15 October 2014

Atonement Theory Does Not Work

Stephen Kershnar
Atonement Theory and Atheism
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 28, 2014

Today, religion is in retreat and atheism on the rise.

A Gallup poll found that, worldwide, 13% of people are atheists and another 23% are non-religious. People are leaving religion in droves. 9% fewer people see themselves as religious today (2012 poll) than did so seven years earlier. This is especially true for Jews. Less than 40% see themselves as religious.

Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Rieke Havertz points out that in the U.S. religion is 
declining. The same Gallup poll found that one out of three Americans don’t consider themselves religious. The number who are religious has dropped sharply (73% to 60% in the last seven years) and atheists, while still rare, rose from 1 to 5%. This pattern will continue. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that young adults (people under age 30) are far less likely to be religiously affiliated than others.

One reason for people losing their religion is that religious doctrines don’t withstand scrutiny. One example of a flawed doctrine is Christianity’s atonement theory. The theory asserts that the suffering and death of Jesus explains why God forgives or pardons people for their sins. The Bible repeatedly asserts this. See, for example, 1 Peter 2:24 and 1 Peter 3:18. There are, roughly, four theories that explain how atonement works and none succeed. I should mention that some of the ideas for this column come from an outstanding colleague, Dale Tuggy, although he undoubtedly disagrees with this column.

One of the earliest theories (Ransom Theory) held that Jesus gave his own life as a sacrifice to buy mankind from Satan (that is, he paid ransom for them). See Mathew 20:28. Even if one believes Satan exists, St. Anselm demolished this argument by pointing out that it is nonsensical to see God as having a debt to him. In addition, God is powerful enough and morally permitted to limit Satan’s powers or make him a better person. Perhaps he could have made Satan’s heart grow three times larger, as happened to the Grinch. A related theory (Christus Victor) sees Jesus’ suffering and death as part of God’s defeat of Satan. Again, God could simply have taken away Satan’s powers.

St. Anselm and St. Aquinas adopted a second theory (satisfaction theory) that holds that human beings are so full of evil and sin that they owe a debt to God. The debt might be one of honor or justice. On this theory, the debt was paid off via Jesus’ suffering and death. The problem with this theory is that it is hard to see why human beings owe a debt to God. If they’ve injured each other, then it is to each other that debts are owed.

Even if the debt were owed to God, it is unclear why God wouldn’t merely forgive it. Creditors forgive debtors all the time. This is especially true when a creditor (for example, a father) loves the debtor (for example, a son). A loving deity would do so unless he wanted to teach his debtors a lesson and this is a different theory.

This theory makes even less sense if one believes in the trinity, that is, God exists in three people (three distinct people each wholly and entirely identical to God). If so, it is odd that God had to sacrifice himself to himself to pay off someone else’s debt. He could have just forgiven them in a straightforward manner.

A third theory, penal substitution, is a distinctly Protestant theory and was defended by Martin Luther and John Calvin. This theory holds that God punished Jesus, who didn’t sin, instead of punishing people who did. Again, it’s hard to see to why God has a right to punish people for what they do to each other. Murder, rape, and robbery victimize fellow human beings and it is they, or their loved ones, who have a right to punish the evildoer. Under some conditions, the state has a right to do so if the victims transferred their right to it. Even if God has such a right to punish sinners, he still can and should forgive or pardon them.

Even if he can’t pardon or forgive them, it is unjust for God to severely punish one person for what another did. For example, Ted Bundy raped and killed innocent women. Justice doesn’t allow the state to torture and hang his mother. This is true even if she wants to be substituted in for her son.

This theory is plagued by additional problems. If one person’s suffering can satisfy the demands of justice ahead of time, then people’s sins are pre-paid and they may not punished or even given demerits for sinning in the future. The sins would have been paid for ahead of time similar to how some people used to have pre-paid phone cards.

In any case, Jesus’ suffering was finite and, on some accounts, people’s sins are infinite (which is why some deserve hell) and so, on this theory, Jesus didn’t suffer nearly enough.

If we assume the trinity is true, then God punishes himself in order to forgive or pardon others. Would it have made sense for the Central Park jogger who was beaten and raped to punish herself as a way of forgiving or pardoning her attacker? Obviously not.

A fourth theory asserts that Jesus’ suffering was a means of leading humanity to change itself morally and is associated with one of the most significant philosophers of the Middle Ages, Peter Abelard. Surely, there have to be better ways to teach people to love one other than to torture and kill an innocent.

Even if there weren’t, it is hard to see why this would be the right thing to do. If the best way to get human beings to love one another were to torture and kill Miley Cyrus, this still wouldn’t be okay. 

And if the trinity is true, God tortures himself in order to instruct others on loving their neighbor. This is just weird.

Despite being put forth by world-class intellectuals, none of these theories work. This failure and ones like it are forcing religion into retreat. 

