Why I Changed My Mind on the Death Penalty

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Up until a couple of years ago, I was for the death penalty, not because I had carefully studied the issue, but just because of some primal urge to see “justice” being done. I guess it is difficult to uproot my childhood programming of the biblical “an eye for an eye” sort of justice. Logically, I understood the anti-death penalty arguments but it was all in my head. It was more emotionally satisfying to think that a ruthless murderer or a serial rapist would finally “get what they deserved” and no longer walk the earth.

A second, more practical reason (at least to pro-death penalty advocates), is that putting the person to death saves the government and us taxpayers some money, versus keeping them alive and having to spend for their food and other basic needs.

A third reason for the death penalty is that it acts as a deterrent or a preventive measure, which means that a person about to commit a heinous act will be more likely to refrain from doing it because the penalty would be death instead of just imprisonment.

In a round-table discussion led by my friend, Keith Smith, a retired American educator living in Digos City, we explored these issues. Keith was the former Director of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at the State University of NY (SUNY) college of Arts and Sciences. He also had a part-time assignment at a maximum security prison called the New York State Correctional Facility at Dannemora (also called the “Clinton Correctional Facility” or simply “Clinton”). He taught pre-college math and science to hardened criminals convicted of some very serious crimes. It was an interesting discussion as his actual experience and contact with them provided some valuable insight on the topic.

The first issue we addressed was death penalty as a deterrent to crime. The answer to this, which is backed by many studies, is no. For the sake of brevity, I am not going to quote these studies as they are too numerous. Just google “death penalty studies” and you can read all the studies to your heart’s content.

The criminal mind is not so much concerned about “What punishment am I going to receive?” as it is about “Am I going to get caught?” If the criminal thinks he or she can get away with the crime, the actual punishment does not really matter. The real deterrent then, would be stronger police presence, faster response times to crime, and more criminals being caught than getting away.

The next issue of costs came and I was surprised to find out that contrary to the common notion that it would be much cheaper for the state to just kill the criminal than to keep him imprisoned for life, actual data from numerous sources actually show that it is more expensive for the state (around twice to four times as much) to try death penalty cases than life imprisonment cases.

One study in Indiana found that the average cost of a death-penalty case was around $789,000 versus a life-imprisonment case without parole which cost around $185,000. Since death is irreversible, it would actually cost the state a lot of money to provide proof of guilt — that meant hiring more experts, conducting expensive laboratory tests, and so on.

Even with such high costs though, there are still one too many wrong convictions that were discovered too late. In 2014, Scientific American published an article on research done by a team of lawyers and statisticians who examined data on more than 7,000 death penalty cases between 1973 and 2004. The conclusion of that research was that a significant number of death row convictions were wrong.

This brings us to the issue of justice or of the criminal getting what he or she deserves. There were a number of us who still had this sentiment — even Keith himself said there were people he thought didn’t deserve to live after what they did. The thing is, how sure can we be that the person was not wrongfully convicted? Data from first world countries with bigger budgets and better technology than ours show that even their justice system gets it wrong many times. How much better can we fare here, knowing the kind of justice system that we have?

So it now becomes a question of statistics. What margin of error would I be willing to accept for a death penalty convict? 5%? 3%? Or even 1%? If I knew that one out of every 100 would be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, that is still one life too many. My answer is zero, and thus I cannot fully support the death penalty.

Besides, as another friend, Gamahiel Tutor expressed, death is too easy an escape for these offenders. Keeping them imprisoned for life is better so that their suffering is longer.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Kindness

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When I first began exploring atheism and agnosticism, I joined some online groups and forums to learn more. I read books and articles and I listened to some prominent speakers on the topic. I became increasingly interested in debates and arguments. I would participate in existing ones and even start a few of my own.

There was a time when I would be very agitated over an argument. “How can he think that? Is he that blind or stupid?” Even though I tried hard to focus on the ideas being debated on, my remarks would get more sarcastic and personal and downright insulting. The more heated I became, the more heated my opponents’ replies turned out also.

There were instances when I was almost frothing at the mouth as I typed out my arguments, sure that this would stump the other side and finally make them see some sense as I saw it.

It never happened.

The more I dug in and became stubborn in my position, the more the other side dug in also. It was then that I realized that there had to be another way.

A few years ago, I was at a seminar and one of the modules in that seminar made the participants reflect on their childhood and their relationship with their families. In the sharing that ensued, it became evident that a lot of the issues people were presently having had roots in their childhood, especially their relationship with their parents.

The speaker then had the participants imagine a child coming up to them and sitting on their lap. Then he told us that child was our mother or father (whoever hurt us most), and to understand that they too were once children, also with their own hurts, pains and insecurities, trying to figure out life’s meaning while struggling to raise their kids, perform well at their jobs and juggling their finances, just as we were. They didn’t have everything figured out, and were perhaps a hair’s breadth away from breaking down or giving it all up, just like us.

In the end, we were told to forgive that child, to tell them that everything was all right, and that we understood. Then we let the child go as a symbolic way of letting go of all hurt and disappointment we had with them. The speaker then brought us back to the present, and told us to reflect on our present relationship with our parents, at least to those who still had them.

