Humanism, Morality & Forgiveness: Rutgers’ World Parliament of Religions

By Barry Klassel
Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University

A couple of months ago, the Humanist Community at Rutgers was invited to be part of a panel discussion on the topic of ‘Forgiveness.’ The invitation was sent by members of the Hindu Student Council to representatives of religious groups and to us. The discussion was described as a ‘World Parliament of Religions Event,’ – the 150th anniversary of such convocations.

Though our participation may be looked upon as forbidden by some secular purists, I consider it an opportunity to open minds and hearts to the value of the humanist philosophy.  So I accepted the invitation.  I must say that some changes came quickly. The HSC graciously accepted my suggestion to acknowledge us by changing the name of this particular event to that of the ‘World Parliament of Religions and Philosophies.’  The questions asked at the forum and my answers are elaborated below.

What is the significance of the concept of sin in your philosophy/religion?

To answer the questions this evening, we may have to use a slightly different vocabulary. Humanists are not likely to use the word ‘sin’ because it often has the connotation of being a transgression of religious law and we’re not really ‘religious’. Instead of ‘sinful’ we might say something done was wrong, hurtful, criminal, immoral. And we don’t consider human nature as essentially sinful, but rather a combination of self interest and altruism. Though we don’t use the notions of god or sin, nonetheless suffering, selfishness and the need for enforcing social norms are no less real.

calvin-and-hobbes-look-at-the-starsSo, for a humanist, where does ‘morality’ come from? How do we know what’s right or wrong? Most humanists would describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, skeptics. We don’t believe in gods who look down on us and call us sinful. We don’t believe in life after death where deeds are rewarded or punished. So our focus is on this one lifetime, on this world. But what we don’t give up because of our perspective is a sense of the majesty and mystery of the universe and of life itself – how small we are in the grand scheme of things, yet how large a role we play in each other’s lives.

Humans have looked around for hundreds of thousands of years trying to understand our universe and have passed along what we’ve learned to our children. Our ability to observe and investigate has only become stronger – we can see beyond ourselves to the ends of space-time. We can see within ourselves to our biological and sub-atomic structures. We see this as a great adventure.  Most important, we have learned how interdependent we are with all life forms and how much we are part of the natural world and dependent on it.  But we also see how fragile our brief individual lives are, how difficult life can be and human relationships can be. So the wisdom over the ages has shown us more and more how we must value each individual, how we must protect each other, how we must create rules and enforce behaviors that reduce suffering –caused by both natural circumstances and each other –so that each of us can best experience the great adventure of being alive. That’s the purpose of morality. Forgiveness plays a role in this. And science helps us understand that role.

How does a follower of your philosophy/religion go about achieving forgiveness for his/her sins?

First of all, I ask for a vocabulary change again – no ‘sin’ and no ‘followers.’ People who are humanists tend to share certain common points of view, but we come to our own conclusions. I wouldn’t say we follow.

It’s important to define forgiveness, to agree on what it is and what it isn’t. A good start would be to say forgiveness is “a deliberate release of negative feelings toward a person or group or about oneself.” One needn’t necessarily replace negative feelings with positive ones. And forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning or forgetting. It means moving beyond the past toward a freer future. We may know who is responsible, but we stop blaming with anger and hatred.

But why forgive? What’s the benefit? Science has discovered some very positive effects of forgiveness – in general, it could mean lower blood pressure, less anger, anxiety and depression, more life satisfaction and improved relationships, under the right circumstances.

Psychologists have researched helpful steps in the process of forgiving oneself:

  • Take the time to become ready.
  • Talk about what hurts, what’s getting in the way of moving forward.
  • Make a commitment to feeling better.
  • Realize that one needn’t condone or forget what happened, just consider the benefits of freeing oneself and finding peace in life in order to be a better person, to achieve more for oneself and for those one cares about.
  • Use stress management techniques when appropriate.

To seek forgiveness from others it is necessary to empathize with those one has offended and to show it, express sincere remorse by one’s words and actions, apologize profoundly and offer to repair what was broken, if possible.

If someone has wronged you, under what circumstances can that person be forgiven?

Forgiveness is always an option. Some question whether horrible offences should ever be forgiven, e.g. the Holocaust, murder of a child. It’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or condoning, just releasing bad feelings that are holding one back.

But is forgiveness always the healthier choice? Here again science offers some guidance. Research with different couples has shown where forgiveness has led to better outcomes and where it has not. In a basically good marriage, forgiveness has been shown to improve relationships, create more satisfaction and more self-respect. But in a more troubled marriage, one where there is physical or verbal abuse, forgiveness given without requiring a change in behavior leads to more abuse, less satisfaction, less self-respect.

