Forgiveness: Not a Virtue, But a Dangerous Practice

Over the millennia, religion has done much harm, in myriad ways. Of the major world religions, the one that places the greatest emphasis on forgiveness is, to my knowledge, Christianity. This was an error in reasoning made many centuries ago, and it is impossible to calculate the amount of harm this doctrine has caused . . . but the number of people harmed by this terrible idea certainly numbers in the millions.

Consider one of the most oft-quoted passages from the New Testament concerning this topic, from Matthew 18:21-22 (NASB):  “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’” Seventy times seven is, of course, 490, but it is rare to find anyone who takes that number literally. It is much more common to encounter the explanation that large numbers were viewed differently in the ancient world, and “seventy times seven” was simply a way for Jesus to say, in a way Peter would understand, “an indefinitely large number.”

Now, consider what we know about the modern world. At least one-third of women are raped during their lifetimes. Serial killers often murder dozens of people before getting caught. Powerful people, in positions of public trust and great responsibility, betray that trust for their own selfish reasons. This list could be much longer, but I trust the point has been made:  you live in a world with many others in it who are not nice people . . . and many of them have no intention of changing.

Consider this:  a newly-married woman discovers her husband is betraying her in one of the worst possible ways, by sexually molesting children who live in nearby homes. She decides to leave him, and contacts her (devoutly religious) family, asking for help – only to be told that marriage is a sacred covenant, divorce is a sin, and the evil deeds of others are, according to the Bible, supposed to be forgiven. “Pray for him,” she is told — but the real support she is asking for is not given. She tries to forgive him. She stays in the marriage for many more years. The unsurprising result? Dozens more children are abused by the man over the following decades, with far-reaching, horrible consequences.

That last example was not hypothetical. The woman, and her family, are people I know.

There are people – many of them – who simply do not deserve to be forgiven for the crimes they commit. They are dangerous, and will remain so, until and unless they are stopped. Some stop only when they die — and those deaths, I do not mourn. Others are caught, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. However, those people are, too often, released while still dangerous, due to another nonsensical idea (that of having paid one’s “debt to society”), or simply because prisons are overcrowded with many people who only committed non-violent illegal acts. Both problems are easy to solve, however. First, we should stop locking up non-violent offenders – that’s the obvious part of the solution. The other part is more difficult, for it would require major legislative changes:  the abolition of specific, time-limited sentences for violent criminals.  Why lock up, say, a murderer or rapist for ten years, and then let them go, more dangerous than ever? It would make more sense to leave such people – anyone who is clearly dangerous to the rest of us – locked up for life, or at least until they have become so weakened by illness or advancing age that they are no longer capable of harming other people.

What about lesser offenses? What if, for example, you catch someone you know in a harmful, deliberate, and malicious lie? Should you forgive them? My answer is often a flat “no” – at least, not until the person has regained the trust they have damaged or destroyed, and sometimes that simply is not possible. (Who decides when trust is restored? The person who was lied to, of course.) Forgive a pathological liar, and what you are really doing is inviting them to lie to you again. A far better thing to do would be to warn others not to trust the liar, and explain exactly why that is the case.

Some who wish to cling to their religious beliefs, even when those very beliefs cause obvious problems, have devised a way to try to get around the problem that forgiving those who harm you, or your loved ones, invites further harm. You are likely to have heard it, or something like it:  “I forgive them, but I will not forget what they have done, for they may well do it again, and I must be on my guard.” Such a statement is an improvement over total, unconditional forgiveness, but it is not without problems. First, if one is constantly vigilant for a repeat offense, has forgiveness really taken place? Not by the Biblical standard of divine forgiveness of the evil deeds of people, it hasn’t, as Hebrews 8:12 (NIV) makes clear: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Many other verses tie the acts of forgiving and forgetting together. Separating the two, as many people do now, is an improvement, to be certain . . . but it is in no sense an idea rooted in either the Bible, or in traditional Christian doctrine. It is, instead, a modern concession to reason and common sense.

What about really small things?  Accidents, honest mistakes . . . that sort of thing?  Is there a problem with forgiveness in those sorts of situations?  No, there isn’t . . . but there also would have been no problem with not getting angry at a person for such a “crime” in the first place. As a good rule of thumb, if it made perfect, rational sense to get angry at someone because they did something truly terrible, then it does not make sense to forgive them for it ten minutes later, nor the next day . . . perhaps not even until they die, because at that point, the chances of them repeating the offense drops to zero. In other words, it isn’t yet time to forgive a person who still poses a danger. This is simple logic.

Monsters in human form, like everything and everyone else, are part of the physical universe. If one or more of them does something terrible to you, or to someone you care for, it makes sense to take steps to prevent their repeating such an act. It does not make sense to forgive them for it. To do so is the equivalent of telling the universe that you want you or your loved ones to have to endure further suffering. That is not a logical way to live one’s life. “Forgiveness is a virtue” is a pernicious idea – one we should, as a species, leave in the past, if we want to make progress in the future.

