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Why religious people are more likely to forgive

From the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion comes a new study highlighting why people who are religious tend to be more forgiving than those who are not. Interestingly, the study traces the propensity toward forgiveness to adolecsence:

... the source of these orientations and beliefs appears to be a specific socialization, one that can be traced to the formative period of adolescence ... those raised as religious adherents (measured via proxy at age 16) have a greater propensity to forgive themselves and others later in life. Socialization into trait forgiveness, especially the development of forgiveness schemas, is apparently sticky enough to last through religious and denominational switching later in life. However, those who leave a religious tradition entirely (i.e., those who were religiously affiliated and no longer were at the time of the survey) are less likely to forgive themselves and others compared to those who stay in a religious tradition. What seems to matter in promoting forgiveness, then, is that a person adheres to a religion or denomination; on the whole, the religiously unaffiliated have less of a propensity to forgive.

University of Notre Dame researcher Daniel Escher's study is summarized by David Briggs in a column he did for the Association of Religion Data Archives. His question: "Who is most likely to forgive?" As it turns out, there is a great deal of data available to help answer that question.

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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Forgiveness is a curious concept. It has different meanings in different contexts. In a traditional religious sense, if the offended one is God, it's like a reprieve. If you offend God and He doesn't forgive you, you are likely to be punished. Human forgiveness, though, is mostly an internal thing, a decision to accept past wrongs and move ahead - a readjustment to reality. Usually, human refusal to forgive implies no power to punish the offender. Often, the offender doesn't care a fig if he's forgiven or not. The offended one is the only player in the game.

I am curious about the age-16 angle. Escher does not say that the socialization "takes" in the 16-year-old, only that if it takes place about then, the person will be more likely to forgive himself and others later in life. In my own experience, I was a judgmental twit at the age of16. It wasn't until I was a little older and had demonstrated what a jerk I could be and how much I was in need of forgiveness that I caught on, but I guess what I caught on to was probably things I was told about around the age of 16.I was 16 well pre-Vatican Council (II, of course) when the whole church was more judgmental. I wonder if the post-Vat generation, raised on God is love, needed to go through the same process?

Forgiving others is easily accommodated among religious adherents. Forgiving self, however, can be more difficult. At least that has been my experience.

"Forgiving self, however, can be more difficult."Michael, that's interesting. Do you think that's a function of religion? Or something else?

The study seems overwhelmingly Christian in orientation, and so I think it is worth observing that using it to talk about "religious" people should be qualified.

I think, although I don't profess to know, that it is a result of both religion and something else.

Sorry to have been bothersome. But self forgiveness has been top of mind for me of late. I'll let you be.

I don't think you are bothersome, Michael. Doesn't Lent encourage soul-searching and remind us how in need of forgiveness we are, as Tom notes? It forces us to confront the mystery that the Risen Christ promises us mercy and eternal life even as Christ Crucified (the one we see behind the altar every Sunday) hangs there by the nails driven in by our sins, dying eternally.It's an emotional roller coaster of a season. I hope you find some peace.

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