Atheist views on the death penalty?

What do atheists generally, or you in particular, believe about the death penalty?

Posted: December 17th 2011

Paula Kirby www

There really is only one view that all atheists have in common, and that’s that the case for gods is too weak to be accepted.

On every other subject, we have our own views and opinions and preferences. There is no Atheist Handbook and no Atheist Creed. If we end up agreeing about something, it’s because we agree about it, and not because of our atheism.

I am opposed to the death penalty. There are instances where I recognise in myself a revulsion that might lead me to say that the world would be a better place if a particular criminal were dead, but that’s a far cry from having the absolute total confidence in the legal system that would be required before the death penalty could possibly be safe. There have been too many cases where later evidence shows that a conviction has been made in error. Jailed men can be released and even compensated, however inadequately. Executed men cannot.

But actually, I’d be against it even if we had that kind of certainty. I think there is something inherently disturbing about the mechanisms of state coldly, dispassionately winding into action to execute one of its citizens. I don’t want to live in a society that feels comfortable with that.

Posted: February 10th 2012

See all questions answered by Paula Kirby


I don’t think there is a specific atheist view.

I take the pragmatic view. We know that a) it costs most to execute criminals than to look them up for life and b) the legal system has (and will continue to make) errors and convict innocent people and c) the death penalty is not a deterrent.

Putting those together, the death penalty is a bad idea.

I also happen to think it is inhumane and brutal.

Posted: January 5th 2012

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

Galen Rose www

To my mind, this is a no-brainer. The criminal justice system is run by humans and humans make mistakes, and occasionally lie and cheat. No one’s life should depend on such a flawed system, if it can possibly be avoided.

Posted: January 5th 2012

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Like the neuroscientist, David Eagleman, I think our criminal system needs to be completely revamped. Neuroscience research is giving us a more realistic grasp on how our brains work supporting 'a biologically informed jurisprudence.’

Eagleman writes in Incognito, the Secret Lives of the Brain:

The concept and word to replace blameworthiness is modifiability, a forward-looking term that asks, What can we do from here? Is rehabilitation available? If so, great. If not, will the punishment of a prison sentence modify future behavior? If so, send him to prison. If punishment won’t help, then take the person under state control for the purposes of incapacitation, not retribution.

And though psychopaths could escape from their 'warehouse’, innocent people have been put to death which is an totally unacceptable aspect of capital punishment.

Eagleman continues:

My dream is to build an evidence-based, neurally compatible social policy instead of one based on shifting and probably bad intuitions. Some people wonder whether it’s unfair to take a scientific approach to sentencing—after all, where’s the humanity there? But this concern should always be met with a question: what’s the alternative? As it stands now, ugly people receive longer sentences than attractive people; psychiatrists have no capacity to guess which sex offenders will reoffend; and our prisons are overcrowded with drug addicts who could be more usefully dealt with by rehabilitations rather than incarceration. So is current sentencing really better than a scientific, evidence-based approach?

Posted: January 5th 2012

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brian thomson www

I doubt you’re going to find a single atheist consensus on this topic, given that it’s been practiced and debated in all societies over the centuries, religious or otherwise. The question is older than theism or atheism.

Personally, I think there’s a wide, unbridgeable gap between theory and practice, which makes it untenable. In theory, capital punishment for capital crimes should serves as a deterrent to future criminals. In practice, however, it can’t be done perfectly – by which I mean that you can’t have 100% certainty of the person’s guilt.

It can’t compensate for the crime itself: a capital crime, almost by definition, is one with far-reaching and permanent, irredeemable outcomes. So deterrence, in my view, would be the sole reason to consider a policy of capital punishment. How do we know if that would work?

For starters, I do wish people would stop using the system in the USA to argue against capital punishment, by saying it’s not a deterrent. The system in the USA is so corrupt and flawed that it renders any data on deterrence and recurrence invalid. People are sentenced to “death” on the basis of inadequate evidence, and put on “Death Row” where they may spend many years. They have been sentenced to “death”, but can not be executed because there are doubts about the case, and repeated lengthy appeals processes to go through.

The result is that any deterrence effect has been lost, and “Death Row” is the name of a gangster rap record label. A death sentence in the USA has become the ultimate form of street cred. It’s clearly not working as a deterrent in the USA, but that’s not a sure argument against capital punishment everywhere. What about e.g. Singapore, where the death sentence is rarely handed down, but almost always carried out fairly quickly (weeks) when it is?

To truly gauge the deterrence effect (or lack thereof) would require further study, but that in itself could be inhumane. People are not lab rats to be randomly divided in to active and control groups, just to measure something intangible. So I don’t see any future for capital punishment, at least not as long as we place value on a human life.

Posted: January 5th 2012

See all questions answered by brian thomson


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