When it comes to forgiveness, faith and science agree on the benefits

(RNS) — Forgiveness is an age-old practice central to the teaching of many of the world’s religions. In Islam, forgiveness suggests alignment with Allah. In Judaism, acts of atonement — or Teshuva — are expected for wrongdoing. In Christianity, forgiveness is unconditional, by loving one’s enemies as oneself.

 Throughout human history, religion and science have often been framed as conflicting with one another. Advances in biology, cosmology and neuroscience can challenge traditional religious interpretations. The tension between what science can measure and what a faith teaches, such as the theory of evolution or stem cell research, can be exacerbated by political concerns rather than underlying theological beliefs and practices.  

The modern world is complex, and the challenges we face are multi-faceted and interconnected. To become more resilient, we must draw upon the best of scientific insight and spiritual wisdom — finding inspiration through religious texts like the Torah, the Bible and the Quran and using the most rigorous scientific methods to shed new light on age-old teachings. 

When it comes to the transformative power of forgiveness, scientists and faith leaders agree on its benefits for long-term mental and physical health. It is clear that the ability to forgive — to transform anger and resentment into hope and healing — can indeed be a restorative and healing act requiring faith. But forgiveness is also backed by an ever-growing body of scientific evidence, one that refines and extends our faith in new ways. 

The distinct realms of science and faith traditions are endeavoring to understand the inner workings of forgiveness and to share that gift of knowledge with people from all walks of life around the world.

A strong example of a faith community practicing forgiveness in the midst of unthinkable violence, loss and deep sorrow is the Amish Community. The October 2006 shooting at the West Nickel Mines School in the Old Order Amish Community, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, left five female hostages dead along with the gunman. 

Before news spread of this tragic event, the Amish elders called on the younger Amish community to not harbor anger or seek revenge. “How did the Amish decide so quickly to extend forgiveness? That question brought laughter from some Amish people we interviewed,” writes Donald B. Kraybill in the book, “Amish Grace, How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.”

“You mean some people actually thought we got together to plan forgiveness? … Forgiveness was a decided issue … it’s just what we do as nonresistant people. It was spontaneous. It was automatic. It was not a new thing,” quotes Kraybill.

The Old Order Amish Community certainly practiced “decisional” forgiveness — modifying behavior to reduce direct hostility. They may have practiced “emotional” forgiveness, using empathy and compassion to transform negative emotions into positive ones. Forgiveness experts would suggest that while the community’s approach is rooted in faith, the combination of decisional and emotional forgiveness is continually reinforced by the value it brings to the individual who forgives.

Photo by Alex Shute/Unsplash/Creative Commons

Photo by Alex Shute/Unsplash/Creative Commons

Forgiveness is not the same as justice, which is an equally important but altogether separate concept. One doesn’t need to reconcile with the offender or repair a relationship. Forgiveness works even when it is unilateral. 

We now know that to receive the most powerful benefits of forgiveness, it requires both the head and heart. Decisional forgiveness, which accesses the cognitive centers of the brain, must be accompanied by emotional forgiveness, which involves a full range of affective consequences.  In addition, over the past two decades research has delivered high-quality evidence that forgiveness improves overall health and well-being, down-regulates the body’s stress response and improves cardiovascular outcomes. 

And for those whose ability to forgive may not be as automatic, scientific knowledge based on tested interventions can support the work of spiritual leaders who seek to help their communities with their forgiveness journeys. Likewise, scientific research has engaged directly with aspects of faith, demonstrating through empirical studies how belief can enhance a person’s ability to forgive.

Across dozens of scientific studies in diverse contexts, the physical and mental health benefits of forgiveness have been validated. At the Templeton World Charity Foundation, we continue to fund these investigations to increase awareness of the incredible potential for forgiveness to improve lives and have partnered with Religions for Peace to drive a larger campaign for individuals to “Discover Forgiveness.” The campaign aims to share the scientific benefits of forgiveness. 

Evidence-backed tools such as the REACH forgiveness model, based on more than 30 studies testing its efficacy, provide a way to practice a set of steps that allow individuals to consider forgiving themselves, others and even God. There are several tools like these, but the articulated steps, studied and verified, are where scientific methodologies prove to enhance spiritual principles.

Religious leaders around the world have seen firsthand that fostering and practicing forgiveness has the power to transform deep-seated responses to memories and legacies of injustice, conflict and war. It can liberate people from being imprisoned in their pasts and the long-ingrained mental and emotional conditions created by such legacies. Faith and spiritual traditions have long guided and inspired us to awaken the best of our human potential, to practice love, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation and to reshape our destinies.

We invite you to continue to reflect on the journeys of forgiveness. We firmly believe that we all need forgiveness in our lives, families, communities, institutions and nations.    

(Dr. Andrew Serazin is the co-chair of the Discover Forgiveness campaign and president of the Templeton World Charity FoundationProf. Dr. Azza Karam is the secretary general of Religions for Peace International. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Templeton World Charity Foundation and Religions for Peace will come together on October 26, 2022, at 9 a.m. EST, for the “Forgiveness Forum: Where Spirituality and Science Meet,” the fourth in an ongoing series about forgiveness, as a tool for personal growth and global healing. Register online and join us for this important conversation, which will feature Religions for Peace, religious and Indigenous leaders,  as well as Krista Tippett, host of the popular podcast, On Being.   

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