Rebirth of Reason


by Joseph Rowlands

Atonement and redemption are two of the features of Christianity that inspires people the most. They provide a method for those who have acted poorly or worse to not only turn their lives around, but to make up for their past actions. Most people have past choices they wish they could take back. Atonement provides a means by which a person can try to set things rights.


There's not much said about atonement or redemption in Objectivist literature. Part of this is because Objectivism rejects the idea of original sin. You aren't born evil and you aren't evil by nature. The need for atonement or redemption is not a central ethical concern because it doesn't apply to everyone and isn't the purpose of living. If your life on earth is just a means of testing your faith and trying to redeem your soul which is by default bound for hell, redemption is a lifelong concern. But if you are here to live your life happily and successfully, redemption cannot be a central concern.


Another reason why atonement and redemption aren't high on the Objectivist list of moral concerns is that they normally are aimed at other people. Redemption is usually thought of as redeeming your soul in the eyes of God. Atonement is usually thought of as making up for bad behavior towards others. The Objectivist ethics focuses on your own life and your own self-evaluation. If redemption seeks the approval of an outside source and atonement seeks to remedy the harm done to others, neither has an appropriate focus.


A different reason for not caring about these might be due to the idea that previous bad behaviors were simply mistakes. Adopting the Objectivist ethics requires reconsidering everything. It's not surprising that many previous actions will be deemed inappropriate based on a new standard of value. And it's not clear how much you could be expected to know the right thing to do before you had a rational method of making choices. So past errors, even harmful ones, may be thought of as simply errors of knowledge. You wouldn't repeat them, you may regret them, but you've changed and now are focusing on your future.


Another reason these ideas aren't as relevant in an egoistic morality is that atonement has a sacrificial feel to it. A man who atones for past actions is not one making the most out of his life in the present. He is making sacrifices to make up for his past actions. If he cheated on his wife, he might atone by taking abuse from her and trying to make her happy even if it hurts himself. While atonement doesn't need to be sacrificial, the impression that it often is can lessen its apparent value in a non-sacrificial morality.


So there are reasons why this isn't a focus in Objectivist ethics, but that doesn't mean these ideas don't apply. Atonement and redemption aren't necessarily religious or altruistic concepts. There are legitimate grounds for both in an egoistic morality.


One possible purpose for atonement and seeking redemption comes from the virtue of pride. To evaluate yourself, you evaluate your life. That includes your skills, your goals, and your current situation, but it also includes your history. If you try to build a positive self-image from a rotten foundation, the past will always sully your future. If you got to where you are by cheating, stealing, and backstabbing friends, how can you take pride in your accomplishments? A significant factor in your future accomplishments will be the bad choices you made.


Redemption for the sake of pride is an attempt to earn your position. If you performed immoral actions to get to where you are, you can try to make it right. If you harmed others, you can undo the damage. If you were dishonest, you can tell the truth and be willing to accept the consequences. If you lied to get a step up in your career, you can work hard to acquire the skills needed to do the job and do it well. If you cheated in a class instead of learning the subject, you can work on your own to master the subject so that your grade turned out appropriate.


Note that in some of these cases redemption was not necessarily about the harm you did to others. Cheating on your test may not harm others, for instance. Instead, the problem is that you didn't earn what you got, when you should have. You inappropriately gained values that shouldn't have belonged to you. Others may have been harmed in the process, but the focus isn't necessarily on them. It is on your own life, and your own evaluation of your life. Living a life that you didn't earn means living a life that you can't take pride in. Atonement involves fixing this by either giving up that which you didn't earn, or retroactively doing the work needed to earn it.


Atonement is also related to forgiveness. If you hurt someone, it's not enough to apologize and promise it won't happen again. You need to make it right. There's a possibility that they will forgive you and you'll be able to go back to your previous relationship, but there's also the possibility that they won't. They are under no obligation to forgive you. But even without the expectation of forgiveness, atonement is appropriate. If you genuinely regret your actions, you can do what you can to make up for them.


The fact that someone may not forgive you shouldn't be a factor in atonement. For some, the feeling is that you should give and give until they forgive, and only they can decide whether you've done enough. This means that atonement can require permanent sacrifice and unlimited obligations. Instead, forgiveness should be thought of as separate from atonement. You should decide what is appropriate for atonement. If they agree, they may forgive you. But if they don't, there is a point at which you owe them nothing more. Of course, you may be tempted to either atone very little or atone a lot. You need to attempt to be objective. Atonement isn't just undoing the specific damage, though. It is also making up for the loss of trust and the violation of consent.


I mentioned earlier that one reason people may feel that they don't need to atone is if they made a mistake before they become more rational in terms of morality. If you screwed up when you were younger, you might think it is forgivable. There may be some truth to that. But redemption is about making things right. It is making your life right by making up for regrets and by allowing you to earn it. If you have past regrets, it makes sense to repair the damage to your life. You can alleviate the sense of guilt. You can repair the harm you did to others, or at least know that you did what you could. Redemption and atonement are about repairing the past so that you can get on with your future.


Redemption is a major theme in Christian morality, but a lot of the way it inspires is secular in nature. People don't find redemption inspiring because they think the person is pleasing God or getting into heaven. It is inspiring because someone changed who they were for the better, and sought to undo the harm they did in the past before going on with their lives. If they immediately jumped into living a pleasant life, it wouldn't be earned. The damage they inflicted had to be paid by others. Those others have to be repaid.


This is all secular in nature. It is about a person's life here on earth, and the requirements for living peacefully and happily. While the religion might promote redemption and atonement for additional reasons, much of the inspiration has nothing to do with the supernatural audience. It is inspiring because it shows a person not just changing what he says he values, but taking actions to prove it. If he values justice, he will attempt to restore the damage he's done. If he think a good life should be earned, he'll take pains to retroactively earn what he has, or to give it up since it doesn't really belong to him. These are examples of integrity. It is a person connecting his values with his actions. And instead of just applying it on future actions, it is a person who is willing to try to change his past so that his life is consistent with his values.

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