The Problem of “Punishing” Belief

One common thread in many religions, and especially visible among the fundie Christians I encounter online, is the idea that wrong belief (or lack of belief) itself is punishable and that their god(s) are justified in punishing non-believers. This has always struck me as an immoral idea.

“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

As I interpret the quote, many beliefs have no harmful consequences, thus they do not deserve punishment. Being an atheist has had little impact on my basic morality, contrary to the horror stories fundies assert. I’m not more likely to steal or hurt people because my morality isn’t grounded in the existence or non-existence of a deity. The existence of a deity is a question for science, not for morality. In that sense, my lack of belief in the Christian god is morally neutral, at least until someone can prove it causes harm. Fundies, however, engage in a bit of circular reasoning and blame shifting: Supposedly, presenting arguments for atheism is evil because it’ll lead to people being punished for becoming atheists.

The punishment exists to deter people from being punished. It causes suffering without preventing any. In the real world, we punish thieves and murderers because theft and murder cause suffering. Deter theft and murder with punishment, and you prevent the suffering caused by widespread theft and murder. The suffering of a few punished criminals is less than the suffering caused by a dog-eat-dog world without such prohibitions.

Remove the god’s punishment for atheism or for believing in alternative gods, and what suffering will result? A typical retort from many fundies is to bring up Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and so on. The problem with that argument is that those societies weren’t modeled on atheism. Simply lacking belief in gods has no moral implications and offers no models for society. Instead, those societies were built on authoritarian ideology, which they have in common with authoritarian theocracies. It’s a straw man mixed in with a tu quoque fallacy, as well as a sign of ignorance about alternatives to authoritarianism.

A religion that asserts authoritarianism as a moral stance strikes me as an idea that can have harmful consequences. In this case, the existence of the god isn’t the overtly harmful part, but the inclusion of arbitrary authoritarianism is. Like all the atheists I know, however, I argue that those beliefs should be dealt with through open discussion and criticism, not with government censorship. Censorship of bad ideas tends to cause more harm in the long run because even if it’s done with the best of intentions, politicians can use it to set a precedent to censor good ideas.

Another aspect to the idea of punishing beliefs is the argument that beliefs aren’t really a choice. Arguably, I can’t choose to believe in an imaginary friend. I could go through the motions, carry on conversations with the imaginary being, pretend he’s performing actions that are really mine, but I doubt I could truly believe it was a real entity. That’s the way it is with me and gods. I could go through with the motions, but I couldn’t force myself to believe.

Of course, even if beliefs aren’t a choice, they are at least changeable. New evidence and novel arguments can change minds. Closed-minded people do have a lot of rationalizations and fallacies they can perform to resist visibly capitulating to new information, so it’s not always easy. If I’m wrong and some god does exist, I’d want to be given new information and I’d want my fallacies to be called out by name if I made them. Arguing that I’m going to be punished for disbelieving is an ineffective tactic, as well as a fallacy in itself: The appeal to force. Without any deterrent or corrective value, what good is the punishment? What good results from it?

One response to “The Problem of “Punishing” Belief

  1. Good questions you ask, Bronze Dog. Good questions to which we may expect no good answers. At least your asking, something the organised religions would not appreciate. Thanks for this post.

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