Humanist Forgiveness and Redemption

We all have done something that we know is wrong. We’re human. We all have had someone treat us wrong. They’re human too.

We all wish we had the ability to go back in time and do something differently, be kinder to someone, or give more of a reasoned response to something online. We all regret something - many things - but there are no do-overs, and all we can do is move forward, and try to make things better for today and tomorrow.

Religion is known for forgiveness and redemption. If everyone is a sinner and everyone does bad things, everyone needs redemption and can earn it - for a price. That price can be anything from confessing sins to saying prayers to donating to the church, but whatever the cost, religion provides a firm and useful mechanism for a person who has done wrong to be forgiven and brought back into the fold: the sinner is sorry, a god shows mercy, and the preacher deems the sinner “redeemed.”

The Forgiveness Mechanism is one of religion's most powerful tools for keeping congregants. As society has moved away from religion, we have lost that mechanism as we have dismissed the gods.

There are, however, paths for both Forgiveness and Redemption that do not require the supernatural or the authoritarianism of religion, but rather work on Humanization and the common good to achieve mutual understanding and group cohesiveness. A healthy society needs its members to be able to repent for doing wrong and be forgiven by our society. The alternative is endless splintering which leads to more anger, more resentment, more hate, and in the end shorter, less happy lives.

Forgiveness is a virtue because it is good for both you, the forgiven, and society (replacing negativity with positivity, diversity instead of echo tunnels, and lessons about forgiveness to the observers, especially the young.)

Mercy is a virtue, because it is the fuel for Forgiveness and Redemption

Mercy and Forgiveness are prerequisites for Redemption, which allows people to come back to the community after they have made mistakes.


Forgiveness is usually between a hurt person and the person who did the hurting. One the surface, we see someone seeking forgiveness for doing wrong, and are granted it by the harmed person, sometimes begrudgingly, because the harmed person thinks it is deserved. But the secret is that forgiveness is something that helps the forgiver, just as much if not more than the harmer. Indeed, study after study shows that forgiveness is beneficial to both parties, and the absence of forgiveness is generally harmful to both parties.

Forgiveness is not forgetting the act, condoning the act, and is most definitely not an invitation to repeat or continue the behaviour. Forgiveness is the release of anger and resentment around the act, and it benefits the forgiver, the forgiven, and society as a whole.

Seeking Forgiveness

It seems obvious that one should seek forgiveness from people they’ve harmed. This is often much easier said than done because of lack of self-awareness (not realizing the harm they've done), fear of rejection (refusal by the hurt party to forgive you) or ego - nobody enjoys admitting they did wrong.

Asking for forgiveness online has it's own challenges. We envision those we’ve hurt taking a screencap of our apology and posting it, claiming “Hah! He did it and he admits it!” In these days of social media and echo tunnels, such a posting often leads to a flood of attacks and we don’t want that to happen to us. So we fear apologizing and as a result, hesitate or avoid doing so, sometimes actually deciding that being quietly outgrouped is better than stiring up another fire storm.

That’s not good for you, the person you harmed, or society. We all benefit from group cohesiveness, and the person you’ve harmed is probably struggling to release their anger at you because they don’t think you own what you did. Yes, it is possible to forgive someone who does not seek forgiveness, but a true-hearted apology does help the harmed person to forgive. Additionally, your path to redemption and welcome back into the group will be affected by how you handle your failure. In the end, the risk of refusal and the ego hit are small compared to the personal and humanistic benefits - you should do the right thing, even if it is hard, especially if it is hard.

When you apologize, do it as clearly as possible. Own your actions, their effect on the injured person, and the reasons you did what you did. Don’t make excuses, but try to thread the nuanced line between excuses and a truthful explanation of why you did what you did, in an effort to humanize yourself, which aids in forgiveness.

