How Scalia Judges Based On Faith-Based, Religious Metaphysics

The blog Doggy Style quotes Justice Antonin Scalia making a disturbing analysis in 2002:

“So it is no accident, I think, that the modern view that the death penalty is immoral has centered in the West. That has little to do with the fact that the West has a Christian tradition and everything to do with the fact that the West is the domain of democracy. Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe and has least support in the church-going United States. I attribute that to the fact that for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal, a grave sin which causes one to lose his soul, but losing this physical life in exchange for the next – the Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.” And when Cramner asks whether he is sure of that, More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

For the non-believer, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence – what a horrible act. And besides being less likely to regard death as an utterly cataclysmic punishment, the Christian is also more likely to regard punishment in general as deserved. The doctrine of free will, the ability of man to resist temptations to evil is central to the Christian doctrine of salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. The post-Freudian secularist, on the other hand, is more inclined to think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.”

While I think there are rational reasons that could be marshaled for and against the death penalty, I find it really disturbing that a Supreme Court Justice who favors the death penalty is essentially implying that he only does so because of his baseless religious belief in an afterlife. This is a clear and consequential case of a powerful man admitting that he thinks human life can be taken and it is essentially no big deal in the grand scheme of things because we are actually immortal. Of course we are not allowed to kill the innocent—but, heck, even if we screw up and kill some of them by accident, what’s the big deal here really?

To be clear, this is a religious metaphysics (which says we are immortal) that flies in the face of what our eyes tell us (that we are mortal) determining the law of the land, insofar as Scalia’s views of the death penalty (and who knows who else’s—Thomas’s? Alito’s? Roberts’s?) are based on a faith belief that has no independent, secularly defensible evidence.

Finally, and no less importantly, notice how his dogmatic, religious convictions about the nature of freedom and the justice of punishment are asserted in defiance of any rational reconsideration. He mischaracterizes and trivializes secular interests in justice and proper punishment. He waves away legitimate questions about how free people really are, and how best to morally and legally appraise and treat them in light of such actual facts about their actual freedoms or lackthereof. A dogmatic, explicitly religiously derived metaphysics and theory of justice, which he refuses to revise in the light of new evidence, guides his judgments of fairness. There shall be no insights into the actual mechanisms of psychological determination or the morally fairest and therapeutically most effective ways to punish and/or reform people in light of such neuroscience and behavioral science. There shall only be the cosmic tale of struggle between good and evil and the merciless wrath of God’s justice for those wicked souls who choose the path of temptation out of their magically unconstrained free wills.

This is a scary travesty. These are the kinds of consequence that fantastic, dogmatically held, faith beliefs (that no one supposedly ever takes literally) can have. This is why some of us atheists think it is a big deal what people believe—even if their beliefs sound so ludicrous that no modern person in his or her right mind would ever be expected to make practical decisions based on them in fact.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.