Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The disastrous ethical consequences of the Atonement meme

It has been pointed out by Hitchens and others that the idea of Jesus suffering and dying for our sins is not just repulsive because it's a blood sacrifice, but because it is an ethical nightmare. There is a very good reason why our justice system does not allow a friend or relative to serve a prison sentence in place of the perpetrator: it would completely undermine the deterrent effect of punishment. Furthermore, the whole concept is caustic to the ideals of personal responsibility.

It's one thing to talk about that in theory, but rarely are the consequences of this ethical deficiency painted in such stark colors as they were today, when excerpts from the online diary of the LA Fitness shooter were published by ABC News:

Maybe soon, I will see God and Jesus. At least that is what I was told. Eternal life does NOT depend on works. If it did, we will all be in hell. Christ paid for EVERY sin, so how can I or you be judged BY GOD for a sin when the penalty was ALREADY paid. People judge but that does not matter. I was reading the Bible and The Integrity of God beginning yesterday, because soon I will see them.


Apparently this guy subscribed to the "we are saved by grace alone" theory, which basically says you just need to accept Jesus and then you are scot-free, no matter what terrible crimes you commit during your lifetime. We can never say for sure that this guy wouldn't have done it anyway if he didn't believe that, but the very idea is chilling.

Anti-atheists like to say that without religion, we have no moral compass. While I don't accept this line of argumentation, let's assume for a second that it is true. Even if it were, we would still expect atheists to behave more ethically than their Atonement-believing Christian counterparts, because the threat of imprisonment or other worldly consequences would be much less threatening to a person who believed that they'd get to chase it with an eternity in paradise anyway.

Via PZ.

Update: Some commenters on PZ's blog are pointing out that in another entry, the shooter also criticizes religion, and uses phraseology that suggests his final post -- the one quoted above -- may have been sarcastic.

I'm going to leave this blog post in place anyway, because I think the point about the Atonement meme eroding personal responsibility is still a valid one, and because I already acknowledged that he might have gone on this killing spree anyway regardless of his beliefs about the afterlife.


  1. Sorry to comment on so much of your posts today (odd thing to apologize for i guess...) but I'm bored at work and only recently found your blog. Anyways, I was thinking of other people taking your place in prison and it led me to this thought...
    I know this would be completely unfair BUT! wouldn't it be funny to put someones mom/loved on in Jail along with them as an extra punishment/deterent? It could make parents a little more attentive to their children as well!

    ('').oO (I shouldn't kill anyone... my grandma couldn't handle the big house)

  2. No need to apologize, of course, I'm always happy to know people are reading this crap!

    It would be funny if it weren't such a common tactic of totalitarianist regimes... I believe in Maoist China, it was SOP to execute perceived anti-revolutionaries, and lock their whole family up in prison. It's the only effective way that I can think of to deter willing martyrs... Which makes it all the more tempting when you are dealing with folks like suicide bombers, I suppose ;D

  3. hmmm... we could start slapping verses of the Koran all over our important buildings! I think someone already had this idea though... Evidently Virginia senator Randy Forbes is worried about Christians driving planes into the Capitol Buildings visitors center.