17 September 2014

Police, Heroism, and the Consequences of Mistaken Attitudes

Stephen Kershnar
The Consequences of Mistaken Attitudes about the Police
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 15. 2014

There are a trio of mistaken ideas about the police in the U.S. and these ideas result in bad policies.

Two mistaken ideas about the police are that it is an especially dangerous job and that there are far too few officers. As a result of the perceived danger and perilously thin blue line, the Fourth Amendment’s ban on searches without probable cause or a warrant has to be cut back. Also, because the police are outgunned and undermanned, there has to be an increasingly aggressive style of policing, the most extreme being military-style SWAT teams and no-knock raids. A third mistaken idea is that police officers are heroes in a way that truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers are not. As a result, any attempt to cut their benefits to the level of teachers and other government workers or their numbers is beyond the pale.  

First, the notion that a police officer is an especially dangerous job in part explains why police officers are, in some circumstances, allowed to search the cab of a car, an arrestee, pedestrians thought to have weapons, and so on without probable cause or a warrant. Officer safety was cited as a reason that police should be able to search an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant. Fortunately, the Supreme Court didn’t buy it.  

Concern for officer safety also, in part, explains the growing militarization of the police. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Radley Balko points out that that Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were relatively rare in the 1970’s and have become distressingly common. In 1975, he notes, there were only 500 such units. By the early 1980’s, 13% of mid-sized towns (between 25,000 and 50,000) had such teams, by 2005 80% did. Similarly, in the early 1980’s, SWAT teams conducted 3,000 raids a year, by 2005, they were doing 50,000 raids per year. Balko reports that over recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $35 billion in grants to police departments, much of it to purchase military gear. The Pentagon has also been doling out military equipment by the hundreds of millions.

It is hard to see what justifies this fast-growing militarization and related military tactics such as no-knock raids. The crime rate (including violent crime) is significantly lower than it was in the 1970’s. Nor are police outgunned. For example, only a tiny fraction of homicides in the U.S. are committed with military-grade weapons.

Contrary to one of the underlying justifications of these searches and militarization, being a police officer is not an especially dangerous job. According to 2013 Bureau of Labor statistics, farmers, truck drivers, pilots, roofers, construction workers, and power line workers face a greater chance of death at work and yet they don’t have a reputation for facing down death. When police officers do get killed, it is more often in a traffic-related accident than by a gun.  

Nor are the police undermanned. The rate of police officers per citizen is on the low side by worldwide standards. However, writing in The New York Times, Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev point out that the U.S. leads the world in protective service employees (police officers, private security guards, correction officers, members of the military, and so on). Many of these jobs supplement officers’ services.

This issue matters because protecting officers’ jobs in part explains why civil forfeiture proceedings (the lion’s share goes to local cops and prosecutors) against allegedly dirty money (not dirty people) have become big business. This also explains in part why traffic tickets and warrants related to them have become shockingly common in some parts of the country (for example, around Saint Louis, Missouri).

A related notion is that police are heroes in a way in which farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers are not and hence their numbers and benefits dare not be cut. A hero is someone who makes a great sacrifice to benefit others and whose effort is reasonable.

It is unclear that police officers make sacrifices that farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers don’t make. As mentioned above, those other jobs face a greater risk of death. Farmers make more money than do the police, truck drivers and construction workers make less, but the comparisons are hard to make because the police get generous retirement benefits that the others don’t. For example, writing in The New York Times, Joseph Berger points out that a New York City police officer is eligible to retire after 20 years and most do retire upon hitting that milestone. The retirement benefits start up right away and are paid out even when a former officer gets another full-time job. Farmers and construction workers can only dream of such a deal.   

Nor is it obvious that police officers are more motivated by altruism than are other workers. People tend to take jobs that fit their preferences. Being a police officer might involve higher pay and fewer hours than being a farmer, but more conflict and distasteful tasks (for example, handing out tickets). There is no one answer as to whether one set of job features is better than another, instead, this differs between people. Different preferences are what lead people to sort themselves out into different jobs.

Even the reasonable benefit condition is not obvious. While it is clear that deterring violence and property crime is good for society, locking up large numbers of people for victimless crimes such as drugs likely makes the American people worse off. For example, the U.S. leads the world in incarceration rate and total number of people incarcerated (it has 25% of the world’s prisoners). This is not good for a free people.   

The hero status has led in part to a hesitation to cut the number of positions or compensation for first responders (police and firefighters) in a way similar to how other government employees’ numbers and pay has been cut. Contaminating the discussion of these issues with the “hero” label certainly does not help.   


Like farmers, truck drivers, and construction workers, the police perform a valuable service. I doubt they want their job mythologized any more than they want their children to lose liberty because of the mythologies.

03 September 2014

Against Mideast Interventionism

Stephen Kershnar
Against the Current U.S. War on ISIS
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 1, 2014

As the U.S. goes to war yet again, this time bombing its latest jihadist enemy, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (hereinafter ISIS), it appears the foreign policy elite have learned nothing from the past.  