Seeking forgiveness is a cleansing event for everyone involved, and because it helps people release their anger (at you) it’s a humanistic thing to do as it helps reduce suffering. Additionally, while the response cannot be guaranteed, it at least opens the door to communication and redemption, while allowing you to grow personally from your exposure to the damage you’ve caused and your own humanity.

We’ve all screwed up. We’ve all done things that make the world worse. Seeking forgiveness is one of the best ways, if not the only way, to counter our own damage and make things right again.

Granting Forgiveness

Forgiveness involves the release of anger and other negative emotions in the harmed person, allowing them to live a life with, well, less anger and negativity. We can all see the impact of how that can affect our own psyche. If there is something in your mind that is very negative about another person for doing you wrong, then yes, it would have been great if that wrong hadn’t been done, but wouldn’t you feel better if those negative emotions weren’t there all the time, in the back of your mind, constantly chipping away at your happiness?

Now to be clear, not everyone deserves to be forgiven, and not every transgression is forgivable. Forgiveness must be mindful of the extent of the transgression and the intent of the harmer, and we must humanize the harmer in order to try to understand why they did what they did, what factors were involved, was the intent malicious, and does the harmer truly regret what happened. But we also must be mindful that it is easy to hold a grudge, just by default, and that doing so harms us, so it is to our advantage to look at our anger and actively see if there is room to release it.

Whether forgiveness is “warranted” is up to you. People and situations are complex, and the nuances involved with regard to whether forgiveness has been earned should be conditional (e.g., does your harmer need to make reparations or even get psychological help to earn your forgiveness?) are up to you to decide. However, you need to keep in mind that while someone “earning forgiveness (via act or apology) might make it easier for you to openly forgive them, keep in the back of your mind that forgiveness is for you as well, and in reality their repentance or even awareness is not necessary for you to forgive.

Forgiveness is not forgetting the act, condoning the act, and is most definitely not an invitation to repeat or continue the behaviour. Forgiveness is the release of anger and resentment around the act, and it benefits the forgiver, the forgiven, and society as a whole.

Mercy is not for the weak, it does not condone bad behaviour, and it does not invite more bad behaviour. Mercy is our tool to make our relationships and society stronger and more powerful, because it feeds Forgiveness and Redemption, which strengthens our society.

The Path to Forgiveness

Forgiveness centers around the humanization of each other, so you can both see the complex people you are, and that usually involves a cooperative communication, even if mediated.

This is not to say forgiveness is easy all the time, but this process will help you if you choose to take it:

  1. Realize that forgiveness is for YOU, not them. Anger and hate is bad for you, lowers your life quality, and may actually increase your risk of dying younger. Own the idea that forgiveness does not mean condoning the actions or crimes and is for yourself. Holding the grudge then becomes an extender of the transgression against you, making the transgression worse on you by your own hand. Some people hold a grudge because they know it makes the perpetrator feel more guilty (lowering their life quality as punishment), but that is an aggressive act in and of itself - the opposite of mercy - and is not justice if the perpetrator is genuinely remorseful.
  2. Humanize your offender. Why did they do what they did? Are they evil? Or did they have what they thought were good reasons or intentions?
    • Separate the acts from the people who commit them. The person is not the action, and so judge the action more than the person. We have all done things we regret, but we are not those acts. We are humans. The acts are separate and have multiple explanations.
    • Have they shown remorse? This is not necessary for forgiveness - you can forgive someone who is unrepentant because again this is for YOU, not them, but if they show remorse it’s likely that they didn’t have intent to harm, or that they did have intent but have learned from the experience.
    • Consider that free will may not exist and that sometimes people do things that are beyond their control. A swelling movement of scientists including Sam Harris have suggested that we are, to some extent, slaves to our background and environment. Even the most hardened criminal may be a victim of circumstance, and that goes for all of us. This makes holding a grudge (as well as the entire penal system) moot.
  3. You need not tell them you forgive their actions, because telling them would be for them (an act of mercy), not you, but setting aside the anger at the people is almost always correct, and always is to your benefit.
    4. Learn from the experience. Seek areas where you have been made stronger by it. You have survived, so maybe you’ve grown too. What can you do avoid being in this situation again?
  4. See the anger for the useless emotion it is, given all the above, put it down, and walk away, never forgetting, never condoning, but ending the event’s negative effects on your life. It wouldn’t hurt to take some time to have a moment of reflection to celebrate the release of this anger from your life.

