A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Justice in the Afterlife

Sometimes injustice happens. Hitler lost the war but was never brought to justice. More violent dictators die of natural causes than are executed for their crimes. Dick Cheney continues to influence US politics in spite of his fear of being tried for war crimes.

As much as we don't like it, crime does pay. It's usually the stupid criminals that are brought to justice; the intelligent ones are rarely caught and the most successful of those never let their crimes come to light. How do you feel about that? Angry? Frustrated? Outraged? I hope so.

Common questions asked of atheists revolve around morality. Without a god, what's to stop people from being immoral? Why not screw people over for personal gain? The answer is of course that the vast majority of immoral behavior is perpetrated by people who fervently endorse belief in one or more gods. They just tell themselves that either what they're doing isn't wrong or that they'll be forgiven for it. But it's more than that. Where does morality come from if not from a god? There are three answers to that: empathy, reciprocity and game theory.

Reciprocity is the idea that you reap what you sow. If you're kind and generous to other people, people are more likely to be kind and generous to you. The more I cultivate a reputation for being honest and forthright the more people are inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt if my behavior is called into question. Similarly, people who feel I'm being honest with them feel safer in being honest with me. They feel that there's less threat that I'll use their honesty against them. We empathize with each other, neither wanting to be hurt by the other.

That's where game theory comes into play. Sometimes honesty can be used against us. If I tell you about my sexual perversions because I feel you can be trusted with my secret, you have leverage over me. You can choose to reveal that information at such a time that would benefit you, or blackmail me into compliance with your demands in return for not revealing my secret. Of course, this carries a consequence but if you judge that the risk of retribution from me is slim then you might deem the risk worth it. Empathy is weighed and judged insufficient.

We see all of these concepts carried out every day in the news. People perceive an advantage to be gained by breaking the rules and behaving immorally either to amass wealth or cheat. They may feel that it's a victimless crime or that the suffering they impose on others is of lesser concern than their own interests (lack of empathy). But they're aware that public awareness of their behavior would likely provoke retribution so they develop strategies to hide or deny the behavior. When their strategies fail they typically make the news.

One of the big selling points of religion is the promise of justice. It doesn't matter that Hitler escaped trial or that Pinochet escaped his crimes to die of old age because the afterlife promises justice. In Hindu and Buddhist terms they'll reincarnate as a lesser creature to suffer and work off their karma. In the Abrahamic religions they'll go to hell to suffer forever. In either case they can't escape justice in death, justice will follow them. Whether or not it's true, it makes people feel better.

I was recently asked what makes atheists feel better when injustices go unpunished? My answer is nothing. I don't want to feel better, I want to feel outraged about it. I want to feel motivated to do something about it. That's something that religion's promise of divine justice doesn't do. Christianity in particular urges us to let go and leave it to their god. That means not doing something about injustice, because justice isn't in their hands. Sadly, there's nowhere else justice can be found.

Richard Dawkins once said, "I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." To that I must also add that I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not pursuing justice with all the strength we can muster. Not just vengeance for wrongdoing, but making things right for everyone. Whenever a little girl is taught that math is hard and she should play with her dolls instead, that's injustice. Whenever anyone goes hungry or suffers from an untreated illness, that's injustice. Injustice abounds in our world and we can't depend on divine or supernatural forces to make it right for us. It's our responsibility to fix it, and we won't do that while we rest on the assumption that it's out of our hands.

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