Why religion is Unavoidable

 Posted on March 21, 2008 in Uncategorized

As my first post for Blog Against Theocracy 2008, I'd like to point out that there are implicit religious assumptions that underlie every position taken in every discussion of criminal justice policy. For example:

One of the fundamental questions of criminal justice policy is why we punish people. There are five possible reasons to do so:

  1. To deter them (specific deterrence);

  2. To deter others (general deterrence);

  3. To make it impossible for them to break the law again (incapacitation);

  4. To help them avoid breaking the law again (rehabilitation); or

  5. To "hold them accountable" and "get even" with them and give them their "just deserts" (retribution).

Most people can probably agree that the first four goals of punishment are acceptable. There is a tremendous gulf, however, between those who think that retribution is a worthy goal of our criminal justice system and those who do not. Which side of that gulf we fall on informs our feelings about punishment across the board. For example:

  1. When should we impose the death penalty?

  2. Should we treat the accused with compassion?

  3. What role should the victim play in determining punishment?

The answer to each question is going to be different if we believe that a proper function of the criminal justice system is to seek retribution or vengeance than if we don't; whether we believe in the righteousness of vengeance, in turn, is a function of our fundamental worldview.

Do you think that we are the product of our choices? Do you have the wisdom to tell what other people deserve? Are you the right person to make and execute that decision? Will wrongdoers escape justice and not be held accountable if you don't act? Then you probably consider retribution a legitimate goal of a criminal justice system.

Do you think that we are unfathomably complex products of our environments and genes? Do you not have the wisdom to untangle the skein of causes that led a person inexorably to a particular act? Does nobody else have the wisdom? Will wrongdoers get what they deserve from God or karma or the universe without your help? Then you probably don't consider retribution a legitimate goal of a criminal justice system.

While I've described the two major groups of people that I find myself dealing with down at the criminal courthouse, I'm sure I've left out a universe of religious and philosophical views that might place a person on either side of the vengeance question.

It's not organized Religion I'm talking about; I couldn't say "this Religion supports vengeance as a policy goal of the criminal justice system, and that doesn't." By "religious views" I mean simply views of the existence or nonexistence of a higher power. The people making the laws have deeply-held religious views that inform their decisions. So do the people enforcing the laws, the people judging the laws, and the people defending the accused. It's not possible not to. So, much like prayer in school, religion in the criminal justice system is inevitable.

Organized Religion, however - The Church - is another question entirely; I'll discuss that tomorrow.

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