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Forgiveness and the “Poison” of Religion

I suspect that many do not share my interest in topics such as the problem of evil, the rise of neo-atheism, and whatever else I tend to post on ad nauseum. So if any are exasperated or wondering why I keep referring to the same topics and the same authors over and over again I can only plead, in my defense, that in the middle of researching a cluster of subjects one tends to filter almost all of what one sees and hears through that grid. I anticipate that someday—some glorious, eschatological, post-thesis day—my horizons will broaden; but until that day…

I couldn’t help but think of some of the claims made by the current champions of militant atheism as I was listening to an excellent sermon by my friend David Chow this morning. Richard Dawkins and company portray religion as a toxic and poisonous threat to civilization and democracy, capable of little but fueling hatred and inciting fanaticism among the intellectually inept (Christopher Hitchens doesn’t bother beating around the bush, sticking it right in his subtitle: “How Religion Poisons Everything”).

Of course when you actually look at the real world it’s very difficult to substantiate the claim that religion actually has exclusively negative consequences. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading Hitchens just yet, but Harris, Dennett and Dawkins all grudgingly acknowledge that some good has been and continues to be done in the name of religion. Nonetheless, they claim that at this juncture of history, whatever goods may be motivated by religion are grossly outweighed by evils, and that our future depends on realizing this sooner rather than later.

The goal then becomes to demonstrate that the goods produced or motivated by religion can be achieved through non-religious means. Not surprisingly, these writers are all of the opinion that this is not only possible, but obligatory. All share a high degree of confidence that atheistic materialism has the resources (latent or already manifest) to promote all of the good that heretofore has been misguidedly motivated by blind superstition and willful ignorance.

Which brings me back to this morning’s sermon. David was preaching from Acts 9—Paul’s Damascus road conversion, and subsequent transformation into one of the most influential figures in Christian history. David discussed how the forgiveness of enemies and welcoming into community demonstrated by Ananias (who had every reason to be fearful and bitter towards Saul who had been a fierce persecutor of the church) may have provided a personal background to some of Paul’s later epistolary injunctions to love one’s enemies, to pray for one’s persecutors, to repay evil with good etc. David went on to share a moving story from his own family—one in which the forgiveness modeled by Jesus provided the motivation and the strength to heal a deep family wound, and has since led to transformation and redemption for the parties involved. Both in the story of Paul and, two thousand years later, the case of David’s family, undeserved, inexplicable forgiveness, motivated by the example of Jesus Christ led to life—to fresh starts, healing, and reconciliation.

Religion poisons everything? Everything?

Forgiveness is a very unnatural thing. To absorb the injury of wrongs suffered is painful, counterintuitive, and extremely difficult. Yet it is possible to see how someone could become convinced of the goodness and necessity of forgiving one’s enemies if they are immersed in the Christian Scriptures, living within a community of believers, and grateful that they have been forgiven themselves. Forgiveness doesn’t automatically become easy or desirable, but it is possible to draw a straight line from the content of Christian belief to the practice of a radical kind of forgiveness which allows for the restoration of relationships and the chance to start again.

I don’t think that such a straight line can be drawn on a naturalistic worldview. As I was listening to David’s sermon, I wondered how the neo-atheists would see something like the forgiveness of enemies arising from a world shorn of religious influence? What resources, in the content of a naturalistic worldview, could lead to forgiveness as the means by which the world begins to be renewed? How could this good have been attained apart from the giving, forgiving work of God in Jesus Christ?

Christianity has gotten many things wrong—desperately wrong—throughout its history; however forgiveness—of friends and of enemies—is not one of these things.

Because Christ died for all, we are called to forgive everyone who offends us, without distinctions and without conditions. That hard work of indiscriminate forgiveness is what those who’ve been made in the likeness of the forgiving God should do.

Miroslav Volf (Free of Charge)

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. “As I was listening to David’s sermon, I wondered how the neo-atheists would see something like the forgiveness of enemies arising from a world shorn of religious influence? What resources, in the content of a naturalistic worldview, could lead to forgiveness as the means by which the world begins to be renewed?”

    Good question. Here’s one shot at an answer:

    Abstract: How does naturalism inform forgiveness? How can a naturalistic perspective enable us to be more forgiving and encourage others to forgive as well? 1) By drawing attention to the actual interpersonal causal dynamics of forgiveness, 2) By showing the physical reality of the desire to retaliate, 3) by understanding the evolutionary rationale for the urge to strike back, and 4) by using the causal story to help lessen the desire to punish the offender, and thus lead to forgiveness.

    June 4, 2007
  2. Tom, thanks for the interesting link.

    Among the passages that I found puzzling was the following:

    “The study of evolution shows that the taste for revenge had and still has a function in deterring aggressors and threats. We wouldn’t be here without the predisposition to retaliate. So to forgive is to overcome a very natural reaction, and to have this neural state change in response to various influences, and this takes time and influence.”

    It remains unclear to me how naturalism, in and of itself, can provide the moral impetus to overcome what is natural. What criteria is being appealed to in order to help us to decide which of our natural impulses to feed and which to starve?

    June 4, 2007
  3. Dave Chow #

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for the generous comments on your blog. I’m glad there was something substantial in there for you. You know, I’ve seen first hand what forgiveness can do in my own family. My mom’s story I’ve shared this past Sunday. I’ve also shared my dad’s story. My dad has had a very hard time learning and doing forgiveness. It is soo hard to forgive wounds, in the past especially, when the memories have had time to fester and grow, and perhaps take a life on of their own.

    So, how do naturalists / evolutionists explain the process of forgiveness when it can take a lifetime to accomplish (going back and forth through the pain, finally then letting go), when for the evolutionist, forgiveness leads to possible extinction of self? Isn’t forgiveness counter to survival of the species? What benefit does forgiveness have for the naturalist? Is this too simplistic a question?


    June 5, 2007
  4. I think I’m confused about what you think is the process of forgiveness, because it sounds like you’re equating it with repression. If you don’t mind, please clarify.

    In peaceful opposition,

    June 19, 2007
  5. I’m confused as well. How do you see what I’ve written as equating forgiveness with repression?

    June 19, 2007
  6. Whoops! I think I was thinking of your previous post on forgetting and connected it to your phrase “to absorb the injury of wrongs”. Bit of a leap there. Sorry.

    So I’ll just ask – if the effects of the wrong committed are not rectified and/or the cause is not identified (therefore allowing for the evil act to be repeated), can forgiveness be considered a conscious convincing of oneself to overlook the injustice while, subconsciously, the injustice may still be harboring within us?

    June 20, 2007
  7. I think that forgiveness, far from convincing ourselves to overlook injustice, is the only way we can transcend it and not allow our identities to be shaped by the evils we suffer and commit.

    Volf is quite clear that forgiveness and reconciliation cannot take place until injustices have been named for what they are. The effects of the wrong committed may not be rectified, but at least we have broken the hold that evil has on our future and left the door open to reconciliation with the offender if/when they realize that this is necessary.

    June 20, 2007

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