Re-evaluating Policy as an Atheist #1: Capital Punishment

When I de-converted from Christianity, I was forced to slowly and thourougly review many of my fervently held beliefs in all aspects of my life. I’ve decided to go ahead and put some of them down on paper… well, sort of paper. The first issue I want to explore is the death penalty. As a Christian, I ardently opposed the death penalty in all forms. Though that put me in the decided minority of evangelical Christians, I came to this anti-death penalty conclusion based on my Christian faith.

In Matthew 5 Jesus repeatedly makes claims that indicated to me that he was opposed to the death penalty. He follows the pattern of, “You have heard that it is said…, but I say unto you…” It signifies to me that Jesus opposed the death penalty. More personally, in John 8, Jesus defends a women from the death penalty. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus said. For years, I was unable to figure out how evangelicals were so overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty. Perhaps it is a bit trite, but I was also concerned with the idea of cutting someone off from redemption. Since I believed hell to be a real place, I could not comprehend why Christians would support a policy that would ‘send people’ to hell sooner rather than allowing them an opportunity for salvation later.

Without this Christian paradigm, I have to re-examine the evidence. As a Christian, I believed all human life to be sacred. I would not describe humanity in the same terms now, but I still place a high value on human life today. At the same time; however, I now think that perhaps individuals can surrender their rights to life (as a Christian, I would have opposed executing anyone from Hitler, to Stalin to Hussein. Now, I can see the wisdom in such actions). So with this qualifier on the value of individual life, what are the pros and cons to capital punishment?

The argument I have heard most often to support the death penalty is the idea of deterrence. The idea is that if person A is executed for murdering person B, then person C will think twice before murdering person D. This is a great idea, the problem is that it doesn’t work. The data I have seen does not support this notion. The chart to the right (from is obviously not comprehensive, and takes only one perspective on the data. However, I believe it is representative of the data available: the death penalty does not reduce the number of capital offenses. If the death penalty did show a correlating effect of loweing homicide rates, that would be enough to convince me that it is morally acceptable. Since the data does not indicate as such, there must be a better argument.

A more uncomfortable, to me more convincing, argument is that certain crimes are so heinous to society that they require retribution. When I watch the news and hear that a young college woman was raped and murdered, I am moved to anger. When I hear that a mother has killed her husband and children, I am filled with rage. There is a moral sense in which we feel they deserve to die. And perhaps, to suffer. Furthemore, what about the potential for recidivism? What if a rapist is released from prison and commits the same crime? The evidence seems to indicate that especially sexual criminals are likely to be repeat offenders.

What about those who are on death row and then found to be innocent? Human Rights Watch claims that since 1973, more than 120 people have been acquitted of capital offenses for which they had been found guilty. This is startling. On the other hand, most of these individuals have been acquitted because of forensic evidence that was not available two or three decades ago. However, because forensics have advanced so far, this would seem to eliminate that problem.

Ultimately, I do not know where I stand on the death penalty now. I do, though, find it ironic that as an evangelical Christian I tended to be more liberal as a result of my faith (as opposed to the majority of evangelicals), and now that I am an atheist, I am flirting with more conservative positions. Time and again, the example that comes to my mind is that of Saddam Hussein. Regardless of my views on the current US policy in Iraq, I recognize that had Hussein not been executed, it would have almost caused many more problems in Iraq than exist currently. In a very utilitarian sense, it seems to me to be acceptable to execute him for the sake of others. Likewise, in a hypothetical scenario in which I would know that person A would murder person B, C, D and E, I would feel morally justified in executing person A to save the other four lives.



10 Responses to “Re-evaluating Policy as an Atheist #1: Capital Punishment”

  1. Samuel Skinner Says:

    There is the possibility that the states with the highest crime rates have the death penalty in an effort ot drive the crime rate down (aka do something). The only thing that is conclusive is that it costs more, occasionally gets innocent people and almost certainly doesn’t raise the crime rate. So does the cost outweigh the benefit (could the money be better spent on crime prevention)? Would approaches to reduce the cost increase the rate of innocents excecuted by a large amount?

    I think it is considered ethical in most ethical theories to kill someone to protect others.

    I don’t really have answers- as a political hot potatoe there is the truth and the “spin”. Unfortunately I don’t know which side is the spin.

  2. My thought on this is that capitol punishment is always wrong period, 100% of the time, no exceptions. The logic to it sometimes runs that killing someone is bad enough that you’re willing to kill someone for killing someone. There’s a certain logical disconnect here. Besides, we’re one of the only civilized nations left that still uses the death penalty. Further, there’s always that “what if?” What if we do execute someone we later find to be innocent? The day is coming where we’ll likely find out we already have, and then, boy, will the sparks fly!
    Anyhow, we can just keep people in prison for life if needed. It’s cheaper, gives them a chance to redeam themselves and doesn’t involve killing anyone.

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