“If there’s no God, what would stop me from raping & killing you?”

Hello all,

Dave here. Roughly every week while the weather is nice, SASHA does an Ask an Atheist table on the University of Missouri campus. We get asked a lot of questions, sometimes serious, sometimes not. This isn’t a terribly common one, but it comes up enough that it’s worth mentioning, and it’s terrifying enough that I feel compelled to discuss it.

SASHA members Seth & James answer Mizzou students' questions

The question generally goes something like this: “If there are no consequences, what’s stopping you from killing people?”

When I hear this question, it scares the shit out of me. The purpose of this post today is to convince you that it should scare the shit out of you, too.

When someone asks this question, it tells me something about the way their mind works. Specifically, it tells me that I am very likely talking to a sociopath. A sociopath, somewhat synonymously known as someone with antisocial personality disorder, is someone who, among other things, lacks a conscience or a sense of empathy. Sociopaths are often said to “use” people, in that they care about others only insofar as they can get something out of it, often in a calculating and “cold” manner. They can be friendly, charismatic even, and have mastered the ability to appear normal. There is a classic work in this field with a title that fits perfectly: The Mask of Sanity by Harvey Cleckley. If you’ve seen the movie “American Psycho” with Christian Bale, you are somewhat familiar with some of the classic signs. The lead character plays a Wall Street suit who lacks empathy.

Sociopaths do not feel guilt. That doesn’t mean they commit any act they desire, though. They are not mentally separated from reality. Rather, they are acutely aware of social consequences and legal consequences and game theoretical consequences; they are just not motivated to act morally by any other internal drive that the rest of us have. They understand that if they kill someone and are caught, they will go to jail. They understand that if they cheat on their taxes, or their partners, or their term papers—and they are caught—there are consequences. They just have no problem doing such things when they feel very confident that they will not be caught.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 0.6% of people have antisocial personality disorder. Assuming my campus at the University of Missouri—Columbia contains a representative sample (it almost certainly doesn’t—a lot of sociopaths end up in jail), out of 36,000 students, that means about 215 people simply lack empathy. It’s not impossible that I’ve spoken to a few of them during my 2 years of doing Ask-an-Atheist tabling.

When I’m asked this question, I could try to explain something about the fact that there ARE consequences for our actions—that if you raped and killed me, you would almost certainly be caught, and go to prison. Your career would be ruined, your family crushed, your friendships over and your relationships gone. But that’s not the kind of thing you say to someone who has just said something like the title of this article to you.

In my experience, there is really only one good way to answer this question. I say to them the following:

“If your belief that you might be punished after you die is the only thing keeping you from raping and killing me or anyone else, then I have no interest in trying to convince you that your god is imaginary. Someone who only forgoes needless evil on the basis of possible consequences is called a sociopath, and I have no interest in dying today. Keep your beliefs, please just keep them away from me.”

I also want to point out that this really doesn’t have anything to do with whether God exists or not, but rather whether hell exists or not. There is an important distinction. A lot of Christians seem to have trouble separating their belief in God from their belief in an afterlife. You can believe in one and not the other, and an argument in favor of God is not an argument in favor of an afterlife necessarily, and vice versa.

Until next time!

– Dave

  • Aaron Stites

    When I went to church this is something that I heard often and it scared the shit out of me because I then realized I was surrounded by closeted psychopaths. more than 90% of these people I was around grew up in the church so their only view on morality was “Killing is bad because God says its bad so I shouldn’t do it” where as I grew up outside the church until I decided to go when I was 15 out of curiosity and my view on morality was “killing is bad because this thing I have called a conscience”. I knew if I didn’t want it done to me I shouldn’t do it to others for no other reason than that but these lunatics needed fear to keep them from doing terrible things to other people I guess.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leonard.mccannon Leonard McCannon

    I can remember encountering this variation of the argument from when I was a kid and talking to people I knew. Were my childhood friends sociopaths? Hard to say.
    There are elements here of an implied and obscured view of human nature which are problematic. On the one hand our atheist holds that it is a basic human species trait to feel human empathy (a quality difficult to measure I would suggest). I am not against this position but you have to admit its problematic. My own anecdotal evidence suggests there is a real sliding scale regarding the presence of empathy in your human samples. Where one might draw the line on the normal / sociopath continuum would be a curious project.
    On the other hand, the sociopath positon (sic) seems to imply morality is socialized primarily. Nurture rather than nature. I must admit the more I observe the happenings in the world, the more I think the sociopaths are taking over, and the more problems I have with the “humans are basically good” postion.
    I tend to believe that human behavior is shaped by genetic programming to compete and to cooperate. That makes us complicated and contradictory in our nature. Our species does not evolve the way it has if it were not so.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Johnston/1064888053 Scott Johnston

    The real question is, “why doesn’t god stop me from killing you?” Frankly human life is only significant to human beings. Nothing else in the universe cares if the human race disappears in the next 4 seconds. Human life is trivial and ultimately worthless in the grand scheme of things. In a few hundred thousand years it will be as though we never existed. Such a small question as proposed hold no meaning.

