Have They Got It Coming?

Question from Shanoon:
Do you really believe the people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Poy, Mao and all those terrorists, Rapists, killers, and suicide bombers are considered to be criminals and as such should be judged and punished one day?

1- If the answer is NO, then they are innocent. ( and they are not only supporters but promoters of these kinds of innocent (!) evils.)
2- If the answer is YES then how?

Answer by SmartLX:
Some of those you list have been punished, some haven’t, and some won’t be punished ever in their lives for certain things (for instance, way too many rapists get away with it). Without going into horrible detail regarding their crimes, I’ll simply agree with you that there are people in the world who deserve to be punished. Religious and secular ethics frequently agree on cases like these, because the same conclusion is reached multiple ways.

Therefore, if there is no God or Hell then some people who deserve to be punished will never be punished at all, no matter how hard we try to enact justice. This isn’t a happy thought, but if it’s true then there’s nothing we can do about it, except to work to ensure justice is served whenever it IS possible. But the fact that the implications of a state of affairs are unfortunate does not support the argument that it’s not the case, and the alternative isn’t true just because it would be better (objectively or otherwise). An argument from consequences is essentially an unsupported argument, and the only reason to accept it is that it makes you feel better.

Punishment: As Above, So Below?

Question from Emily:
What gives you the right to punish your children when you don’t have a higher power punishing you?

Answer by SmartLX:
Other people do, by forming a society with laws that allow parents to discipline their children using reasonable methods.

Rights, human or otherwise, are an abstract concept. They have no physical form; you can only take them away by stopping or seriously discouraging someone from doing something. Since God cannot be shown to prevent or allow any actions at all, acting as He does exactly as if he did not exist, He does not apparently confer or restrict any of our rights.

It is indeed good practice for any authority to itself answer to a greater authority, to prevent the abuse of power. This is true all the way up the chain. The nice thing about a democracy/republic is that those at the top answer to each other; presidents can be impeached, judges can be dismissed and so on. If all authority ultimately rests with one individual, the word for the one in that position is dictator. Benevolent dictator, perhaps (as all dictators like to be portrayed), but a dictator nonetheless.

If on the other hand you just mean that punishment should cause more punishment further down the line, that’s called a cycle of violence. How I Met Your Mother calls this kind of thing the Chain of Screaming. Neither of these are positive behavioural models to follow.

Living Without God

Question from Sophia:
I don’t know how many atheists have been Christians before, but I have questions as a Christian. The idea that a God is there for forgiveness, mercy, and justice is very comforting to me. There are certain things humans are unable to do. For instance, law enforcement may fail, but our free will brings it’s own consequences and has its own justice. Let me make it clear now that I don’t believe in hell. Humans make their own hell. We live in one already, full of war and hate, but our responsibilities include keeping the beautiful things alive.

Moving on… I have specific questions. Feel free to answer any or all of these questions.

1. When someone fails you, like a parent, spouse, or even yourself, what gives you comfort?

2. I’m sure most atheists think that “doing the right thing” is important, but why are some things right and others wrong if these precedents aren’t set by a higher authority, but by our own twisted judgment?

3. If you were once part of a different religion and then turned to atheism, why? Please go further than saying that “Christians still do bad things, what’s the point.” (I get that too often. If that’s your viewpoint, that’s fine, just explain further.)

Answer by SmartLX:
At least half of all atheists in the Western world were once members of a religion, and many still are in an official sense even though their faith is gone. I was raised as a Catholic myself.

Law enforcement may well fail to punish the guilty for their crimes. Human nature endows us with empathy and therefore usually a measure of guilt for our malicious actions, regardless of whether we’re caught, but it’s still a fact that some crimes and awful deeds go completely unpunished. It does not follow that there must be an afterlife and an ultimate judge in order to catch those who escape justice. Justice is an ideal we strive for, not a necessary physical component of the universe. If there’s no judgement after death, it’s up to us humans to give as many people their just deserts while they’re alive, because no one else will, and that’s that. A thing is not made true simply because it would be better if it were true, or bad or unthinkable if it were false. (Few things described as “unthinkable” really are unthinkable; most of them are just unpleasant.)

To your specific questions, then.

1. Sometimes the same person who’s “failed me” or caused me trouble or harm is the one who gives me comfort afterwards; that’s what it means to apologise, and to atone. Aside from that, I’m not a complete misanthrope, because the entire human race never lets me down all at once. There’s always some good in someone somewhere.

2. Our collective sense of right and wrong has changed over time. Slavery has been declared more and more unambiguously wrong, for instance, while different forms of personal freedom have gradually achieved the status of universal human rights. That alone is a very good indicator that right and wrong are not determined by some ultimate authority and then irreversibly fixed. That said, our judgement as a society has had a very long time to un-twist itself, as we constantly strive for ethical and legal standards with the greatest benefit. What we call “right” and “wrong” is relatively stable these days and helps us get along pretty well, though they’re still making changes to laws and so on. If we don’t assume our morality is absolute, we can always improve it.

3. I didn’t declare myself an atheist because I thought Christians were bad. I realised that I didn’t believe in any gods anymore, let alone the Christian one. It was that simple. (Incidentally, while bad Christians don’t indicate the lack of a god, neither do good Christians indicate the presence of one.)