fingerpointing

Atheists: Suppose there is a zero chance of being caught—why wouldn’t you cheat or steal if the Abrahamic God can’t judge you?

…the title question answered (by Yours Truly) on Quora*:

Ask a different question: suppose there is zero chance of State government from catching you or even noticing you, why wouldn’t you cheat or steal?

Utilitarians and criminologists have long known that for a punishment to work as a deterrent, what counts is not the severity of punishment, but the swiftness and certainty of punishment. And yet each one of us has hundreds, thousands of situations each year to cheat and steal without being noticed, yet few of us commit the worst acts. Why not?

Is it the Abrahamic deity?

There are an amazing number of believers in prison. Why did they commit their crimes?

If any Deity exists, His/Her/Its punishment be obviously neither swift nor certain. Similarly, the State is a mere instrument of fallible man, and is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. And yet most folks don’t commit much substantive crime.** Why is this?

One possible answer: Because we live by a variety of enticements as well as by threats. Among those enticements are rewards accruing to those who practice the habits of sociality and morality. Further, the rewards of long-term thinking and broad-wise (social) consideration are many, especially in a society where the dominant form of coöperation is voluntary, as trade is. Besides, we simply do not have the brainpower to choose to be good in some situations and bad in those (few?) situations where we could get away with it. Finally, we empathize with each other, and this empathy broadens our sphere of consideration, directly dissuading us from harming others, and even nudging us to imagine our and others’ future selves. So, even sans direct punishment by the State, or punishment by a deity, we tend to do right by others.

Indeed, criminals usually fall into two of the following three categories:

  1. young male
  2. low inteligence
  3. poor education/few work skills

The first indicates high testesterone, which is associated with risk-taking and violence. The more testosterone, the more your passions are likely to work against empathy and long-term self-interest. The second and third predicaments limit one’s ability to gain through coöperation with others, thus tempting a person to get ahead by cheating or stealing.

Were the Abrahamic Deity to wish us to be less criminal, He might have made us all smarter and regulated our hormones better.

But, the truth seems to be that we are products of evolution; we stumble on as best we can. Which, it turns out, is surprisingly well, considering our strange heritage and all our psychological and somatic disadvantages.

When you start looking at the facts, and at more complicated networks of incentives and disincentives, you should not be surprised to learn that atheists tend to be smarter and less criminal than most other of what one pollster calls “the seven faith tribes.” They even can boast of longer marriages . . . that is, fewer divorces than believers.

They are, perhaps, the True Blesséd of the Deity. It might behoove believers to emulate them.

Another question to ask is Why do believers in an Abrahamic Deity do so many horrid things? Or: why would they act so badly if they believe eternal punishment is a necessary factor in making people better?

twv

* Minor edits have been made from this answer’s original publication on Quora.

** We all commit infractions under the current manner of governance, of course. Why? Well, there is so much regulation, such a proliferation of laws — but that is another story.

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