Reading Time: 3 minutes

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:

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments