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Aug 24 2011

From the mailbag: Getting away with it

If an individual lives a life of getting away with murder, rape, pillaging, and really anything against a simple human moral code and never gets caught, do you feel that the person just simply got away with it? I’m sure the answer is yes, but I’m curious as to where the barrier of living out our darkest desires and why we would bother with morality if we knew there was some way to simply not get caught for the things we do?

I have a few separate points to make about this. The first is that justice is important to people, which is why we establish laws for people to follow, penalties if they don’t, and a system that is impartial as possible to keep people following those laws. So your question about what would happen if nobody got caught for doing harmful things doesn’t apply in modern society. It’s not a perfect system, but it tends to work pretty well keeping me safe most of the time.

Second, you’d be wrong to assume that fear of punishment is the only thing that keeps people from committing crimes. One thing is empathy for other people. Should I go on a killing spree? Why would I want to? I care about other people, and I would feel bad if they died because of me. It wouldn’t be particularly pleasurable for me, I wouldn’t get any benefit from it, and there’s that pesky human justice system that would make the rest of my life unpleasant.

Third, maybe there is some doctrine out there that promises justice that distinguishes between people’s good and bad actions… but Christianity is not that doctrine. I don’t know what sect you follow, but many of the ones I’m aware of claim that we are saved through faith and not through good works. Most Protestants assert that we are all terrible sinners regardless of what particular things we’ve done, and every single person deserves eternal torture equally. A preacher like Ray Comfort doesn’t draw a distinction between a guy like me, who just doesn’t believe in God, and someone who (as you say) gets away with murder, rape, and pillaging. In fact, according to some preachers, this hypothetical murderer could experience a sincere conversion moments before he died, and he’d go to heaven.

So in promoting Christianity, I think you’re really asking whether I feel bad that I won’t ever experience eternal suffering as the just punishment for my own crime of not believing in your God. And the answer is no.

25 comments

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  1. 1
    Warren Grubb

    I always felt this was one of the key appeals of religions, not just your eternal life but for the ultimate justice, which is why I never understood the "faith alone" loophole. The fact that, by their doctrine, Hitler was in fact eligible for heaven bu Gandhi wasn't. Sure, they always just say God will deal with that and refuse to believe Hitler wouldn't be punished, but that is the type of muddiness I think undermines all the rest of their theology.

  2. 2
    Martin

    Once you have accepted an authoritarian definition of morality (things are right/wrong because God says so), then indeed, "morality" really is just a matter of what you can get away with. It's another way religion contributes to arrested moral development. Fundamentalists are like little kids who will not hesitate to sneak a cookie out of the jar when Mom and Dad aren't looking. It's why so many of the biggest moral hypocrites are the most profoundly religious. Their innate selfishness makes the notion of "this is wrong because it would hurt me, and therefore it would hurt others as well" simply alien to their thinking.

  3. 3
    Mike

    As always, before you being to address this type of question, you have to state that they have not managed to show the need for gods to exist. And once that is acknowledge, then you can get to go and play philosophical games with their statements. But both sides must acknowledge that they claim for gods have not be shown to be valid.

  4. 4
    John K.

    These types of arguments always ignore the idea that there are real, observable consequences to “immoral” actions. No god or eternal punishment is needed to demonstrate that indiscriminate murder is a bad idea. Do you want to live in a society where people can murder you on a whim? Is killing and stealing everything from someone you know really in your best interest long term? Could any society survive for any length of time at all if the best payoff was to kill and steal from its own members?Of course not. We are social animals that sacrifice certain freedoms to act in the best interests of our group, not naughty little children trying to trick invisible all-seeing morality police as much as we can get away with.Perhaps the risks seem reduced if you don’t want to consider eternal reward or punishment after death, but at least the conversation will be about things that can be demonstrated with evidence instead of randomly made up proclamations.

  5. 5
    ChaosSong

    This question would pack a lot more punch if religious people never murdered, raped or pillaged. I suppose the ones that do were never True Scotsmen to begin with.

  6. 6
    Rosie

    I have no idea what portion of serious scumbags walk free, though I suspect it's pretty high. The real punishment for being a total dirt bag isn't prison (although you often do get thrown in jail), it's living a life without empathy and without the ability to make genuine, close, and positive relationships. If you are a rapist for example, you probably don't understand what it means to love someone, and you definitely don't understand that sex is supposed to be an enthusiastic journey two (or more) people take together. The things I value most in my life? You don't get to have those. Ever.If you are a monstrous person, you miss the best parts of humanity. And you don't get a do-over.

  7. 7
    ResCogitans

    don't forget that we have evolved instincts to cooperate – in a now famous experiment, a researcher called Axelrod organised a tournament for computer programs in an iterated prisoner's dilemma. the winning program has always been one that defaults to cooperation – i.e. cooperating is a selfishly winning strategy! expansion of this idea here

  8. 8
    krissthesexyatheist

    I think the person "got away with it". the thingy about it is is that most people are not like that. that is a deranged person, most people are good. I think that can come from genetics (people are naturally good) and environment. Altruism and empathy feels good, therefore people are inclined to be that way. Of course there are super weirdos like the Arizona and the Norway killer, but are not those examples few and far between. they are. Awesomeness.Kriss

  9. 9
    MH

    It's another way religion contributes to arrested moral development. QFT!The idea that religion (that is, Christianity) would be necessary in order to keep people from turning into monsters is one of the saddest and most frustrating ideas that come up in these conversations. Firstly, because promoting this idea is such a brutal way of breaking someone's self esteem and rebuilding it to be dependent of religion. As an end result, you get people who think that deep down, they are all monsters, and whose moral development is indeed arrested.Secondly, because the idea is trivially false, as you would immediately see if you would take a look at the crime rates of predominantly secular societies in Europe and Asia. I don't think this idea gets thrown around in Europe much, because in here, religious people meet secular people all the time and it's just palpably obvious that lack of religion does not turn people into demons.

  10. 10
    articulett

    I'd feel horrible for quite some length of time if I accidentally ran over an animal– do theists really think they'd suddenly be killing people if they lost their faith? If so, maybe we better encourage their beliefs, eh? They seem to need promises of salvation and threats of hell to behave in a way us nontheists behave without such motivators. (I guess we're just naturally good.)And if theism is supposed to help people behave more morally, why are so many clergy involved in pedophilia? If their guide book doesn't forbid something, do believers just assume it's okay? Is torture and slavery moral to them since their god seems to endorse it? Is their morality and sense of empathy that stunted!? Religioisity is associated with greater societal dysfunction, but each religionist imagines that people that believe as they do are the most moral of all.

  11. 11
    Comment1

    Don't they believe that you can just pray and say sorry and everything would be fine? Jesus came along so that people could do bad things and be forgiven while still believing that other people do bad things and get punished.

  12. 12
    FurieMan

    The desirability of a proposition is in no way evidence for the proposition.

  13. 13
    Thomas F. Bourque

    Did this person say he/she is a theist in another part of their email? I realize we might be able to infer that conclusion from the use of "human moral code", but it's not explicitly stated.Anyway…"If an individual lives a life of getting away with murder, rape, pillaging, and really anything against a simple human moral code and never gets caught, do you feel that the person just simply got away with it?"Well, if the person is never arrested or even thought to have committed the crimes you speak of, then they did "get away with it" in the eyes of society. The person is still morally wrong though."I'm sure the answer is yes, but I'm curious as to where the barrier of living out our darkest desires and why we would bother with morality if we knew there was some way to simply not get caught for the things we do?"If you're the sort of person who would rape, steal, kill, et cetera without thought to how your actions effect other people then you wouldn't bother with morality. These people are called psychopaths and are not the norm for the human populous. Most people care about how their actions effect other people. Most people wouldn't fall into the category of person who would just commit these crimes and not care that they hurt others. Therefore society has set up laws that prohibit such actions. If everyone were a psychopath, there would be no real laws. The psychopath with the most strength would be judge, jury and executioner.Edit: Must add EDIT feature. I'm looking at you, Blogspot!

  14. 14
    Sean (quantheory)

    This philosophical question was addressed (I won't say solved, but addressed) before Christianity even existed. For example, Plato writes about the Ring of Gyges, a magic ring of invisibility that allows the wearer to get away with any crime, no matter how bad.He rightly points out that the man who uses it for evil will experience pangs of conscience and a troubled mind, whereas a just man would experience peace of mind. Of course, there are psychopaths, who Plato didn't know about, and who wouldn't be bothered by guilt. Such people generally aren't restrained by religion either. But they are few enough in number that it's possible to work around them, especially since even psychopaths aren't usually driven to just kill for no reason at all.

  15. 15
    KKDragonLord

    I know it is off-topic but youtube is an amazing place to find creationists coming out of the woodwork: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4H2zxaX38DQ&feature=channel_video_title

  16. 16
    Mauricio Duque

    Theres also another point in this question, that was alread presented at the show:If i could do wathever i want in society, then other people could do that as well, and if i kill someone, they could gather a group to hunt me down, and kill me.Good thing we alread pass this point in story, but no thanks to religion.

  17. 17
    1r

    That Christians believe without God everyone is naturally psychotic really doesn't surprise me. Christian indoctrination teaches you that you are worthless, despicable and evil and forces you to beg and grovel before God.I see Christians every day, that work very hard to succeed and overcome obstacles, then turn around and thank God because they don't have any confidence in themselves. They look at themselves as pitiful, pathetic and helpless "in the eyes of God". It sickens me.To these people, there is no point in living or being good without their God because that is exactly what they have been brainwashed into believing. That, I think, is why so many cling to their faith despite evidence, logic and reason.

  18. 18
    Ing

    "If i could do whatever i want in society,"Which is odd because my first thought for if I could do whatever I wanted in society, isn't necessarily to default to personal gain but to push it towards what I've come to believe would be a better society. To use a nerdy example, Light of Deathnote is a villain…but his default instinct was to kill murders and rapists, not some guy at the 7-11 so he could get out of paying for potato chips.On the anime note, it reminds me of the original Fullmetal alchemist cartoon, which had an anti-villain based off of the Deadly Sin of Greed. He was also perhaps the least despicable of his kind because his greed seemed to expand into social capital so even as a technically conscienceless monster he had a protective impulse/loyalty to his "friends", because they were *his*. Theists seem to think that all evil is Chaotic Stupid.

  19. 19
    absolutebob

    Where is the 'like' button?

  20. 20
    Kazim

    Bob,Direct your attention to top of the post, where you can recommend it on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

  21. 21
  22. 22
    blindmansleeps

    Russel, in this episode you mentioned having an e-mail conversation with a man who seemed to have a script set up before the conversation began. In my experience, and I wonder if this thought as come to you, it seems that those who have a script for such discussions seem more interesting in convincing themselves that their beliefs are true than convincing the opponent. Reason #1 why religious dialogues in religious tracts simply fail epically.

  23. 23
    blindmansleeps

    interesting=interested

  24. 24
    nude0007

    Ah Sooo. Very deep stuff here. I think this is the central issue of existence. I have pondered this stuff daily since I was a wee lad. I read about the yin and the yang, and it seemed to me that tv and movies always got it wrong. There is not some cosmic balance between good and evil that must be maintained. Yin/Yang is a representation that we are all capable of the greatest good and the greatest evil. To me the most enlightened people accept that. Some people swear that they cold never kill anyone, but I say that there is likely some situation in which you would. It would certainly be traumatic, but you would still do it.Now, what if you knew population is humanity's biggest problem(because it is), and like some atheists you believe religion is mankind's next biggest problem? Now say you could actually wipe them all out. Can you justify it as ridding man of its 2 worst problems? Even if you couldn't live with the guilt and either went mad or killed yourself, do you still do it? Is doing the world's greatest immoral act justifiable if it saves the human race?Sometimes I am thankful that I only have small problems like personal survival. We only prove the worth of our morals when they are tested.

  25. 25
    Nate

    I got in a debate with a Christian a couple months ago, and they asked a very similar question. Asking me if there is no god why don't I rape women.My first thought was because I'm gay, lol, but that wasn't how I responded. My response was "why would I rape someone, I wouldn't enjoy that" To which he seemed dumbfounded, as if everyone should automatically enjoy raping people. Sometimes, I wonder if this is the mindset that some religious people actually have.

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