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Austin Cline

Atheism, Theism, and Violence

By December 26, 2004

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Quite a few religious believers try to argue that religion and theism are necessary for morality; the implication is that atheism is incompatible with morality in some fashion. Why is it, then, that atheists aren't more immoral and committing more crimes?

Nanovirus observes:

Atheists, being a moderate proportion of the USA population (about 8-16%) are disproportionately less numerous in the prison population (0.21%)

Japan (the most atheistic nation in the G-8) has the lowest murder rate while the United States (the most Christian nation in the G-8) has the highest. Japan used to have much stronger religious faith, and a state religion, and guess what: Japan was remarkably aggressive and militaristic when "Shinto" was at its peak, and during WW2, when its Emperor was regarded as a God.

Louisiana, with America's highest church attendance rate, has twice the national average murder rate.

If atheism causes violence, why are right-wing fundamentalists unable to find a shred of statistical evidence to back that claim up?

These are all very good points. Some discrepancy between the number of atheists in the population and in prison might not mean much, but the discrepancy we have is quite large. If there were something about atheism that were incompatible with morality, wouldn't we see the discrepancy going in the other direction? Why are less religious nations (not just Japan, but also countries like Britain) also nations that have less violent crime? Why are the more "liberal, secular" portions of America those with less divorce and murder?

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July 5, 2009 at 8:53 pm
(1) FapFap says:

I agree 100%. Religious fruitcakes are a dangerous bunch.

November 24, 2009 at 5:40 pm
(2) Rand says:

the United States (the most Christian nation in the G-8)

We kicked Italy out of the G-8? When did that happen? And yeah, they are significantly more Christian than the US (90% vs. 78%). But I suppose facts shouldn’t get in the way of a rant.

November 16, 2010 at 4:37 pm
(3) Atheist says:

You also have to take into account that not as many people in Italy go to church as the USA.

February 25, 2010 at 2:26 pm
(4) Phantom91 says:

The prison statistic isn’t so accurate. No such statistic has ever been conducted by the United States prison system, or poll system. It just appeared in an atheist handbook.

Even if there was such a poll, would it take into consideration prison ministries done by Christians, and the lack of ministries by atheists? Would it take into consideration what prisoners believed at the time of their crime, as opposed to when they were sentenced? (People do see religion as a way to redeem themselves). Furthermore, Japan’s lack of militarism after WWII isn’t due to their atheism, it’s due to the massive political treaties placed upon them, and their religion died when the US showed their divine Emperor to not be all powerful. Furthermore, Japan has the highest suicide rate in the world, something we consider immoral in Western society.

I think crime is more closely linked to economics as well. Louisiana is amongst most religious states in the union, it is also amongst the most poor states. Is it those who attend church doing the crimes, or is it the most poor who don’t attend church?

If we look at Europe, the former Eastern Bloc nations are amongst the most poor, and have the highest crime rates on the continent, but they’re also the most atheistic.

To date, the Vatican, a highly religious city-state, remains to the have the highest population density in the world, and the lowest crime rate.

But, alas, correlation does not equate causation. If it did, then atheist societies would also be the most deadly (USSR, China, N. Korea, Cambodia).

August 7, 2010 at 9:42 pm
(5) NotSoFast says:

Phantom91, well said, BUT please consider that the atheist countries you cite are ALL countries of forced atheism.

Japan and the U.S. are countries where atheism isn’t forced.

The only conclusion that can really be drawn from this is that neither theism nor atheism imply higher murder rates.

August 10, 2010 at 1:08 pm
(6) 4Real says:

There are a few problems with the premise of this article (not too mention numerous statistics such as the US being the most Christian country in the G-8).
The problem here is with comparing Japan and the US is that we aren’t just different in terms of religion we are also different in terms of diversity. Several other studies have shown that diversity (I’m not talking only racial diversity here either) actually leads to an increase in crime rates.
Take into account also the fact that the country with the lowest violent crime rates in the world (Lichtenschtein of all places) also has a relatively high rate of religiousity and a national religion (that being Roman Catholic). In fact the majority of nations with the lowest crime rates are religious although the specific religion they adhere to is different.

In the United States alone, religiousity and church attendance has actually been shown to correlate positively with lower crime rates (not to mention much lower rates of divorce and substance abuse) when compared to those who are religiously unaffiliated (of which atheists make up about 5%-7% of that group). According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health which surveys 15,000 young adults ages 18-25 nationwide found that higher church attendance rates meant significantly lower rates of criminal behavior across the board with the highest rates being among the religiously unaffiliated.
Other studies have found that criminals who convert to a religion while in prison are significantly less likely to recommit a crime when released.
Also the city in the US with the highest level of church attendance, Porvo UT, also has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.
What’s the logical conclusion to draw here? That religion has only a small effect on crime rates worldwide (the most telling statistic probably has much more to do with economy than religious beliefs) and, in cases of crime vs. religion in the US, the outcome almost always favors religion.