The True Story of My Attempt, with a Friend, To Invent a Religion


The True Story of My Attempt, with a Friend, To Invent a Religion

Many years ago, with the help of a friend, I attempted to create a new religion. The idea to try this was prompted by observation:  everywhere we looked, we saw examples of religion gone horribly wrong (persecution of gays, oppression of women, religious wars, etc.), although we were willing to concede that, centuries ago, many or most religions might have started with good intentions.

This took place in the American South, during the Reagan era, and that, no doubt, had a strong influence on our approach. First and foremost, we wanted to make certain that nothing be included in this new religion which was ever incorrect, or could be subject to misuse — and so anything proposed for inclusion had to be thoroughly analyzed and debated, with an eye towards the tendency of human beings to screw everything up. If we were going to go to all the trouble of inventing a religion, after all, we did not want that to happen to it.

It took a while for us to decide where to begin. Selecting a supreme being was rejected as a starting point, on the grounds that neither of us had compelling evidence for such a being’s existence. Therefore, we turned away from considerations of the supernatural, and instead examined questions of ethics and human behavior.

An important question came up in our discussion: what were things people actually do which are always wrong, in the sense that such actions could never, under any circumstances, be justified? It seemed like a good place to start. First, we considered various acts of violence, starting with people killing people.

This provided a good jumping-off point for considering specific acts for our “things not to do” list, but it didn’t take long to decide against including the act of killing someone on our list of acts that could never be justified. Sometimes, after all, people have good cause to use deadly force against an attacker, in self-defense. We also discussed the situation where someone has to choose between letting an attacker kill their family, or killing the attacker first, to prevent a larger slaughter. For these reasons, therefore, we did not include a prohibition against killing — although we certainly weren’t going to encourage it, either. Most killings of people, after all, cannot be justified — but we were looking only for those acts which could never be justified.

We then turned our attention to the crime of rape. This was not a hypothetical topic to us, at all; both of us knew people, very close to us, who had survived being raped. We could think of no set of circumstances which could ever possibly justify such an act, and so we agreed that we had found the first item on our list of acts which were always wrong. Don’t rape: what sane person could possibly argue with that?

Having settled on that, we tried to find another never-justifiable act. We discussed the taking of others’ possessions — stealing — and quickly realized that neither of us would be willing to condemn a person who stole food from a store to feed their starving family. Theft, therefore, did not make our list.

What about torture, though? The only possible situation we were even willing to consider where torture might be justified was for the purposes of obtaining vital information in an emergency. For example, if some lunatic is known to have planted a bomb somewhere, is the use of torture, to find the bomb’s location in time to disarm it, a justifiable act?

We decided it was not, on the grounds that, when tortured, people can be coerced to say anything, true or false. In other words, information gained via the use of torture is simply unreliable. Having disposed of the only proposed justification we could think of for the use of torture, we decided it should be included, with rape, on our list of unjustifiable acts.

At that point, I looked around. We were outside, in a large open area near both a school, and several apartment complexes. I noticed empty beer cans, and broken glass bottles, all over the place. The wind blew paper and plastic debris past us. I then spotted several mostly-unused trash cans, and imagined a small child running around, barefooted. If people had actually made the small effort to put all this trash I was seeing in the trash cans, such a child could run around much more safely — but, as things actually were, the simple act of a child playing barefoot wouldn’t be safe at all. One misstep, and a happily playing child would become a crying kid, bleeding, due to broken glass which could easily have been thrown away properly — and should have been.

“I’ve got a third one,” I said, as I picked up a nearby piece of discarded, broken glass, and threw it away. “Littering. Who needs trash, like this, all over the place?”

My friend responded with laughter, but did not disagree. Our list of unjustifiable acts was now up to three: rape, torture, and littering.

After that, we kept talking, but moved on to other topics. We were teenagers, after all, and our attempt to invent a new religion had already occupied our minds for much longer than the typical teenager’s attention-span. This was as far as we made it, on this particular project.

Now that I consider it, decades later, though, perhaps we didn’t take this any further because there simply was no need to do so. Imagine, for a moment, how much more pleasant life would be if no one committed rape, nobody was ever tortured, and people stopped throwing their trash everywhere. Also, try — just try — to imagine someone perverting such a simple set of three ethical principles into a holy war, an inquisition, or an effort to oppress some hated subgroup of the population. I can’t see it happening, myself.

This much is certain: many other attempts have been made to invent religions, and some have succeeded . . . with, in many cases, much harm happening as a result. Religion, and religious differences, have been the cause of millions of deaths, throughout history, and our brief foray into religion-building will have no such dire consequences.