We would still have arguments with them, he said, because parents always have a need to be right, especially with their children. “Well let them be right,” he said. “Your job is just to love and understand them.”

These days, I rarely get myself into prolonged or heated arguments. The more heated you become, the more heated the other side becomes also. I have had to exercise a fair amount of self-control to keep myself from making sarcastic replies to some people who just want to provoke me. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. But at this stage of my life, I have decided to be more understanding and accepting. I don’t need the extra stress nor the agitation.

Besides, I have learned through experience that anger and sarcasm rarely results in any change from the other side. All that happens is that you get cheered on by people who were already on your side of the fence to begin with, while the other side becomes more entrenched on their side and less inclined to listen to whatever you want to say, even if you are right.

I was amused to find out that as I was reflecting on this topic, my friend Rev. Arnel Tan also chose to write on the same theme in his column for this week, The Nationalist Meets the Gracist, in which he says, “people who are so right and yet so rude, are so wrong.”

Remember, you reap what you sow. If you sow anger, then you reap anger in return. If you sow insults, you reap insults and resentment. But if you show kindness, you can cut through the veils of bitterness and hate, and start forging the foundations of mutual understanding.

Some time ago, I heard this quote from Wayne Dyer and every now and then, it pops into my head whenever I get into an argument. “When you have the choice whether to be right or to be kind, choose to be kind.”

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

The Four O’Clock Habit

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Two days ago, Facebook reminded me that I had posted my first article on Sunstar on February 22, 2013 entitled Earth and Sun.

It was just over four years ago when I asked Sunstar Editor-in-Chief, Stella Estremera, how one goes about writing a column for a newspaper. We talked about several things like knowing how to connect with your audience, and how to sustain your writing. I said that I’ve long wanted to try writing a weekly column, ever since I was in my early twenties. I’ve always been afraid to apply for the job, however, as I could not imagine coming up with something to write about week after week.

She said that’s a problem a lot of writers have. They start strong, but drop out early and fail to stay in the race. I acknowledged that and expressed my admiration at professional writers like her who can churn out words day after day. There was a time I tried writing every day. It was also a time when I tried jogging every day. I was based in Manila then and I would get up early in the morning and go jogging around the pool area at the 6th floor of our condominium.

After jogging, I would go up and sit down in front of the computer to write my “jog blog” — basically a synthesis of the thoughts I had while jogging. I think I lasted about a month or two of this. I lost my blogs when multiply.com decided to shut down. This was when Facebook was new and quickly gaining popularity.

Oh, and yes, I stopped jogging as well.

Anyway, I had a new blog by then called ZenBananas, but I didn’t write regularly and updated it only every now and then. Nevertheless, I gave Stella the link for her to peruse my writing. Then I didn’t hear from her for about two months so I figured she wasn’t interested.

Then out of the blue, I get a message from her asking if I was still interested in writing a column — because she suddenly had a vacancy and if I wanted the space, it was mine. I jumped at the chance, thought of a column name, then bought the domain to match it. I then renamed my old blog from ZenBananas to Freethinking Me where I decided to publish (with permission) a copy of all the articles I submit to Sunstar.

And then there it was, the weekly deadline. It was scary at first and I had to think of topics in advance. I tried to find a rhythm in writing. My articles come out every Friday so my deadline is every Thursday afternoon. I would often start writing on Wednesday night. If I couldn’t finish it, I would rush to finish it on Thursday morning.

Later on, I settled into the four o’clock habit, which has been quite successful for me. I decided not to write on Wednesday nights as my mind is usually tired by then. I sleep early (for me, anytime before 12 is early) and set the alarm for 4 am.

I wake up. My mind is fresh, and I prepare breakfast and a pot of tea. At around 4:30, I settle in and begin to write. Sometimes, if I don’t have any idea on what to write by then, I browse through Facebook while sorting through the many thoughts running in my head. By around 5 or 5:30, I usually have the germ of an idea already.

I start by writing the first sentence. If it doesn’t sound that good, I rewrite it. When I’m happy with it, I move on to the next, and the next and so on, and pretty soon I’ve written entire paragraphs. Most of the time I finish the article by 6:30 and email it to Sunstar and my wife who is always my first reader and proofreader. If she catches any typos before noon, she tells me about it and I send a corrected version to Sunstar.

So here we are, at the end of another of my four o’clock habits, just when the neighborhood is about to wake up. The birds are singing, the roosters are crowing, some dogs are barking and the sky is beginning to lighten up. A car engine starts in the distance as I finish off the last cup of tea.

Happy fourth birthday, Freethinking Me.

 

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Devil On My Mind (Part 2)

Cover art for The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities

The Satanic Temple (TST) is an atheistic religion, meaning it neither believes in God nor an actual, literal Satan. Instead Satan is seen as “symbolic of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority, forever defending personal sovereignty even in the face of insurmountable odds. Satan is an icon for the unbowed will of the unsilenced inquirer… the heretic who questions sacred laws and rejects all tyrannical impositions.”

