Secular Humanist Morality and Forgiveness

One of the major criticisms of Christianity (and in particular Protestant Christianity) is that virtually anybody can become forgiven simply by professing faith in Jesus Christ and expressing repentance even a serial killer or a murderous tyrant while a pious non-Christian will not.

However in secular humanist morality is forgiveness possible for certain classes of individuals and if so how can it be achieved? While most people here will presumably agree that a thief or a similarly petty miscreant can be forgiven after a genuine expression of regret and an attempt at restitution, what about worse classes of people? If a serial killer or a child rapist or a war criminal was genuinely remorseful for his actions, what should he do to atone for it according to secular humanist morality? Can he do so simply by words and deeds without being condemned as a hypocrite?

In what sense do you mean “forgiveness” when referring to secular morality? In Christian contexts, “forgiveness” usually means forgiveness by a higher power, thus assuring one’s entrance into heaven upon death. I guess I’m not sure what you are asking.

From my perspective, secular humanism believes that individuals should seek their own happiness within the confines of reasonably crafted law.

Some new age-y miscreants will try and tell you that all bad behavior is due to upbringing, poverty, even neurological pre-disposition. Which has some validity, but not in the sense that it absolves one of guilt for his actions. Once you cross the line, by raping someone, murdering someone, etc., there is nothing to be done other than forgiveness from those wronged and to truly try and reverse the evil you have perpetuated.

I don’t see any need to mention God in this debate as that is a simple scare tactic to force people into doing good. Holding one’s soul at ransom to be a good person is abhorrent.

I think the main objection secular people have with the idea of religious forgiveness is that many sins/crimes victimize other people. A religious person would argue that these acts are really acts against God. That may be true but we shouldn’t ignore the human victims. Just because God forgives a sinner, that doesn’t wipe the slate clean. The sinner/criminal should also need to make amends and seek forgiveness from his human victims.

In a secular humanist morality, you have the same principle except you take God out of the picture. An act is a sin/crime because of the harm it does other people. And if you want to be forgiven for that act you must receive forgiveness from your victims.

I figure if religious morality works then it’s serving a good purpose regardless of whether or not the religion is true. If a person abstains from rape or murder merely because he believes that God/Santa Claus/his dead mother is watching him and will enact retribution for his acts, then it’s best if he holds on to his beliefs. An irrational belief that prevents sins or crimes is better than a rational belief that allows them.

I mean general forgiveness by society in the sense of at least acknowledging that a person is sorry for his crimes and doing what he can do make up for it.

Don’t overstate the differences in morality and culture and emotions between the secular and the religious.

Some religions purport to have a magic ritual by which the perpetrator of a wrong is “officially” forgiven for something they have done. However, whether any given person from those religions will in fact forgive any given perpetrator will depend on all the usual factors: the potential forgiver’s personality, upbringing etc; the extent to which the perpetrator’s wrongdoing impacted on the potential forgiver and their family and friends etc.

The only difference with secular people is that there is no official magic ritual that can be used as a route to forgiveness.

So the answer to your question is that achieving forgiveness is pretty much the same with the secular as with the religious.

For some public figures rehab is such a ritual.

Right up until he decides that God wants him to blow up a building full of people instead. The problem with such an attitude is that it’s both completely amoral, a variant of “I’m just following orders”; and it’s based on something imaginary that is by nature subject to arbitrary change.* “I help the poor because my god says so”* and “I kill unbelievers because my god says so” have the exact same reasoning behind them.

Even worse DT is the possibility that such a person may also defer to any arbitrarily “qualified” earthly interpretation of the deities will.
A voice from on high telling you to kill may be thankfully rare. An earthbound representative with authority and an ulterior motive may be far more common.

Forgiveness is irrelevant to secular justice.

Judaism has this type of forgiveness as central part of the Yom Kippur observance. You are supposed to ask forgiveness from anyone you may have hurt the past year. If they don’t forgive you, you’re to ask two more times. If they still won’t, the sin is theirs.

I think person to person forgiveness is fundamental for a society to function and for people to have meaningful relationships. It doesn’t need divine imperative for people to see its worth.

Who considers that a major criticism? To me it looks like a relatively unimportant emotional argument, although I can see it being important to converts as an example of what made them emotionally turn away from Christianity.

I am definitely not a new age-y person, but besides for how a person’s brain is wired and his past experiences, what else could we possibly attribute bad behavior to? Maybe a little quantum uncertainty?

It’s not that alone, IME. It’s that someone can do really, really horrible things and be let off the hook and be saved because they’ve come to accept a historical claim (that Jesus dies on the cross to forgive us of our sins) while someone else can do what many of us see as pretty innocent by comparison, such as coveting a neighbor’s wife and not be saved and according to some, burn in Hell.

Yes, I’m aware the above isn’t what all Christians think. But it’s a criticism of the way many do.

If you wish to be forgiven by any particular religious sect, it also helps if you seek forgiveness in a manner supported by that sect.

You don’t say?

I don’t believe this exists.

Forgiveness is in the province of individuals, not “society”.

I don’t think “society” is set up to forgive or not forgive. Individuals in the society reach their own conclusions based on the character of the act, the other events in the person’s life, and whether they seem sorry for what they did (other factors probably apply as well). Some people are quick to forgive (me, for example), while others take a pretty hard line. Thus, even if he accepted Jesus and did whatever else the Christians look to to evaluate forgiveness, most Americans are probably not willing to forgive people like Charles Manson or Sirhan Sirhan. Other the other hand, most of us probably have forgiven Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromm. (maybe not, I don’t know)

For someone like Jane Fonda, it depends on your politics I guess, even though she has expressed regrets for her actions in North Vietnam.

Long answer to basically say, no, there is no accepted method to achieve secular forgiveness.

Unless one defines “society” as “those that agree with me on this subject”, of course. Many claims about what “society” wants are made by those who believe this.