psychological scars and dissonance

John Remy

Thanks for drawing attention to this aspect of Christianity, Greta--I'm always hesitant to dismiss religion wholesale. One of the reasons religions persist is because they do some things more effectively than other social institutions, and I'm very interested in how we can excise the best out of the world's religions without also taking on all of the baggage.

I think that the solution is to isolate forgiveness as a virtue and to sell it in culture completely divorced from its religious context. We already do this, so maybe we're on our slow and ponderous way there. The more this virtue is praised in film and song, explored carefully in art and literature; etc., the more it will pervade society as a general virtue.

I'm not the world's most generous distributor of forgiveness, but it sure keeps this father, partner, coworker, friend, from being continually bitter and unpleasant.

Steven Alleyn

What if you aren't convinced of your own goodness? I don't know about others, but when I do something that harms someone else it's usually because I wanted to harm them (granted, I try not to make a habit of it). I am convinced of only two things; I exist and I am fallible. The only thing that's ever caused any "cognitive dissonance" for me has been when I've made a mistake and the woman I love was made to suffer for it.

Greta Christina

It seems that I need to clarify.

I'm not saying that the idea of Christian forgiveness is the *best* model we have for dealing with moral cognitive dissonance. If that wasn't clear, I apologize.

I'm saying that it is *a* model for dealing with moral cognitive dissonance. And it's one that, for all its flaws, does provide something useful -- a way for people who have done bad things to move on with their lives, while still accepting that they've done something wrong, rather than rationalizing why it was actually okay.

Frankly, given a choice between someone saying, "I did something terrible, but now I'm forgiven and I can get on with my life and not do that again" -- and someone saying, "Hey, that wasn't so terrible, in fact it was totally reasonable, in fact (unconsciously) I'm going to do it again, just to bolster my belief that it wasn't so terrible" -- I'll take the former.

And I'm not talking about the ways that Christianity (and other religions) justifies immoral behavior by saying that it's actually moral and good. That's a whole other kettle of worms, and it's one I talked about in the piece.

I'm talking about the ways that Christianity allows people to accept the fact that they've done immoral things -- things that they, and the Church, and everyone else, agrees are immoral -- without either justifying why what they did was really not so bad, or torturing themselves about it for the rest of their lives.

My main point is this: If we're serious about trying to create a more secular world, we're not going to do it solely by pointing out why religion is incorrect and mistaken. We also need to demonstrate that *it's not necessary.* And to do that, we have to acknowledge the needs that religion fills for people, and point out -- or create -- ways that those needs can be filled in other ways... ways that are stronger, because they're based in reality.

(And Mercurialness, while the type of forgiveness you describe is certainly depressingly common, I don't think it's universal. I know Christians who aren't tortured by guilt over their past sins, and who find the idea of forgiveness very liberating.)


Forgiveness is a gift that we give ourselves.


Seems to me there's nothing wrong with doing the rational adult thing and 1) admitting to yourself you screwed up, 2) trying to figure out how and why, and 3) forgiving yourself.

Rational adults recognize that we all make mistakes for various reasons and there's no point beating yourself up over it forever.

All Christianity does is provide forgiveness without accepting real responsiblity. Jesus pays the price for all your sins, so you never have to. How morally bankrupt is that?


"1) admitting to yourself you screwed up, 2) trying to figure out how and why, and 3) forgiving yourself."

Good description. And yes, sometimes Christians skip straight to '3', neglecting the first two. Which can be a problem.


Perhaps it is easier for Christians to forgive themselves because they hold to the opinion that they are all sinners and we should expect them to perform badly from time to time. I'm not too comfortable with the idea of being forgiven for something by a supernatural being. Forgiveness comes from within and from the people that you've harmed and deferring that to your imaginary friend is just storing up a whole lot of pain for later without fixing anything.

Also I was going to point out that "Wicked" is a really good story for anyone who wants to see a villain portrayed differently.

Greta Christina

"Seems to me there's nothing wrong with doing the rational adult thing and 1) admitting to yourself you screwed up, 2) trying to figure out how and why, and 3) forgiving yourself."

The only thing wrong with that is that cognitive dissonance, and the justifications and rationalizations we use to keep it at bay, are not rational processes. They're emotional responses, and most of the time they're not even conscious.

In fact, one of their chief defining characteristics is that it's very easy to see when other people are doing it, but difficult to impossible to recognize when we're doing it ourselves. Even when it's pointed out to us. Especially when it's pointed out to us, in fact -- that's likely to make us defensive, and to make us hang on to our rationalizations even more.

Again, all without being aware, even in the slightest, that that's what we're doing. (After all, rationalization wouldn't work very well as a defense mechanism if we were aware that were doing it...)

I think you're making what I've lately taken to calling the Spock fallacy. Assuming that people can and will always act rationally is, itself, not rational. It's irrational to think you can argue a friend out of being in love with someone who's clearly unsuitable for them; it's irrational to build a public health policy on the idea that, if you just tell people not to smoke, they won't. If we're going to make rational decisions about human behavior and society, we need to accept reality about how our minds work -- and that reality is often emotional, irrational, and driven by forces we're unaware of.

Which brings me back to the main topic. Again, I'm not saying that the idea of Christian forgiveness doesn't have serious problems. I'm not saying that it's the best way we have of handling moral cognitive dissonance. (And even if I were saying that, I still don't think it would make a good case for Christianity.)