    When Forgiveness is Questionable

    What if the harmer believes they have done nothing wrong, but the victim feels hurt by it? What if the victim thinks they are owed an apology, but none is forthcoming? This is happening more and more as political correctness leads some people to make the position that they have the “right not to be offended,” pitting them against those who treasure and use free speech as a weapon against certain ideas (eg, religion). Then what?

Again this is a place of nuance. It is up to you to decide what to do when you feel wronged by someone who doesn’t feel they’ve wronged you, but the important fallback is always humanize and be prepared to defend your position with knowledge, not vitriol.

It may be that you can find common ground, or that you just have to live with your differences. This is going to be the most likely scenario in cases of opinion such as religious or political difference. In the end, we are a diverse society and freedom of speech trumps the “right not to be offended,” so this scenario is to be prepared for, and is indeed a big piece of where civil discourse is key.

A Note About Online Mercy

The online community-at-large is quick to abandon the concept of mercy, instead choosing to dehumanize the offender to an extreme, label them with pejorative terms (e.g., racist, homophobe, misogynist), and dismiss them as they pile on the insults and force the person out of the community. Individuals are quick to seek revenge, doing what they can to make the matter worse for the offender, without regard to the reasons behind whatever happened. Many rejoice in and support this behaviour, which means mass dehumanization.

Ostracization literally lowers life quality and life spans, creates echo tunnels, and fosters intolerance, division, resentment, and hate on both sides. Ostracizing someone causes damage to them, you, and society as a whole.

Humanists seek to transform society for the better. Abandoning mercy and pouncing doesn’t transform or help; it reinforces society's ills. Bad things are done by good people like you all the time, and they deserve mercy as a default. Not the kind of mercy that OK’s bad behavior, but the kind that understands that good people do bad things sometimes, for reasons only they understand (and even then only sometimes), and that the key to making things better is keeping them in the fold and helping them to come through for their society as good people, as our society comes through for them.

When a member of our community falls, perhaps offer a hand instead of a mean word. When someone says they are sorry, they probably mean it. Do not delight in the misery of others who are refused societal comfort. Humanism transforms only when applied, even when a person does a bad or otherwise disagreeable thing.

We are, once again, not suggesting that people who consistently or deliberately make harmful decisions to be excused blindly - like forgiveness, we must be mindful with our mercy. But we must not be deliberately stingy with it, even though a part of our brain wants us to dehumanize and outgroup. We must observe the good of reducing suffering and improving the quality of life on earth by realizing that we all do bad or otherwise disagreeable things sometimes, and if we are caught or challenged, we don’t need judgement and ostracization, we need Humanism.


Redemption is typically a word associated with religion, and is used to imply that someone who has sinned has now shown himself to be once again worthy of a respected place in the congregation. As stated earlier, everyone makes mistakes, and the regret of past mid-deeds is often the central draw of people toward religion as each has a clear path of redemption. For example, Christianity requires a belief in Jesus (often coupled with prayers of forgiveness and acts of service) in order to be redeemed (i.e., seen as righteous).

Religion provides an authoritative, easy, band-aid type of solution to the guilt most people feel (and religion is great at reminding you of that guilt just in case you forget). One problem that arises out of this model is that religion’s redemption gives guilty people permission to feel better about themselves without truly earning it; the underlying problem remains unaddressed.

Humanist Redemption

We, as Humanists, need to recognize the need for redemption and employ a mindful approach to enable it. We have to avoid ignoring the need just because it’s easy to do so.

