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Saturday, September 24, 2011  

More on Religion and the Death Penalty

Another problem, now that I think of it, with Hitchens' argument about American religiosity and the death penalty is one that plagues all enthusiasts of some absolute agenda. Say you wish to see nothing more than the eradication of all traces of religion in human life. If you are devoted to this project, you are going to see every good development as a sign of the progress of your cause and every stubborn ill as evidence of its incomplete triumph. The only problem is that this becomes absurd. New York has legalized same-sex marriage: score one for the secularizers. But it also restored the death penalty not so long ago: score one for the ongoing scourge of religion. But which is it? Is New York actually becoming both more and less secular?

Now I point this out despite my genuine interest in the question of how religion relates to the death penalty. Hitchens seems to conceive of religion as something like soccer fandom; change a few million minds, knock down a few dozen stadiums, and remove some pages from the back of the paper and it's gone. Religion is not something that was gratuitously added to the human experience by brilliant hucksters at some point in the past, and that may just as simply be removed now. But for the sake of simplicity, I would be interested to look at the views of self-identified regular church (or shul or mosque) goers on the death penalty relative to non-attenders in the same demographic groups. The problem with simply breaking down poll data into religious-vs.-secular categories is that it doesn't do much to isolate the effect, if any, of religion on people's views. An "evangelical/born-again" sample is going to hugely over-represent white southerners, who are really conservative in general. So I'd be interested to see how black churchgoers view capital punishment versus black non-churchgoers. It would not surprise me if either there is little correlation within groups between religiosity and support for the death penalty, or even if the correlation in some groups were negative.

But even then, I'm not sure exactly what conclusions one would draw. We may be more or less inclined to treat the human body as an object for punishment, but it's a little unusual that the "humane" alternative is to punish, in effect, the soul. "A life for a life" is not an inaccurate way to describe a life sentence without parole, especially since the prospect of recidivism goes down dramatically late in life. And we certainly abuse this punishment in America, above and beyond what you may think of the death penalty.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 2:05 PM
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