The concept of punishment is embedded in cultures poisoned by patriarchal religions. From the ancient Greeks to today's evangelicals of any stripe, life is seen as a state of perpetual childhood, dominated by patriarchal gods and moderating matriarchal goddesses. The good are rewarded by these imaginary judges. The bad are punished. The rich are blessed. The poor are punished. Basic responsibilities of citizens, such as paying taxes, are seen as punishments, equivalent to a child being told to take out the garbage by a parent. Climbing over the backs of laborers for wealth and fame is seen as a divine reward, as opposed to grasping greed and disloyalty to universal human equality.
A secular humanist can be freed from this patriarchal model. Humanism is based in mindful understanding, skeptical inquiry and compassion through self-development. The secular humanist, by accepting the Universe and its observable realities, is an adult being with full responsibility for his/her actions and their results. The humanist steers his/her own craft through life's waters.The humanist understands that the winds that influence that craft are not the puffs from cheeks of an imaginary god. The winds of change and circumstance are simply natural occurrences to be explored, understood and accepted as part of life's journey.
Punishment becomes irrelevant when cause and effect are understood with educated openness. An example can be seen in the variety of prison systems in the developed world. In secular countries, prisons are seen as places of rehabilitation. Sentences are shorter. Conditions are more humane. Recidivism rates are lower. In countries ruled by religious paradigms of reward and punishment, like the United States, prisons are overcrowded repositories, designed to keep bad people off the streets. Recidivism is higher. Violence and criminal behavior flourish within the institutions themselves. Wardens and guards are part of the patriarchal punishment machine, as opposed to custodians of a rehabilitative process.
A humanist society could reject reward and punishment in favor of education and compassion. Rather than carrying out the imagined judgments of a patriarchal god, humanists in authority could realize they are representatives of human society itself, in its full diversity and group intelligence. In this election year in the U.S., patriarchal and humanist visions of authority are in open conflict. The Republican religious base demands fealty to the old gods of patriarchy, racism and homophobia. The Democrat Left struggles to steer that party back to its humanist values of feminism, diversity and human rights. The world is increasingly facing this choice, because the patriarchal model is bringing the human race to the brink of ecological failure. If it occurs, that ecological failure of our species will not be a punishment. It will be a form of conscious suicide.