Also, you should be aware of the fact that in terms of the American population the atheist population is actually far smaller than 8-10%. Religiously unaffiliated actually makes up that percentage and alot of people confuse religiously unaffiliated to automatically mean atheist, but that actually isn’t true. According to the general social survey, one of the largest and most trusted surveys in the country, 80% of religiously unaffiliated people believe in God and atheists only make up about 1.8% of the total population.

Also, the US doesn’t have the highest violent crime rate of G-8 nations. That honor actually goes to Russia.

August 11, 2010 at 9:50 am
(7) Austin Cline says:

The problem here is with comparing Japan and the US is that we aren’t just different in terms of religion we are also different in terms of diversity.

Of course there are other differences. It’s precisely because of so many differences that the better studies factor them out to see how strong of a role something in particular plays. If you’re trying to argue that important differences were not factored out, then present your evidence.

In the United States alone, religiousity and church attendance has actually been shown to correlate positively with lower crime rates

Actually, a higher number of churches correlates with higher rates of crime in an area, even after eliminating other factors.

Also, you should be aware of the fact that in terms of the American population the atheist population is actually far smaller than 8-10%.

Actually, when survey questions are worded to avoid the social undesirability of atheism, the results reveal a far higher percentage of nonbelievers.

September 8, 2010 at 6:35 am
(8) Steidemeister says:

@ rand

yeah showing statistics that the debunk the claims of rightwinged fundamentalist christians, is a total rant ;)

This is not supposed to say that christians are immoral itīs supposed to show that the claims of theists that atheists are immoral canīt be backed up by any statictical material. I agree that it is incomplete and that you canīt really say that one is more moral than another but by that logic it is a lie to say that atheists are imoral without calling yourself that.

April 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm
(9) William C. Barwell says:

ARIS and other large studies have noted a large rise in the number of unchurched, atheists, and agnostics in Ameica since the 1990′s. This rise in “unchurched” was largest in the Northeast and Northwest, and did not attain such high rates in the South. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports demonstrate that at the same time, violent crime took the steepest drop since Post WWII. This drop was also non-uniform, crime in the South did not drop steeply. This demonstrates that the old canard that Atheists and non-believers cannot be moral without a belief in God is simply false. This also puts the lie to the claim that nonbelievers simple become so to escape morality in name of some sort of morality-free hedonism. Statistics also show a steep drop in recent illegitimate births. Older statistics demonstrate that crime statistics since the late 1800′s show that atheists and believers were almost absent from priosns. The big four crimes, murder, rape, armed robbery and assault are not crimes atheists and agnostics commit in large numbers, or in numbers out of their proportion among the general population, and this has been true ever since statistics on crime started to be kept by sociologists and criminologists. U.S. non-believers have long been the most crime free and moral by the measure, any claims otherwise are simply false.

Cheerful Charlie

April 30, 2012 at 12:39 am
(10) Ed Costa says:

Most Chinese are atheists. Even buddhist monks, if you ask them, will say that they don’t belive in God. I dare to say that atheism is not imposed upon the Chinese population. My son worked in China for a long time. The country is quite free, in the sense that you have easy access to information, and you are free to express your opinion.

Of course, Chinese government won’t accept that foreign missionaries preach in their country. In any case, the crime rate is very low (5 times lower than in the United States), there are very few people in prison as compared to the United States. In China, there are about 122 inmates per 100000 inhabitants, while in the United States there are more than 700 per 100000.

While in China, my son made blunders like entering the ministry of defense and taking pictures; you know, the building was beautiful, so he decided to take a few photographs. The Chinese police officers were very polite, and explained that the building contained sensitive information. I am convinced that Chinese are well behaved, and the crime rate is so low in their country because most Chinese are atheists.

I lived many years in the United States. American police officers are very rough when dealing with the population. They must act like that, because crime rate is so high. Chinese police officers can afford to be polite because Chinese people are much better integrated in their society. I am sure that atheism is the main cause of the low crime rate in China.

By the way, officers in the public security bureau, as the Chinese police are called, usually do not carry weapons.

July 10, 2012 at 12:27 am
(11) ShadowTiger says:

@ Ed Costa

I would also think that crime rates are much lower in China than they are here in the US because punishments are much tougher in China. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that if you murder someone in China, it’s an instant death sentence. If the evidence confirms you did it, then they execute you. They don’t waste time and money with 6 different trials, which will only result in a life sentence that is actually 15-20 years with good behavior.

July 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm
(12) Austin Cline says:

I would also think that crime rates are much lower in China than they are here in the US because punishments are much tougher in China.

Then why are crime rates also lower in Europe?

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