Three challenging philosophical questions for Atheists (and agnostics, secularists, humanists, progressives)

In the spirit of the 36 philosophical questions recently asked I thought it might be a good idea to pose three questions (phrased somewhat more in-depth) that may at first seem easy to answer but when requiring a more comprehensive rational ethical view might be more challenging to defend. (Parts of these questions have been discussed in the past)

Question(s) I - Fairy narratives

An atheist parent might protect their children from religious indoctrination and teach them to think for themselves. What does it say about them however, when they continue the tooth-fairy, easter-bunny and Santa clause narratives? Are they rationally compatible (protecting them from god narratives but actively perpetuating tooth-fairy narratives)? If and why?

Question(s) II - Life and death

The progressive or humanist stance on issues of life and death are generally (but not always) the following: free choice on terminating foetuses (with a certain cut-off date), against capital punishment, right to die for euthanasia and assisted suicide and for or against the "x-patient scenario". The x-patient scenario has a man struck by a car, is placed on life support with one or two weeks left to live, he cannot be identified, no family comes nor can be tracked, he is suffering in unbearable agony but cannot communicate his desire to pull the plug...a compassionate doctor decides to pull the this the right thing to do? (humanists are torn on the issue). The question: how can you rationally justify killing a human: abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia and be against killing (capital punishment) and be for or against the patient-x scenario? Is each case a matter of exceptionalism? Or is there a broad comprehensive logical/rational ethics that can explain all four stances?

Question(s) III - State intervention

A country with a mostly so called "western secular mentality" also has an indigenous population (with a history of mistreatment). Indigenous parents of a 10 year old child (as well as the child) wish to refuse treatment in place of religious-woo-medicine (the use of herbs, charms or prayer that is not proven in any way effective) where the child is guaranteed to die without proper medical attention. Assuming a 10 year old in this case isn't capable of making this decision it falls to their parents. They choose religious-woo-medicine. Does the state have the right to...and if so should the state intervene? Is the decision the child's parents make a form of child abuse? Even if the parents and the child desire religious-woo-medicine does the state have the responsibility to protect innocent children in such a scenario?

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Interesting and complex questions. I'd like a stab at Question 1 as I have a son aged 3 and am just starting to encounter this sort of issue. We have some Christian friends who gave him a book called "God Made The World" for his birthday. He likes the pictures and I can hardly refuse reading it to him as he wouldn't understand why so I find myself reading to him "God created the light", "God made the animals", etc. I'm inwardly cringing as I do so.

However, I try to take a laid back approach to it. Reading him a story is hardly indoctrination and when he's older I will explain to him the reasons why people believe the story but that not everyone does, etc. 

At what point does telling stories, or playing along with fantasies like the tooth fairy become indoctrination and a negative thing? For me, it's when it stops being light-hearted and starts to affect the child psychologically. For example, if you start telling the child they must attend church/must pray or God will be unhappy with them, you have crossed the line. Equally, I don't subscribe to the traditional line "If you're a good boy then Santa will bring you presents." To me, this is a very similar concept - the message is that you're main motivation for being good is in order to receive rewards. So whilst I will be going along with the Santa/tooth fairy/easter-bunny myths with my boy I will keep it fun, harmless and exciting. 

Fortunately, he's smart enough that he'll soon figure it out for himself. You don't actually need all that much world experience to know that giant bunnies don't deliver chocolate in real life.

You are still lying to your children though, which I think sets a bad precident.  We have always had a policy of telling our children that Santa, fairies, easter bunny etc are just stories.  They still love to participate in these stories though even though they know that they are fiction,  it doesnt detract in any way from the "magic" of childhood as many seem to believe it would.  I remember when my son was about 5, he was telling me all about Santa bringing persents, and his home in the North pole etc, I was a bit concernd as I though he hadn't understood that it was just a story, so I said "you do know that Santa isnt real?"  He replied "of course I do dad" in that child's "you are an idiot dad" voice, "Im just pretending", then went straight on with the story.