I'm saying that it's a better way of handling moral cognitive dissonance than our usual method: namely, rationalizing why our bad acts really weren't bad. And I'm saying that it fills a basic human need, and if we want to build a secular world, we have to find another way to fill that need.

As a rule, American society handles this problem very badly. We are terrified of mistakes, seeing them as a sign of weakness in both ourselves and others. And our notions of justice lean heavily towards revenge and punishment, instead of reparation, reconciliation, etc. (Look at our criminal justice and penal system. It's based on the idea that nothing -- not even reducing crime -- is more important than smacking down bad guys as hard as we can.)

So it's not enough to simply say to people, "Oh, just get over it, you made a mistake, don't beat yourself up over it." We have to create systems, structures, philosophies, ideals, to support ourselves and one another in admitting mistakes, accepting responsibility, and moving on.

Finally: It's also irrational -- and incorrect -- to act as if rationalization is something that other people do, a weakness that other people are prone to, something that we enlightened people are beyond the need for. It seems to be a basic function of the human mind. It's something we all do. And it's something we all need to take responsibility for.

Bill Brent

Hi, Greta --

Are you willing to believe that "forgiveness" is a poor translation from the original Aramaic, and that the whole notion could be chucked in favor of something less moralistic that still demands personal accountability for bad behavior?

Here are a couple of the more cogent bits:

"The Aramaic word 'shbag' has been translated into the English word 'forgive,' but it actually has a much deeper and richer meaning than our Western concept of forgiveness. The word itself translates as 'to cancel, to let loose, or to untie.' As an Aramaic concept, the word 'shbag' means a 'tool for changing a reality in your mind.'"


"Once you understand True Forgiveness as taught in Aramaic you will never 'forgive' another again! You can't forgive anyone else— True Forgiveness has to do with changing the reality triggered in your mind by another, not letting them off the hook for doing it. It is this dynamic and this dynamic ALONE that frees the mind of its hostility and allows us to follow the First Law of human existence—the maintenance of the condition of Love. To disobey that Law is to be insane."

(Actually, I'm not that crazy about the writing style, so I'm picking and choosing a bit here.)

This concept has helped me to deal more effectively with some really recalcitrant folk in my life (suffering from confirmation bias in extremis).

Actually, I'm not even sure if this is in fact "true," but I say, if it works, use it!


Donna Gore

I recently saw a TV news bit about a group of conservative Christians who were very angry at Gov. Mike Huckabee because of his record of pardoning criminals. And I immediately laughed out loud, because of the obvious irony. Isn't that what Christianity is supposed to be all about - forgiveness, salvation, redemption? Or so some of us were taught when we were little kids in church. Maybe not so any more. Nowadays it seems to be more about controlling other people, and trying to force those particular religious beliefs into laws. Oh yeah, and getting rich.


my problem with this concept is more fundamental. there are definitely things in my life (like masturbating and liking girls) that i used to feel shitty about, and only made peace with when i learned other people do it too. ive also had friends tell me that this is just rationalizing. they are right. i also now intellectually believe that these things are okay, but the rationalization of "other people do it too" has a much bigger effect. feeling like youre doing something wrong isnt the same thing as doing something wrong is it?

Greta Christina

j, those are excellent questions. It's one of the things I was thinking about a lot when I was reading the book: "What's the difference between rationalization, and actually changing your mind about something?" Or, in the case of rationalizing mistakes as opposed to immoral acts: "What's the difference between rationalization, and simply having an optimistic, positive, silver- lining attitude?"

The short answer, I think, is that that's a good question with no one single answer. The longer answer... well, the longer answer is pretty much the same as the short answer, but with more words. :-)

Speaking only for myself: I tend to depend on people very close to me to tell me when they think I'm rationalizing. One of the key things about rationalization is that it's very easy to spot in others, and almost impossible to spot in ourselves. So if someone who I trust a lot is calling me on my shit, I try to remember to listen. Not necessarily to agree with them, but to listen.

But as you point out, relying on other people for your own moral compass has serious problems of its own. (And of course, if the other people in question are trying to rationalize the same things I am, then that doesn't help at all...)

The other thing I've noticed is that rationalization has a different emotional flavor than changing my mind. Changing my mind feels liberating, scary but often exciting, and when I'm changing my mind about something, I'm more willing and even happy to spend time thinking about it. Rationalization gives me an uncomfortable squirmy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I tend to shy away from thinking about it.

But again, that's relying on self-diagnosis -- something that rationalization is unusually resistant to.

I don't know. I don't think this question has an easy answer, or any one answer. When I'm finished with the book (I'm almost done), I'll blog about it and see if I have anything more substantial to say on this subject.


Just call me Spock, then. (He always was my favorite character.)

The thing is 90% of "guilt" that most people feel about things they've done is not the natural repsonse to screwing up, it's learned based on the fucked up teachings of religion. It's their concepts of "sin" and "evil" that make people internalize all that guilt in the first place.

Once you've shed religion, you can abandon the greater part of all that guilt and get on with it.

Allan Cameron

interesting mmm
I didnt read the whole thing but just bits..your reasoning on Christian forgiveness is very missd out Jesus and him dying for you and me on the cross..its because of this and only this that God can forgive and we can move see he paid the debt for our sins
Sin is still sin there is no justification for wrong and hurtful acts and forgiveness and inner peace only comes when you and me are truly sorry for our wrongs and lay them at the foot of the cross and thats where I can get peace in my life..
Jesus said I am the way and all I can say is AMEN to that..

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