Atheism and justice

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The perverse and cruel atheist Marquis de Sade in prison, 18th century line engraving.

Not possessing a religious basis for morality, which can provide a basis for objective morality, atheists are fundamentally incapable of having a coherent system of morality.[1] See also: Atheism and morality

In addition, under an atheistic/naturalistic worldview there is no free will (see: Atheism and free will).

The Christian apologetics website Cold Case Christianity declares:

Strict atheistic determinists like Sam Harris don’t even make an effort to explain how free will could exist “inside the room” of the natural, physical universe. Instead, they describe free will as completely illusory and challenge the rest of us to explain why we find it necessary to possess (or account for) it in the first place. Harris sees no need for free will to effectively prosecute law breakers: “We need not have any illusions that a causal agent lives within the human mind to recognize that certain people are dangerous.” Criminals still need to be isolated from potential victims, even if their actions are not the result of free will. In the end, according to determinists like Harris, we need not acknowledge nor accept the existence of free will to explain our need for a criminal justice system. In fact, Harris argues our world would be a far better place if we accepted the non-existence of free will: “Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.” Harris believes our inclinations toward hatred would be reduced if we came to accept free will as an illusion. But is Harris’ optimism justified, and does this attitude toward free will do anything to explain our own experiences of free agency?...

Our experience of (and belief in) free will appears to be an innate and necessary characteristic of human beings, and studies continue to show what happens when we reject this attribute of our being. Our native experience of free will seems to cut across cultural boundaries. In a 1998 International Social Survey Program study, people from thirty-six countries were surveyed. More than 70% agreed their life was in their own hands. More importantly, a number of studies have demonstrated people behave differently if they can be convinced they have no free will. In 2008, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia conducted experiments highlighting the relationship between a belief in Determinism and immoral behavior. They found students who were exposed to deterministic literature prior to taking a test were more likely to cheat on the test than students who were not exposed to literature advocating Determinism. The researchers concluded those who deny free will are more inclined to believe their efforts to act morally are futile and are, therefore, less likely to do so. In addition, a study conducted by researchers from Florida State University and Kentucky University found participants who were exposed to deterministic literature were more likely to act aggressively and less likely to be helpful toward others. Even determinist Michael Gazzaniga concedes: “It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.” The existence of free will is a common characteristic of our experience, and when we deny we have this sort of free agency, there are detrimental consequences...

Atheists who are willing to deny the very existence of “free will” pay a huge price when doing so. If our free agency is simply an illusion, so is any expression of love, empathy or compassion. If free will is illusory, so is any expression of creativity or reasoning. No genuine act of love, empathy, compassion, creativity or reasoning occurs without a free choice. Worse yet, no one could truly be held culpable for any act unless he or she was acting freely. The existence of “free will” is an important piece of evidence in the universe and is impossible to explain if atheistic determinism is true. Denying the true existence of free agency only makes the problem worse. The best explanation for “free will” is simply the existence of a creative Free Agent outside the limits of the physical universe who has created free humans in His image.[2]

Atheism, lack of ultimate justice and unpunished criminals

See also: Atheism and meaninglessness and Atheism and purpose and Atheism and forgiveness and Atheism and death

Carson Weitnauer writes about atheism and moral accountability:

The argument focuses on the fact that, in atheism, there is no authority figure, besides other humans, who can secure justice for everyone. Therefore, if you are both powerful and evil, then there are no real consequences for your immoral behavior. In those cases, there is no justice. You can benefit yourself at the expense of others, thereby reaping a higher quality of life for yourself, and at death it is completely over.

This is a necessary implication of atheism: because there is no authority figure powerful and good enough to secure justice for everyone, there is a lack of ultimate moral accountability for those who do evil. If you can get away with it in this life, there are no consequences for harmful actions. By the same token, for those who make sacrifices to do what is good and right, there is no recompense for what they lost in the pursuit of virtue.

This is where the “Bizarre!” reply comes in. The primary atheistic response here is to say, “This argument is so weird! What good is it if you’re motivated to do good just so you don’t get punished? That is so childish! You should be inspired to do what is good just because it is good.” I’m happy to agree with anyone who says this. Being motivated by goodness itself is better than being motivated by fear of punishment.

However, life is more complex and challenging than pure idealism allows for. It simply is the case that the more motivations we have to be moral, the better off we are. There very well may be thousands of moments throughout one’s life where the conviction, “I will be accountable for my choices” leads one to make the right choice. But if atheism is true, this conviction is rationally replaced with, “If I can get away with it, it won’t matter.”

In addition, the lack of moral accountability erodes our sense of fairness and our desire for justice. There is no hope that, in the end, everyone will get their due. Instead, a clear-eyed, rational perspective is that, in the end, the powerful will get what they want, and too bad for everyone else.

Ultimately, the lack of moral accountability is a significant practical challenge for atheism.[3]

Luke Nix writes in his article Atheism, Evil and Ultimate Justice:

Atheism has no place for evil or good to even exist on an ultimate level...

In atheism the only ground for good or evil is in the person or society. One person or society may posit that one this is good, while another posit that it is evil. There is no way to break the tie. There is no grounds that one can actually call what happened ten years ago "evil".

Only theism offers a solid foundation for establishing what is truly "good" and "evil". Christian theism, specifically, holds that all people are created in the Image of God, thus possess intrinsic value. According to atheism, there is no difference between a common house fly and a human that gives it intrinsic value.

Atheism also holds that there is no life after death; there will be no judgment for evil acts in this life. If a person commits a crime, then commits suicide, punishment is escaped...

Atheism believes that mourning is simply a foundationless psychological process that humans must perform to move on with our purposeless lives. Moving on may include the search for revenge, but due to the death of those responsible, it will never be realized.[4]

See also