  • Amy

    Dave’s quote: “If your belief that you might be
    punished after you die is the only thing keeping you from raping and killing me
    or anyone else, then I have no interest in trying to convince you that your god
    is imaginary.”

    You’ve actually proposed a straw man argument (you’ve
    deliberately misrepresented the other position). There are countless reasons found
    in the Bible for not raping or killing people, such as death for the rapist,
    which shows that it violates God’s law (Deuteronomy 22:25-28), or the many Bible
    passages telling us to love one another.

    You’ve also contradicted yourself.

    Dave’s quote: “Someone who only forgoes needless evil on
    the basis of possible consequences is called a sociopath…”

    So does that
    mean that you are a sociopath because you just finished pointing out that a
    valid reason to not rape and kill is that “you would almost certainly be
    caught, and go to prison. Your career would be ruined, your family crushed,
    your friendships over and your relationships gone?”

    Let me get this straight, you are not a sociopath because
    you don’t rape and kill on the basis of consequences in this life, but you are
    a sociopath because you chose not to kill based on God’s Word? Maybe you should rethink your argument.

    You’ve actually proposed a straw man argument (you’ve
    deliberately misrepresented the other position). There are countless reasons found
    in the Bible for not raping or killing people, such as death for the rapist,
    which shows that it violates God’s law (Deuteronomy 22:25-28), or the many Bible
    passages telling us to love one another.

    You’ve also contradicted yourself.

    Dave’s quote: “Someone who only forgoes needless evil on
    the basis of possible consequences is called a sociopath…”

    So does that
    mean that you are a sociopath because you just finished pointing out that a
    valid reason to not rape and kill is that “you would almost certainly be
    caught, and go to prison. Your career would be ruined, your family crushed,
    your friendships over and your relationships gone?”

    Let me get this straight, you are not a sociopath because
    you don’t rape and kill on the basis of consequences in this life, but you are
    a sociopath because you chose not to kill based on God’s Word? Maybe you should rethink your argument.

  • http://twitter.com/Kohaku_3 Kohaku

    There is another problem with this question (the one you are being asked).

    Murder is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, the most important laws governing all Christians, regardless of sect or denomination. Rape isn’t. It is conspicuous only in its absence.

  • Carl Wong

    I wrote “the Bible nowhere forbids rape”.  I think that is wrong.  The Bible provides execution by stoning to men who rape (given the correct circumstances).  Sorry.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IBVOVG4GFQ7AY22NLJFRKI7X5I Ann

      “given the correct circumstances”, do you mean IF the woman can scream so someone hears her? Or if the woman is married? Seems to me that it not only encourages rape but it practically invites you to rape young girls!

  • Carl Wong

    In my opinion, a big problem with that argument is that the Bible nowhere forbids rape.  None of the 10 commandments says not to rape.  The Bible actually encourages rape because Deuteronomy 22 says that if a man rapes a woman under the right circumstances, she is required to marry the man who raped her, and it certainly does not say that the rapist must be jailed or executed (just pay a fine).   Also there are the instances where God ordered people to kill all the men, women, boys and girls who are not virgins, but to keep the virgin girls alive to rape them. 

    According to the 10 commandments, working on the sabbath is a worse crime than rape, and Christians happily work on both Saturday AND Sunday.  If they’re not afraid of being punished for that, then logically speaking, the punishment for committing rape must be less harsh, and so logically speaking, Christians should be raping all the time without fear of punishment from God.   

    Please correct me if i am wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joey.wichert Joey Wichert

    This is well written and reminds me that ‘evolved’ morality preceded (gave rise to) ‘theocratic guilt’ morality. One of many inherent positive traits bastardized by religion. Many a socio(psycho)path’s camouflage consists of pseudo-theocracy… which makes the subject of this post very scary stuff indeed.