Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why an Atheist Forgives

I have personally met some pretty despicable people in my life. I have been threatened too many times to count, I've been assaulted, viciously demeaned, and plenty worse. But there's a world of difference between that and having to see loved ones or close friends go through such mistreatment. There's a universe of difference between that and knowing that those you love have endured deeply personal pain you will never experience. I have friends who have been discriminated against in absolutely deplorable ways, friends and family members who have been mercilessly harassed, friends and family members who have been violently assaulted and sexually assaulted - some as adults and some as children - and friends who have been raped. I know I am not alone in the company I keep. It's a depressing fact that we all likely know people close to us who have been physically and/or mentally abused by others.

When I was a Christian, forgiveness came easy. If I were wronged in any way, I would forgive the person who wronged me. Why? Because god forgave me, because Jesus taught the virtue of forgiveness, and therefore it was what a true follower of Christ should do. Forgiveness came easy because it became a duty, an obligation, and a routine practice for me, just like prayer. To not forgive was to spurn god's forgiveness of my own detestable sins, and to disobey Christ's commands (Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness also became an opportunity to show what a faithful believer I was, and to spread the gospel every good Christian holds dear. If I really was forgiven, I would forgive others.

To make a long story short, I became an atheist in 2007 after struggling for quite some time with the reliability of the Bible, the problem of evil, the way in which other religions used similar arguments for their own teachings, and the big question of why faith should be esteemed at all. A year later I started my website, Godless Haven, and began writing my thoughts on religion, atheism, morality, and other related subjects. When I tackled the problem of evil, I tackled it logically, and when I discussed meaning and value from an atheist's eyes, I did it matter-of-factly. Yes, sometimes life sucks, I seemed to say, but we should remind ourselves that it's most important to embrace reality as it is, and to find hope in the little things.

I remember thinking at the time that some of my remarks on suffering felt a bit feigned, being that I had next to no experience with what many would call "real life hardships". Over the past year or two, this has stuck out in my mind as I've had a number of those hardships, one after the other, seemingly unrelenting at times. Though I still find there is plenty to be glad about in my life, I've come to realize that I feel the pain of others much more deeply than I might have expected some while ago. Of course, I grew up hearing so many stories of how often we are not ready when major life suffering hits us, so perhaps I should've known better.

There have been times I've wanted to break everything around me, to set fire to anything in sight, and then collapse to my knees in tears. There have been times where all I can do is clench my fists and try to let out shallow, heavy sighs that sting with every breath. There have even been times where I've felt I could beat and strangle the life out of someone who's hurt those I love. I've sometimes questioned why it matters to forgive monsters, why think revenge would be unsatisfying. Just because it's good to forgive in a certain situation, or even in most situations, that doesn't mean it's always good to forgive, does it?

It's no big secret that atheists are maligned in the Bible, and by many people still today, as being angry, callous, unforgiving, and unloving. If you don't believe in a god that forgives us and keeps us accountable, then why care about forgiving those who have seriously wronged you?

Some time ago, I made the mistake of reading something unbelievably hateful that was said to one of my loved ones. It filled me with emotions I thankfully don't often feel so intensely. It was one of those things that can't be unlearned, no matter how much you might wish it could be. Since that time, it pops into my mind in different contexts, turning my mood upside down, usually with little warning. I've repeatedly asked myself why I couldn't have just refused to read what I read; perhaps I would have been better off not knowing so much. What good could have possibly come from reading it?

The other night I realized that as painful as it was for me to see the hateful message, I only know a fraction of the story. The person I love has had to deal with that and much more, undoubtedly much worse. By being more aware of their situation, I will hopefully be able to be more helpful to them. Watching my own behavior, doing my best to be a source of comfort when I can, and learning to stand up and speak out when I come across other similar situations, will all make for a better direction for me and my loved ones than if I were to persist in anger and retaliate. There is nothing worthwhile to be gained, and so much to be lost, from allowing rage or depression to consume you.

