Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alex Blosser: Forgiveness and the Outgroup

“Once broken, how can any society be put back together?”

Forgiveness, as we’ve learned, is essential to the workings of everyday society. But the approaches taken to address this question of forgiveness vary wildly between religion and science – both are essential, but in different ways. In this paper I will outline the strengths of both approaches and how they must be combined to effectively integrate forgiveness into a productive society.

The strengths of religion must first be reconciled with the primary weakness, in my opinion, of using religion as the foundation of society. This is the tribalism that religion brings with it, and it is inherent in the very structure of nearly every religious institution. Religions create an ingroup of those who are part of it, and an outgroup of those who are not. Abdulaziz Sachedina, though talking from an Islamic perspective, outlines this well in his work “The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism”. “Religion functions as both an open and closed system. It is open in the sense that it invites all to join the community of the faithful; it is closed in the sense that it excludes those who reject the invitation. It does not stop with a threat of exclusion; it nurtures an antagonistic attitude towards the other, sometimes leading to the other’s outright condemnation to hell.” 1

In Christianity, this tribalist behavior is most prominently displayed in the words of street preachers and radical groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church. Megan Phelps-Roper, a prominent former member of the Church, quoted Leviticus 19:17 in an article written about her for the New Yorker: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.” 2 Even this sort of conversion shows a darker subtext; loving your neighbor but expressing it in an “other-ing” sort of way is not conducive to creating a community. From “Conversion Via Twitter,” “One of the most common questions she was asked on the picket line was why she hated gay people so much. She didn’t hate gay people, she would reply, God hated gay people. And the rest of the world hated them, too, by cheering them on as they doomed themselves to Hell. ‘We love these fags more than anyone,’ she would say.” This fundamental weakness of pitting those in the religion against those who are not leads to conflict and a lack of communication. Individuals like Phelps-Roper attempt to communicate to the outgroup, but without being cognizant of what would bring the outgroup into her group she fails miserably.

The strengths of religion are numerous, especially when compared to the sciences. Simply put, religion and philosophy can cover areas science cannot. Science is ineffective when asking “why”: religion thrives on this question. Instead of spending years searching for an answer through trial and error, the Qur’an lays out what forgiveness is, and how it should be practiced. Qur’an 39:53 says “Do not despair of God’s mercy; surely God will forgive sins altogether; surely He is the All-forgiving, the All-compassionate. Turn unto your Lord and submit to Him, before the chastisement comes upon you…” 3 God guides those who listen to build a more forgiving, a more friendly society and nothing of the sort is present in any of the sciences. Religion makes morality easier to understand and comprehend using a simple rule: If God says you should do it, do it. If He says not to, don’t. Of course, religious texts are interpreted differently by different people, and most religions today look very different than they did a thousand years ago. Yet, the truth that religion is an unbelievably powerful marker for morality has not changed.

The weakness of science is summarized well by Garrard and McNaughton in their book “Forgiveness”: “we cannot learn from psychology what things are good or bad, nor which actions are right or wrong…we cannot learn from psychology what forgiveness is.” 4 Now, this is not necessarily a weakness for science, more of an inability – you don’t ask your microwave to put your socks on for you in the morning, after all. Science’s job is expertly defined by Richard Feynman in “The Meaning of it All,” and his writing outlines the role morality must play. “Is science of any value? I think a power to do something is of value. Whether the result is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how it is used, but the power is a value…Once in Hawaii I was taken to see a Buddhist temple…in the temple a man said ‘To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.’ And so it is with science.” 5

Science discovers these keys for us, but it cannot tell us how to use them. It is up to us to decide, using our systems of beliefs and values, to determine whether to open the gates of heaven or hell. Here lies the strength of something like psychology, however: Garrard and McNaughton mention what we can learn from psychology, and in my opinion it is essential to understanding how forgiveness can work effectively in everyday life. They write “we can study the psychological effects of forgiving and not forgiving…we can learn from psychology what hinders people from forgiving and what helps them.” 6 Psychological studies and experiments can give us effective methods for forgiving others through the real experiences of individuals, and it can show us how the process of forgiving can help those individuals heal from trauma. A discussion about practical forgiveness would be incomplete without mentioning the importance of the scientific method to discovering evidence-based treatments and processes for forgiveness through therapy or counseling. 

Yet there’s still something missing, and this is where religious concepts step in. When Garrard and McNaughton mention that Psychology cannot tell us what forgiveness is, nor when we should forgive, they imply that something else must be there to fill those holes for us. That “something” is philosophy, grounded in religious teachings. In both Islam and Christianity, forgiveness is holy – it is an attribute of the divine. To practice forgiveness is a path to God. Showing forgiveness allows God to forgive you of your own sins as well. To Christians it is an emulation of God’s Character – a great example of this is Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the servant. The Kingdom of God is giving freely to the undeserving, without expectation of repayment. To Muslims especially, forgiveness is an emulation of God’s infinite generosity and love. God has the power to be wrathful and punishing, but He chooses to be merciful and asks us to do the same if we are presented with the option.

Forgiveness in everyday life is rarely the monumental pardoning of egregious sins, it is the realization that humans make mistakes and the acceptance that those mistakes should not be what defines us. We have all said harsh words without meaning to, forgotten important meetings, ignored friends in need. We have also had all those events happen against us as well. Psychology tells us many things about forgiveness. It tells us that forgiving can reduce negative behavior, increase self-respect, and improve our mental states. It can also tell us how to forgive effectively, and how to integrate forgiveness into our relationships to make them healthier and more fulfilling. Luckily, the institutions for implementing Psychology-based forgiveness are already in place today: therapy and counseling help millions in the US alone, and “forgiveness therapy” has already existed for decades and is seeing widespread use.

For religion, the challenge with implementing forgiveness on a societal level is to include those who are not directly associated with said religion. A growing percentage of the United States’ population is becoming nonreligious, and the question of how one can reach nonreligious individuals with religious values is a difficult one to answer. “Passion for Peace” highlights this well:  “‘being wrong’ is something we have not yet learned to face with equanimity and understanding. We either condemn it with god-like disdain or forgive it with god-like condescension. We do not manage to accept it with human compassion, humility, and identification. Thus we never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, and that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness, and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy.”7

  1.  Sachedina, Abdulaziz. “The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism.” Oxford University Press, 2001. Page 103.
  2.  Chen, Adrian. “Conversion Via Twitter.” The New Yorker, November 15, 2015.
  3. Sachedina. Page 106.
  4. Garrard, Eve, and David McNaughton. “Forgiveness.” Durham: Acumen, 2010. Page 64.
  5. Feynman, Richard. The Meaning of it All.” Penguin, 2007. 
  6. Garrard and McNaughton. Page 64.
  7. Merton, Thomas. “Passion For Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence.” Crossroad, 2006. Pages 30-31.

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