As Humanism doesn’t have a supernatural judge who can grant redemption, we must rely on the basic principles of humanization: civil discourse, empathy, and the Greater Good.

As it turns out, Humanism works much better at redemption than some single preacher / authoritarian figure, because it centers on mutual understanding and communication, rather than satisfying the needs and interest of the church. Humanistic redemption relies on solving problems, making amends, and learning from mistakes while taking into consideration the needs of the injured and the nuance needed for each situation.

There is no cookie-cutter template for redemption. No set of rules which you must satisfy to sweep everything under the rug. No prayers to be repeated , no donations or indulgences to buy your way back. Humanistic Redemption must be earned and genuine, and we like it like that.

Not everyone deserves redemption, but if they are doing their part to show that they have changed their thinking and behaviour, in an effort to be good and have cooperative communication, then yes, we as Humanists have the responsibility to help this person transform into a better version of themselves. That’s why we’re here!

This is our virtue. This is our good. In religion, the preacher declares one is forgiven by God, but in Humanism it’s up to us. We as a community decide who is redeemed, and it is a part of our virtue system to provide eagerly a path for redemption, which can easily be traced back to our code of ethics. It’s good for everyone when mindful, earnest redemption is allowed and honoured.

Refusing to allow redemption without due consideration is an act of dehumanization. It’s refusing to see the whole person and consider the changes people experience over time.

The Path to Redemption

When talking about redemption, Humanism has a distinct disadvantage to religion in that we don’t have leaders that can pronounce someone “redeemed”. With us, redemption is not cookie cutter, pay a tithe and say a prayer, and God forgives you, so say we all. Instead, redemption must be earned by actions, and the decision as to whether it has been earned is up to every member of our society individually. Invariably, redemption will be earned in the eyes of some but not from others.

So what must be done to earn such redemption? Does it take a lot of effort or will a simple apology do? Will it take a few minutes or much longer? This is all nuanced, all individual, and all up to both parties or the society at large, but here are some steps which we think everyone should do when they’ve done someone wrong in their quest for redemption:

  1. Realize you are in charge, and that your statements and actions are yours. Barring the Free Will Argument, you are responsible for your actions, for better or worse.
  2. Admit harm has been done by you, or argue civilly that it has not (if you don’t feel that you’ve done wrong, you can’t be redeemed because you don’t feel remorse).
  3. Think about the motivations behind what you did and own them. Did it involve dehumanization? What did you want to accomplish with your actions and why? Many back actions are the result of layers of issues. Find the core motivation and start there.
  4. Make a list of everyone who you have harmed and try to make amends. When doing so make sure to mention the self-discovery you did in Step 3. Disclose your motivation and where your head was, and humanize yourself as much as possible. However you do this, it must be genuine, earnest, and demonstrative of your self-reflection and desire to better yourself moving forward.
    • If your transgression was in person, meet them in person and apologize face to face (if they wish to see you).
      *If your interactions were on-line, the amends should also be made in public. Earn that forgiveness - don’t bury the apology!
  5. Remember that moving forward your behavior must change so that whatever you did doesn't happen again, or if it happens it does so less often or to a lesser degree. Forgiving is not forgetting, and repeating the same behavior shows a less-than-serious commitment to the redemption.

Don’t demand either forgiveness or redemption - earn it. There is no requirement for anyone to forgive you or for society to accept you back. This is a world of nuance and if your transgression is too large or badly motivated, or if you don’t offer to fix things, or if you don’t have actual remorse, you may not get the response you’re looking for.


Forgiveness and redemption are the cornerstones of religion and this is something religion gets right. We need to bring these back for the nonreligious community, and it all starts with us as individuals owning that both concepts are important to our society. By allowing people to be forgiven and welcomed back into the fold, we are strengthening ourselves and our community, while protecting our cause from splintering, which weakens our cause and hobbles our ability to do good. That’s why seeking and granting forgiveness and redemption are not just Humanistic, but best for everyone.

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