One reason I will forgive is that I understand that the alternative is poison. We all suffer when we spend all our time reflecting on the tragedies in our lives - we slip into the darkest spells of sorrow that inevitably affect those around us. Many families have fallen further apart when revenge comes into the picture. The evidence for the effects of forgiveness and resentment is not all anecdotal, though. Psychological studies like Van Oyen et al. have shown a correlation with physical health. Not just for my own sake, but also for the sake of those I care about, I need to find ways to deal with pain and suffering that are healthy and helpful rather than corrosive. Forgiving the people who have wronged you still acknowledges that they have wronged you, but you make the conscious choice to let go of harmful attitudes and behavior.

Another reason I will forgive is because monsters are not born from a vacuum. It can be exceedingly hard to think of a hateful person as a person, but when their actions strongly show that they dehumanize others, it has to be recognized that they did not likely learn this all on their own. Monsters are nearly always created from other monsters, even if the other monsters are personality disorders instead of persons. Though none of that makes it right, I find it does make it somewhat easier to forgive the person who hurts others because hurt is all they've ever known. It's also worth remembering that we rarely get the full picture of what anyone's life is like.

Personally, I feel that these are both better reasons to forgive offenders than that the Bible tells us to forgive, that Jesus taught forgiveness, or that god forgave us. The forgiveness that I practice is not an obligation, not a duty, and most certainly not an opportunity to show what a good person I am, and I think that's precisely what makes it meaningful. Forgiveness that comes easy is cheap forgiveness. How can you truly forgive another person from the heart when the reason you're forgiving them is more like a court order from on high than any personal reason? Some might say that it's actually Christ in them that allows them to forgive others more freely, but this raises the question of what is being called forgiveness (perhaps theirs is a routine, almost carefree practice like mine was... and is that really forgiveness?), and there is just no data showing whether or not Christians really are more forgiving than non-Christians.

The fact is that we need each other, especially when turmoil hits. I've recently been reading a fascinating book, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, wherein author Daniel Schacter describes the work of psychologists Daniel Wegner, Terrence Keane, Stevan Weine, and James Pennebaker, showing the importance of "confronting, disclosing, and integrating the experiences we would most like to forget" in safe environments with those we trust. In several studies, sharing with others has even helped to reduce flashbacks and intrusive memories that haunt sufferers of PTSD. One would not be grasping at straws to imagine how this kind of research can help us appreciate the need for forgiving ourselves, as well as forgiving those who have wronged us.

I feel that I am better able to confront and address problems of forgiveness now as an atheist. To me, there is no question of why god allowed x to happen, or what moral lesson he wants me to learn from x. There is no infinitely forgiving deity I can turn to when I screw up with others, or when I have difficulty letting go of things. If I have offended someone, I have to make it right with them. No one else is able to accept on their behalf, and no one else is able to apologize on my behalf. If I should forgive someone, I have to be the one to forgive them. No one else is able to forgive them for me, and no one else is able to experience the gift of my forgiveness for someone else. While this does indeed allow us the freedom to go on indefinitely being unforgiven, or unforgiving, it does not eliminate the psychological, social, and physical consequences.

Alexander Pope said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine." I think he was half-right. We human beings certainly do err, but it is that notable flaw about us that makes us what and who we are, and gives us reason to forgive. Whoever needed to be forgiven for something they've done right, and what sort of divinity would create and deal with creatures like ourselves, that could not itself be prone to error? No, I say, to err is human, and to forgive is all too human. I don't forgive because I am a non-believer, nor do I think believers forgive because they are believers. I think we forgive because we are human and because we stand in the best of all positions to recognize this, and the meaning of it, in others.

I forgive you because I need to, because my friends and family need me to, and because you - whether you acknowledge it or not - also need me to.

Van Oyen, C. Witvilet, T.E. Ludwig and K. L. Vander Lann, "Granting Forgiveness or Harboring Grudges: Implications for Emotions, Physiology and Health," Psychological Science no. 12 (2001): 117-23.

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