I think either method works well. If you're being strict about it every time you play pretend with your children you are lying to them.

I would certainly have no problem with quietly putting the book away and not referring to it again.

"The question: how can you rationally justify killing a human: abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia and be against killing (capital punishment) and be for or against the patient-x scenario?"

I guess I should consider myself a militant humanist. I am for for abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, pulling the plug on a terminal stranger, and the death penalty. There is a consistency there don't you think? 

What about patient-x?

What crimes do you think warrant the use of the death penalty?

patient-X is the terminal stranger I would pull the plug on....

The death penalty is certainly warranted for those committing premeditated murder; the Timmy McVeigh's of the world. One aspect of the death penalty that many overlook is that concerning incarceration. There is the cost to house that inmate for possibly 30-40 years at an annual cost to the taxpayer (including those who lost their loved one) of at least 50-60 thousand per annum. That adds up. Then there is the reality that those who are doing life with no possibility of parole have absolutely nothing to lose by shanking a correctional officer or other inmate. Or they could, or actually have, escaped to commit further murders. What is the point to letting a despicable human being with no regard for a fellow human's right to life vegetate inside in a concrete cage? They make no contribution to society but instead remain an ongoing financial obligation and, more importantly, a threat to innocents who must interact with them. Let's instead spend badly needed and scarce dollars on the poor, sick, and underprivileged who remain civil and non-violent despite their hardships.


I am so glad that the death penalty was long ago abolished here in Australia. I think about it this way - why should the person who committed a heinous crime get the "easy way" out through death? Once they are dead that's it, they don't have to live with what they have done. They should be locked up, forced to endure imprisonment to their dying days. I think rotting in a cell would be a far worse punishment than death mainly because I don't believe that there is anything after death.

How would you feel if that incarcerated individual managed to kill or harm someone again? Is making them "rot" worth the financial outlay? How would you feel if the convicted killer developed cancer and required treatment to survive? Or requested a special diet because of religious reasons?

It usually costs more. They usually rot for a very long time, before being executed. Plus, they get automatic appeals, that cost a fortune. If you're trying to save money, then you should be against it.

I did my masters thesis on the death penalty in the US. It costs much more to execute a murderer than for them to spend life in jail. The litigation and appeals costs are massive. Extra solitary confinement from sentence to final execution and the execution process are astronomically expensive. You may have reasons for accepting the death penalty but my conclusions from a year of research on the topic was that the following reasons for supporting the death penalty are either without any basis (or, in fact, the opposite is true):

  • It does not save money (it costs a lot more)
  • It does not deter (the statistics say the opposite in states with the death penalty)
  • Not all death penalty sentences are from clear cut cases (there have been a few executions where the now dead criminal was exonerated and there were at least a handful of very dubious cases where the criminal was sentenced when I did my research).
  • The application of the death penalty is not fair (it disproportionately, and very highly so, is applied to african-americans, men, people between 18-35 and the poor).
  • Mentally ill criminals have been executed (and at least when I did my research there were two on death row).

The only reason for supporting the death penalty that I could not refute with research and a review of the statistics and meta-analyses was...a sense of justice. A very personal belief that those who murdered someone (and perhaps cases of mass torture/rape) could only meet justice through the loss of ones own life.

And knowing that there may be people on death row (and those already executed) with wrongful convictions - if I were a jury member I would be far more reluctant to declare someone guilty of a crime when the penalty for the crime is execution. Even if I was 99.99999% certain the person was guilty, if the death penalty were on the table, I still wouldn't be comfortable with voting for a guilty verdict.

I morally couldn't condemn a person to die - because I'll always have the thought "what if future evidence showed them to be innocent then I have blood on my hands." 

And it would only take one person like me on a jury, and a killer might get off on a murder conviction all because execution was the penalty for being found guilty. 


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