How to avoid what researchers call 'Unethical Amnesia'
Did you know Mayim Bialik keeps a YouTube vlog? I had no idea either, until the other day when a friend of mine posted a video on Facebook of the Blossom and Big Bang Theory star explaining how she is able to be a scientist who also practices religion. Bialik is compelled to explain this as if she is some bizarre phenomenon, which must seem strangely necessary in a culture that often sees science and faith as two opposing concepts.
I’ve never had an issue with that, though. Science has never explained God away so much as caused me to be more impressed with Him. If anything, the intricacies of nature actually strengthen my faith. I appreciate the thought that science asks the question, “What?” While religion asks, “Why?” Both questions are aimed at discovering truth, and the deepest truths they find will compliment each other, because they come from the same source.
Take, for example, this interesting report I heard on NPR about a scientific study revealing how “people often forget about bad things they have done, and this limits their ability to learn from their past actions.” Yes, science has now officially shown us that we prefer to overlook our own mistakes, and doing so, repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
In Christianity, of course, we refer to this phenomenon as being blinded by sin. But these scientists have given it a much cooler name: unethical amnesia. Because sometimes science discovers new things, and sometimes, it just officially confirms what we pretty much already knew.
The researchers who conducted this study suspect that unethical amnesia is a psychological defense mechanism. "When we are dishonest, we feel bad about it," explains Maryam Kouchaki, one of the study’s co-authors. “You know, the dissonance and the discomfort that we feel, we come up with different ways to get rid of that, the discomfort. One of the ways people get rid of that discomfort is their memories become less clear and vivid over time.”
In Catholicism, we simply call such “dissonance and discomfort” a guilty conscience, and rather than ignoring it, we famously deal with it in the opposite way. We confess it.
Even if you’ve never been in one of our iconic confessional booths, you probably have some faint idea of what it might be like from movies and such. But there is a lesser-known part of the whole process that is supposed to happen before we sit down with the priest to confess, and this part pretty much never shows up in pop culture. It’s called the Examination of Conscience, and it’s the part of the process that makes it difficult to forget what we've done.
In the Examination of Conscience, we essentially read over the Ten Commandments in order to recall if we’ve broken any of them. But there are many ways to break each commandment, so a good examination looks at all of these ways. For example, “You shall not kill,” can be broken by ending someone’s life, of course, but it can also be broken by injuring someone’s spirit with our words or actions.
Before examining our conscience, it’s easy to think, “I’m fine, really... Generally a decent human being making the world a better place.” But after we’ve read over the reminders that cause us to look deeper and be sincerely honest, we inevitably realize the truth about ourselves. That we actually do need forgiveness, as well as divine help in order to not keep messing up our lives (or anyone else's lives) the same way over and over again.
That’s the point when we go to Confession.
Why? Because we want to be the best version of ourselves, which is someone right with God. And now, even secular research attests to the fact that ignoring our consciences will dull our minds.
In the NPR report, when asked why we forget, correspondent Shankar Vedantam explained, “I think it's just because it's painful for us to think of ourselves as being bad people. And when we forget about the bad actions we've done, we can keep this illusion in our heads that we are wonderful human beings.”
But science and faith aren't about illusions; they’re about truth. In this case, science tells us that our judgement gets clouded, because we’re not always honest about our own immorality. And faith tells we don't have to be stuck there. We can own up to this, acknowledge our sins, reconcile with God, and do what we can to make things right.