Forgiving Dylann Roof: Perspectives from ABA and Christianity


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

On June 17th, 2015, Dylann Roof attended Bible study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  Approximately one hour into the meeting, he opened fire killing nine people before escaping.  Last Friday, at his bond hearing, the family members of the victims forgave Dylann over a video feed for his heinous acts.

The acts of forgiveness sent shockwaves through the Internet.  For example, cautioned against “Cheap Grace” and providing forgiveness at the expense of justice.  The Guardian expressed concern that forgiving Dylann for his actions would risk society forgetting about the incident after a short while.

The Mayo Clinic succinctly describes forgiveness as a letting go of resentfulness and vengefulness towards the transgressor.  They are quick to point out that forgiveness does not absolve the transgressor of his/her responsibility for committing the act.  In order for society to function, those who commit violent acts must be held responsible for their actions in the sense of facing consequences through the justice system.  But justice is not incompatible with forgiveness.

In my opinion, forgiveness implies a recognition that forces outside of the transgressor’s control had a role in the act.  Interestingly, such a recognition is compatible with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as well as Christianity.  From an ABA perspective, behavior is a function of its consequences.  Skinner (1981) discussed this as an interaction between one’s learning history within a lifetime (i.e., operant selection), the evolutionary history of the species across generations (i.e., natural selection), and one’s cultural conditions (i.e., cultural selection).

From the standpoint of Christianity, humans are plagued by “original sin” originating from Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  Before the serpent (Satan) tempted them to eat, humans were perfect and without sin.  Afterwards, humans would be forever endowed with a sinful nature.  This “original sin” lead to the repeated failures of the Jewish people to please God in the Old Testament, and lead to a “new covenant” in the New Testament with Jesus preaching love and forgiveness, with an explicit recognition or acceptance of our sinful nature.

Both perspectives lead to forgiveness, but they do not imply the transgressor is immediately “off the hook.”  From an ABA perspective, the behavior of the transgressor must meet consequences that serve to correct the behavior in some way (e.g., a prison sentence and/or rehabilitation), or protect society from the behavior itself (e.g., a life sentence or the death penalty).  However, the transgressor can be forgiven in the sense that he/she was not acting as an autonomous agent.  From the standpoint of Christianity, the sinner must repent in order to be forgiven or else face judgment from God.

Please let us know what you think about forgiveness in the comments below.  Also don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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15 Comments on "Forgiving Dylann Roof: Perspectives from ABA and Christianity"

  1. As a researcher, I find this article to be great.
    As a christian, I find this article to be great.
    Thank you for having shared!

  2. I don’t mean to be disrespectful and am genuinely curious. As a BA and scientist I find it very difficult to reconcile any religious belief with rationality and science. I’m curious to hear from religious BA how they can let go of science and belief in a deity that’s in my world view incompatible with science. Of course I know there are many BAs that are religious though I don’t understand how they can compartmentalise this.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think it is because both science and religion are based on philosophical assumptions about the world, and those can differ from person to person.

  3. Martin Ivancic | June 25, 2015 at 1:56 pm | Reply

    A human can’t know a Creator as one can know science. Doesn’t make religion or science incompatible. If you want an explanation for horrible behavior look to what functions to generate aggression. Elicited aggression has some potential. When one is his own speaker and listener, punitive establishing operations can create strong escape functions (automatic negative reinforcement) that generate aggressiveness– it’s just what happens when one contact that much punishment– and it can be self-delivered. Maybe the Adam and Eve story is nothing more the identifying the moment such verbal behavior became evolutionarily possible. People have the capacity to believe they are what they think and that what they think represents everything that is possible to know. This usually turns out poorly, and it isn’t good science.

    • Great comment! I would add that ways of knowing are different in science vs religion. The “data” in both have different criteria. One is quantitative, the other experiential.

  4. Gordon Bourland | June 27, 2015 at 3:52 pm | Reply

    I appreciate the respectful consideration of both perspectives, behavior analysis and Christianity, without disdainful or dismissive treatment of either perspective, without a priori presumption of the validity of one perspective along with inherent invalidity of the other. I think that all could find instructive a dispassionate, frank, respectful, and honest discussion of the relationships between the two perspectives, involving persons well versed in both perspectives along with representatives from each perspectives who are well informed regarding only their perspective. e

    • Thanks for the nice comment! It has been interesting to read some of the reactions from ba folks. Problem is they are two separate worldviews.

  5. I believe this is the first time I’ve seen the words ABA and Christianity in a title together. I appreciate the considerate respect of this article and was wondering if you might have some other resources/authors that compare/investigate/research these two “separate” world views.

  6. Curious to know if anyone has read The Case for Faith. It’s an older book, 2000 I believe. Might be a mental good exercise for the open minded. Just food for thought.

  7. *good mental exercise – ha!

  8. It was great to see someone else discuss the integration of ABA and Christianity. I was a non-believer for 50 years and discovered the truth of Jesus after reading first the gospel of John and then the whole Bible. The EO of grace is a beautiful thing. The Bible is history, not mythology. The gospel writer, Luke was a man of science. His book of Acts is a detailed, accurate document. Faith is not blind; it’s evidence based.

  9. Dr. Ward,
    Thank you for your article! As a Christian and a behavior analyst, I was so pleased to see the integration of Christianity and science in your article. Many of the early science greats searched for truth through science, believing that God created the laws of physics; the laws by which our universe functions were not separate from science, but were the basis of science. Some of those science greats include Isaac Newton; Johann Kepler; Francis Bacon (anyone remember the scientific method?); Louis Pasteur; Blaise Pascal; and Samuel Morse – and many more whose names may be less recognizable.

    Excellent and timely article!


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