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In the early 1990s, college student Clarence Aaron agreed to drive some friends to a drug deal. He was paid $1,500 for his chauffeuring. The deal didn’t actually go through, however, as the police intervened. Clarence was not one of the drug dealers, nor one of the drug suppliers, nor one of the drug buyers. He was just the driver. It was his first criminal offense, and a nonviolent one at that.

He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Cesar Villa, imprisoned for robbery as a young man, was suspected by prison authorities of being a gang member who – alas — wouldn’t betray his gang-affiliated comrades. As punishment, he was condemned to endless solitary confinement. Currently in his fifties, he spends every hour of his life alone in a small cell. It is, by any objective measure, torture.

Such are but a couple of tragic examples out of hundreds of thousands of stinging miscarriages of justice that make up America’s gulag, an institution characterized by its excessive brutality. Our prison sentences for even nonviolent crimes are among the harshest in the democratic world, and our prisons are among the most inhumane: overcrowded, violent, and purposefully degrading, rather than rehabilitative. Our enthusiastic use of solitary confinement is particularly sadistic.

What gives? Why in the country that bequeathed to the world the ethical imperative of “no cruel or unusual punishment” is our penal system so draconian?

One possible answer might be that such severity deters crime. Unfortunately, facts can’t be mustered on this feeble front. Our punitive form of incarceration does not result in a safer society; our prisons tend to release people who are more angry, violent, maladjusted, and unempathetic than when they first entered prison, thereby committing more acts of violence in society post-incarceration. Indeed, we in the USA have one of the worst recidivism rates in the Western world.

Another answer that might help explain why our criminal justice system is so brutal—and this is an answer that has received scant attention—has to do with religion, specifically Christianity. Or to be more specific, still: Christianity’s core insistence that there exists a harsh, vindictive God who rules the universe, along with his implicit accomplice in harsh punishment, Satan.

When millions of people believe that there is an all-mighty, hyper-vengeful deity who will make you suffer through eternal punishment in a very fiery hell—when such a cosmic, transcendent notion of crime/punishment is accepted widely and taken for granted as true—it has deleterious results in society: people who believe such things will tend to replicate harsh, vengeful punishment here on planet Earth. After all, if God employs such brutality, so too should we, right?

You might think I’m just spinning my well-lubed atheist wheels here. But there’s empirical data to support my assertions.

Various studies have found that individuals who believe in a God who punishes people by sentencing them to hell are far more likely to be vengeful and to want to punish criminals with a similar brutality, here on planet Earth. As Baylor University Professor Christopher Bader and his colleagues have confirmed in their research, people who believe in an angry and judgmental God are much more likely to express and support punitive attitudes regarding criminal punishment.

More recent studies show that people who believe in the existence of Satan and hell are also much more punitive; they are significantly more likely to support both the death penalty and harsher punishments for those convicted of a crime.

Of course, all the blame for our inhumane criminal justice system can’t be laid at the feet of Christianity. For one thing, Islam – the second-largest religion in the world — also contains a strong belief in a severe, judging god who casts people to a very vicious hell. And, not surprisingly, the penal systems in Muslim-majority countries tend to be brutally medieval.

Recent studies show that people who believe in the existence of Satan and hell are significantly more likely to support both the death penalty and harsher punishments for those convicted of a crime.

Furthermore, some of the harshest penal systems have been operated within communist nations; “gulag” is a Russian word, after all. These communist dictatorships, such as the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, and China, have been explicitly anti-religious. In such nations, belief in God, Satan, or hell are not the motivating factors; sustaining fear of the dictatorship is. Heck, all dictatorships, be they religious or secular, maintain inhumane penal systems for just that reason. That’s why, when looking at religion’s impact on a criminal justice system, it is better to compare democracies. And when we do, we see that the most faithful Christian democracies today, such as Brazil and the USA, have some of the harshest and least effective penal systems, while the most secular democracies, such as Norway and the Netherlands, have the most humane and successful.   

Many Christian cardinal beliefs, like charity, mercy, love, forgiveness, reflect the best in human nature. But some—vengeance, eternal torment, and hellfire among them—reflect the worst. And right now, it is the worst that reigns in our criminal justice system. Receiving a pardon from President Obama, Clarence Aron managed to escape its clutches. But Cesar Villa remains rotting away, thanks at least in part to those devout Christians in America who sincerely think that there is redemption in needless suffering and justice in hellish torture.

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...