In 2002, chicken littles President George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), then Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Biden (D-DE), and the rest of the establishment Republicans and Democrats pushed for a war on Iraq to protect the U.S. from jihadist attack from al Qaeda and to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction. The war cost at least a trillion dollars (and probably more) and the lives of 4,500 American soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqis (over 600,000 according to a Lancet study). As we now know, there was no link to al Qaeda or weapons of mass destruction and, arguably, the administration knew this. Because American forces smashed Iraq, it is now greatly weakened, which has led to ISIS’s insurgency.  

The chicken littles are at it again, making outlandish claims about ISIS. Quoted by Pat Buchanan, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) warns that ISIS is “an existential threat … I think of an American city in Flames.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel equally terrified, states that the ISIS “is beyond everything we’ve seen … an imminent threat to every interest we have.” Rep. Peter King (R-NY) worries that ISIS is “a direct threat to our homeland.”

In 2011, President Obama had the U.S. wage an unconstitutional war against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Gaddafi was previously an ally in the U.S. counterterrorism efforts, but after he was overthrown in large part due to U.S. bombing. After he was overthrown, he was shot in the head. Clinton joyously celebrated his death. As a result, there is now a bloody civil war in Libya and Islamic radicals are gaining ground. Writing in National Review, Andrew McCarthy notes that the weapons stockpile in Libya fell into the hands of al Qaeda and ISIS forces, which made them more powerful.  

Also, in 2011, these elites (and especially Clinton and McCain) backed elections that led to the Muslim Brotherhood (including President Morsi) taking control of Egypt. As McCarthy points out, this group, instituted a Sharia constitution and aided terrorists (for example, Hamas in Palestine) and other Jihadist groups. The President also jailed journalists and made the Presidency unaccountable to the judiciary.

Roughly a year ago, the Obama administration, McCain, and fellow elites pushed to bomb Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Since then the administration has been funneling arms to rebels, which has weakened the regime and strengthened its enemies, including, of course, ISIS. Assad’s regime is now engaged in a death struggle against ISIS and other rebel groups. The chicken littles have now reversed course and are bombing ISIS, thereby benefitting Assad. Middle school girls have more stable alliances.  

Particularly, troubling are the two children in the senate, John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They have supported war at every turn, no matter how crazy. One or both has called for or supported the Serbian war, Iraqi Wars I and II, bombing Libya, arming Syrian rebels against Assad and instituting a no-fly zone to help bring him down, bombing Assad’s enemy ISIS, authorizing an attack on Iran, threatening to bomb North Korea, arming the Ukrainians against the Russians, bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO so that if they go to war against Russia (including ones they started) the U.S. would get sucked into it, and so on. They should be ignored. 

The current war on ISIS is a bad idea. As George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan points out, when you do not know whether a war will have good or bad effects, it is wise to avoid it. Given recent history in our involvement in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, the U.S. clearly has no idea what effects its wars will have. Given the incredible destruction involved in war, specifically hundreds of billions of dollars (if not trillions) spent, tens of thousands of lives lost, vast displacement of people, and destabilization of neighboring countries, the U.S. should have little confidence in its judgment that a war is worthwhile. Nor is this poor judgment a new thing. World War I and the Vietnam War were costly in terms of blood and treasure. Worse, these wars produced incredible collateral damage in bringing about such disasters as World War II, monstrous Soviet bloc, and murderous Pol Pot regime.   

Along these same lines, as Pat Buchanan points out, ISIS has serious enemies, including the Turks, Syrians, Kurds, and Iraqis. On the other hand, they have been funded by the Turks (previously), Saudis, Qataris, and Kuwaitis. The funding has taken place to counterbalance Shiite nations and their allies including Iran, Iraq (now Shiite controlled), Syria, and Hezbollah. It is not clear whether the U.S. is better off with the Sunni or the Shiite alliances. Given the repressive nature of the people involved, it is not even especially clear which alliance will do more to crush freedom and subordinate women. In any case, there is little reason to believe that ISIS poses a threat to the U.S. greater than the threat of a strengthened Shiite bloc.

Even if the U.S. could predict whether the war on ISIS would have good effects, it is hard to see how why it is the U.S.’s business. The current attacks on ISIS are not defensive on any reasonable use of the term. ISIS has neither attacked the U.S. nor aided others in doing so. Even if there were such an attack, it would be far less costly in terms of money, lives, and freedom to eat the loss or spend money preventing future attacks than to spend it on a new war. It is worth noting that the Iraq War II was not only costly in terms of blood and treasure, but also in terms of liberty as the war was a pretext for the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and so on.  


The current war on ISIS assumes we know that the war will benefit the U.S., which we don’t, and involves us in a regional conflict that is none of our business. Let’s sit this one out.