Why religion is Unavoidable


As my first post for Blog Against Theocracy 2008, I’d like to point out that there are implicit religious assumptions that underlie every position taken in every discussion of criminal justice policy. For example:

One of the fundamental questions of criminal justice policy is why we punish people. There are five possible reasons to do so:

  • To deter them (specific deterrence);
  • To deter others (general deterrence);
  • To make it impossible for them to break the law again (incapacitation);
  • To help them avoid breaking the law again (rehabilitation); or
  • To “hold them accountable” and “get even” with them and give them their “just deserts” (retribution).

Most people can probably agree that the first four goals of punishment are acceptable. There is a tremendous gulf, however, between those who think that retribution is a worthy goal of our criminal justice system and those who do not. Which side of that gulf we fall on informs our feelings about punishment across the board. For example:

  • When should we impose the death penalty?
  • Should we treat the accused with compassion?
  • What role should the victim play in determining punishment?

The answer to each question is going to be different if we believe that a proper function of the criminal justice system is to seek retribution or vengeance than if we don’t; whether we believe in the righteousness of vengeance, in turn, is a function of our fundamental worldview.

Do you think that we are the product of our choices? Do you have the wisdom to tell what other people deserve? Are you the right person to make and execute that decision? Will wrongdoers escape justice and not be held accountable if you don’t act? Then you probably consider retribution a legitimate goal of a criminal justice system.

Do you think that we are unfathomably complex products of our environments and genes? Do you not have the wisdom to untangle the skein of causes that led a person inexorably to a particular act? Does nobody else have the wisdom? Will wrongdoers get what they deserve from God or karma or the universe without your help? Then you probably don’t consider retribution a legitimate goal of a criminal justice system.

While I’ve described the two major groups of people that I find myself dealing with down at the criminal courthouse, I’m sure I’ve left out a universe of religious and philosophical views that might place a person on either side of the vengeance question.

It’s not organized Religion I’m talking about; I couldn’t say “this Religion supports vengeance as a policy goal of the criminal justice system, and that doesn’t.” By “religious views” I mean simply views of the existence or nonexistence of a higher power. The people making the laws have deeply-held religious views that inform their decisions. So do the people enforcing the laws, the people judging the laws, and the people defending the accused. It’s not possible not to. So, much like prayer in school, religion in the criminal justice system is inevitable.

Organized Religion, however — The Church — is another question entirely; I’ll discuss that tomorrow.

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0 responses to “Why religion is Unavoidable”

  1. I agree with you. I’d say it’s not so much religion as the belief system that underlies the religion.

    I’ll take Christianity as an example since it’s the one I’m most familiar with. If the belief system of your Christian sect relies strongly on the Old Testament or on the “total depravity” of mankind, then you’re going to be a punishment type. If your belief system relies more on redemption then you’re going to tend to be more against the criminal justice system seeking retribution.

    The problem is that people don’t see how those beliefs affect things like their views on punishment. They also don’t question why they hold their beliefs.

  2. Good Friday would have been a good day to make a specific point about American Christian support for the death penalty in light of Jesus’s execution at the hands of the Roman State.

    Not that Jesus, nor his active opposition to the death penalty, matters at all to modern day Christianity, which has become little more than a political movement completely detached from its original mouthpiece.

    And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”–Jesus (not just once, but multiple times, and still they don’t get it.)

  3. Not being religious what so ever I can say from my viewpoint that if the ten commandments say it then why can’t the Christians abide by it. The death penalty, despite the book, old or new, is a “thou shalt not”… Given the debate raging for years now in this country of abortion, death penalty, war, the wrath of God (Katrina, 9-11, etc) I’d say there needs to be more scrutiny on our electing officials to high office that disregard the athiest, muslim, jew, agnostic, humanist, and so on, point of view.

    If religion is inevitable and the people making the laws, etc, have such deep seeded beliefs that ultimately dictate how they create and carry out laws that punish criminals, then we had best put more athiests or humanists or non-religious people in office or full-bore Theocracy is a mere Supreme court Judge or terrorist attack away.

  4. I agree, we’ve GOT to get more secular people in office. Secular leadership in America may be key to undermining terrorism.

    On the death penalty, I’m a Secular Humanist who recognizes his own ego-driven need for vengeance. I don’t need the Bible to give me justification.

    So I’m glad to see the government have rules against cruel and unusual punishment and severe limitations on the death penalty — to restrain people even worse than me (e.g., drawing and quartering).

    There’s no justic or reason to it. We put people to death who torture and kill others — unless they have a uniform and the government’s sanction. A President makes up a war that kills hundreds of thousands — doesn’t he deserve the death penalty?

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