Satanists, as envisioned by TST, are those who “embrace rational inquiry” and who reject superstitions and supernaturalism. They “actively work to hone critical thinking and exercise reasonable agnosticism in all things,” believing that one’s views must ultimately conform to the best scientific understanding of the world, and never the reverse. In other words, belief must follow science.

TST is not to be confused with the original Church of Satan founded by Anton Lavey in 1966, though its ideologies clearly evolved from it. Both are atheistic in nature but Laveyan Satanists still believe in magic or some sort of supernaturalism, claiming that it is still an undiscovered facet of reality.

It also rejects the authoritarianism found in other Satanist sects (yep, as with any other religion, there are several of those too) as well as the obsession they have in being the “one, true Church of Satan.” TST is quite open to working with other groups, Satanists or otherwise.

TST is quite active in the socio-political arena. In 2014, it started a fundraising campaign for a statue of Baphomet (the goat-headed demon) to be placed at the Oklahoma State Capitol. This was in response to a congressman’s donation of a sculpture of the Ten Commandments at the same place. The logic was that if the state allowed one religious monument, then it should likewise allow other religious monuments to be similarly placed. Otherwise, it would be violating the religious non-establishment clause in the US Constitution (also found in the Philippine Constitution) which prohibited favoring one religion over another.

The plan did not push through though as the Ten Commandments monument was destroyed that same year, and thus TST had no more reason to put its own monument there — and it also felt it was inappropriate to do so. They finally installed the Baphomet statue at the Detroit chapter of The Satanic Temple.

Another interesting campaign of theirs is called After School Satan, which blatantly proclaims to “counter evangelism in schools.”

“It’s important that children be given an opportunity to realize that the evangelical materials now creeping into their schools are representative of but one religious opinion amongst many. While the Good News Clubs focus on indoctrination, instilling them with a fear of Hell and God’s wrath, After School Satan Clubs will focus on free inquiry and rationalism, the scientific basis for which we know what we know about the world around us. We prefer to give children anappreciation of the natural wonders surrounding them, not a fear of everlasting other-worldly horrors.”

All this comes complete with their own religious literature, “The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.”

TST cleverly used a legal decision that was first exploited by evangelistic Christian groups to argue that the government cannot prohibit their groups from operating after school hours, nor can it discriminate against religious speech. Since TST is itself a religion, it could then also operate under the same legal framework as other religious groups.

When I introduced this topic last week, one of my readers found it interesting but objected to the group naming themselves The Satanic Temple. Doing so antagonizes majority of the world’s population and may not really be appealing to many.

Personally, I find the idea amusing and appealing to a certain demographic. It has some shock value and because of its religious classification, it can certainly penetrate in some areas that other organizations cannot. It has its own niche in the budding fields of agnostic-atheist groups.

While I don’t see myself joining them anytime soon, I wouldn’t mind having some of them over for dinner. Care to join us?

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Devil On My Mind (Part 1)

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Being free from religion has enabled me to look at other religions in a new, often fascinating, way. Before, I would approach other religions with a mix of fear and trepidation, always on the lookout to point out what was wrong with them. Of course, what was “wrong” was always in relation to what my particular branch of Christianity found wrong, and I was always armed with the appropriate Bible verses to explain why such beliefs were unsound or even perverse.

This way of seeing prevented me from truly appreciating or even just understanding other religions. And I was careful never to dig too deeply because there was always that irrational fear that the devil was behind all other “false” religions and would use those to subvert and seduce me into their way of thinking.

Of course, there would be some Christians reading this who would say that the devil has in fact been successful in subverting my mind, seeing that I write and think as I do. Then again, they would have to say that for all other sorts of thinking that are not congruent with their own, and looking at the many variants, denominations, and offshoots of Christianity, I cannot help but think that even they cannot get their own house in order so until they get that sorted out, what they think of what I think is their problem, not mine.

Anyway, I have just spent the last hour or so reading about this religious organization founded in the US in 2014, and has since been quite active regarding controversial issues in secularism, child abuse, gay marriage, and so on. It is an interesting organization because its name alone will send shivers down the spine of most Christians and even the more liberal ones will feel a slight tinge of apprehension.

Before I reveal its name though, let me share its mission statement as well as its guiding principles or tenets, as published in its website (slightly reworded as not to give away the name of the religion at this point):

“[Our mission]  is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will. Politically aware, Civic-minded [members] and allies have publicly opposed The Westboro Baptist Church, advocated on behalf of children in public school to abolish corporal punishment, applied for equal representation where religious monuments are placed on public property, provided religious exemption and legal protection against laws that unscientifically restrict women’s reproductive autonomy, exposed fraudulent harmful pseudo-scientific practitioners and claims in mental health care, and applied to hold clubs alongside other religious after school clubs in schools besieged by proselytizing organizations.”

Its guiding principles or tenets are the following:

 

  • One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
  • The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
  • One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
  • The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo your own.
  • Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
  • People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.
  • Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.

 

If that sounds like something you can rally behind, then you might want to consider joining this group founded by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry called the Satanic Temple.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

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