Other research conducted with religious believers as subjects have shown similar results. Those engaging in destructive behaviors, such as addiction, were divided into two groups, those who believed god forgives all sinners regardless of their efforts to change their behaviors and those who believed god forgives only those who actively try to change. The latter group was more successful in moving toward sobriety.

How does your faith or philosophy feel about punishment for sins?

Among humanists there may be somewhat of a disagreement on punishment for punishment’s sake, but it’s clear that those likely to repeat bad behavior must be isolated.  And in doing so several questions should be asked:

  • Is punishment actually acting as a deterrent?
  • Is rehabilitation going on and not mere punishment?
  • Are the conditions that led to hurtful behaviors being addressed, such as family situations and societal deficiencies?

How do you make sure that your beliefs are relevant to your followers in a world where science and technology explain so much and move the world along at such a fast pace?

Science is more than relevant, it is essential to humanists’ beliefs and practices. It helps us understand where we came from, where we are capable of going, helps us understand our own natures, gives us context, helps us predict the consequences of our actions so we can make better decisions. For example, there is the  research on the effects of forgiveness by positive psychologists in my examples above.

Evolutionary biologists have observed the behavior of primates and other types of animals, which reveals that both forgiveness (or reconciliation) and revenge are competing natural tendencies that have evolved to help individuals and groups survive. Chimps, for example, often reconcile after one has offended the other – they kiss, hug, make submissive sounds, much like humans. And other creatures such as goats, bonobos, giraffes, dolphins have been seen rubbing against one another to bring resolution to conflict.


While reconciliation leads to better relationships and helps the group survive, retaliation also has its benefits, depending on the circumstances. Punishment, in many cases, is a kind of retaliation. It can prevent further harm by making it clear to all who witness that one is not to be picked on. This warning effect has been seen in the fact that physical altercations are more likely to follow verbal arguments if others are watching.

The suggestion has been made that, along with other creatures, human beings have dual instincts – one to retaliate and the other to reconcile.  It’s been noted by sociologists that revenge behaviors are more prevalent in areas of high crime, weak policing, and ineffective public institutions and that forgiving is more prevalent where cooperation is reinforced, policing is reliable, systems of justice work, criminals are encouraged to make amends. If such is the case, though we may not be able to change our basic instincts, we should concentrate our efforts into changing our environment in order to bring about a culture of forgiveness.  This would include modeling empathy and reconciliation in our families and in the groups to which we belong.

One large scale attempt at structural change took place in South Africa.  It is thought that the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that operated there during the late ‘90s helped accomplish the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy.  It was asked that opponents on both sides of the struggle come forward to confess their misdemeanors and ask for forgiveness.  Some were given amnesty, some were sent to prison.  Though some still cry that not enough justice was done, the process publically aired out grievances so that the whole society could move on. Most view the result as a success.

As is always the case with science, more research can refine our understanding of forgiveness in order to make it a better tool for personal and social change.

Barry Klassel (Chaplain, Humanist Community @ Rutgers)
Barry KlasselBarry is currently Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University.  After studying psychology at Columbia College, Barry earned a Masters degree in theater at the University of Pittsburgh.  He also attended the MFA in Acting program at Florida State.  He has acted and directed in a variety of plays in NYC and elsewhere.  He last directed a play by Tom Flynn on post-apocalyptic America called Messiah Game.  Currently, and in addition to his work at Rutgers, Barry performs in an arts-in-education program and volunteers on a crisis/suicide hotline.  You can read more about Barry at the Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy website.

9 responses to “Humanism, Morality & Forgiveness: Rutgers’ World Parliament of Religions


  2. Pingback: “I’m sorry” – on forgiveness. | Neon Plastic Lotus·

  3. Pingback: First Pagan Spiritual Adviser Appointed at U of Chicago a Case for Supporting Religious Diversity at U.S. Universities at Parliament of the World's Religions·

  4. Hi Barry, I’ve finished my text on forgiveness. It’s on this page
    I think it’s often overlooked that in everyday life, forgiveness can de-escalate a conflict situation.
    We have the result from Game Theory that Tit-for-Tat with forgiveness – the Golden Rule plus forgiveness most of the time – gives the best strategy for overall cooperation. But this also shows that to forgive all the time reduces overall cooperation, presumably because then there is no incentive to behave properly.


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