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The Choice Is Yours: Forgive or Fester?

April 20, 2006 By:
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Adam Cohen
Ever since his days as a student at Akiba Hebrew Academy, Adam Cohen has pondered the big questions, the ones that touch on various matters of faith and religion, as well ones that veer into the realm of psychology.

So it may be no surprise that this Northeast Philadelphia native - a Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezrath Israel-Beth Uziel, but now 34, and a professor at Philadelphia University in East Falls - utilizes his training in psychology to research topics such as peoples' differing conceptions of God, and how forgiveness works in the human mind.

"People have asked me, 'Why don't you go work at a divinity school? Why don't you work in a religion department?' " posed Cohen, who holds a bachelor's degree from Dickinson College and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Cohen, who feels the larger questions of life and religion are "of huge psychological importance," is working on an upcoming project that involves looking at how people raised in different religious traditions conceive of or picture God.

As part of his research, he plans to travel to Sri Lanka - the island nation in the Indian Ocean that was devastated by the December 2004 tsunami - where Buddhist, Hindus, Muslims and Christians live side by side.

According to Cohen, too little credence is given in modern psychology to how peoples' religious backgrounds influence their development of morality. He noted that many Protestant Christians find it inherently wrong to even think about a sinful action like committing adultery. Jews, on the other hand, may not condone such thoughts, but still place the emphasis on whether or not one acts on his or her desires.

Cohen explained that despite the fact that the origin of modern psychology was in many ways an anti-religious movement, he contends that a Christian-centered worldview has influenced the findings of many psychologists.

For example, he said that according to mainstream psychology, it's always better for a person to forgive than harbor a grudge. Research has found that holding on to anger can negatively affect a person's health.

Cohen doesn't dispute this, but offered that there is more to the story.

"If you wanted to sum up Christianity, I think many Christians would say that Jesus died to get forgiveness and to atone for our sins," said Cohen, adding that a high proportion of religious Christians believe that there are no unforgivable sins.

But on the flip side, he then stated that "no matter how religious you are are as a Jew, you feel - more than the average Christian does - that some offenses can be unforgivable."

He added that while Judaism does value forgiveness - it's a central theme of Yom Kippur - tradition also leaves room for justifiable or even righteous anger.

Dealing With the Holocaust
No better example exists, he said, than in how many Jews view Nazi atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Much of Cohen's research has focused on the topic of forgiveness, particularly delving into how Holocaust survivors deal with issues of forgiveness and anger.

Along with four other Penn professors and students, Cohen recently published "The Framing of Atrocities: Documenting and Exploring Wide Variation in Aversion to Germans and German-Related Activities Among Holocaust Survivors" in the journal Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology.

"If you have a rosy picture of forgiveness, you would assume that survivors who were more uncomfortable with Germans might be less happy and healthy," he said.

But he noted that surprisingly, the survivors who responded that they would never buy a German product - let alone befriend an actual German - did not appear less healthy or well-adjusted than the other interviewees.

Added Cohen: "I think it's very much still an open question how forgiveness relates to religion, personality and health."

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