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Religion, Atheism, and Crime
Religion and Peace
What is the relationship between religion and crime? Is a more religious society a more peaceful one? Does non-belief lead to more violence? To answer these questions, we will consider rates of religious adherence and rates of crime in the US nationally, among the US states, and among developed countries.
God and Crime in America: Trends Over Time
The United States has become more secular in the late 20th and early 21st century. We see the following patterns:
- Christians: About 86% of Americans considered themselves Christians in 1990, but by 2008 this number had fallen to between 76 and 78%.
- Nonbelievers: Americans with no religion rose from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008. Every state saw a rise in its proportion of nonbelievers.
- Prayer: The percentage of people who ever prayed stood at 95% in 1983, and dropped to about 88% by 2008. Meanwhile, the number of people who reported "never" praying rose from about 4% to 11% in the same period.
- Religious service attendance: In 1972, the majority of people attended religious services once a month or more frequently. In 2008, a slim majority attended several times a year or less often. The greatest growth has been among those never attending. Actual weekly church attendance is estimated at somewhere between 17 and 30%, not the 40% level common in self-reporting polls. This means that at least 70% of Americans do not attend church weekly, or even every other week. And this has been true for several decades.
- Reading sacred texts: In 2007, 41% of people reported reading sacred texts less than once a year, or never.
So America has clearly become more secular in the last 40 years. What has crime done during this time? The data indicates that since 1970, crime has increased, and then decreased (see the chart below that I made in Microsoft Excel, using data from the BJS).
In 2007, violent crime was roughly where it was forty years earlier. And property crime was actually below where it had been. Decreasing religious belief has either had no impact, or a slightly positive impact, on the American crime rate.
God and Crime in America: Among the States
Among the American states, there is a neutral-to-positive correlation between religious behavior, and rates of crime. To see this relationship, I used three measures:
- The FBI's statistics for crime by state in 2006;
- Rates of church or synagogue attendance by state in 2006; and
- The importance of religion in people's daily lives by state in 2009
Religiosity had no significant relationship with violent crime, but it had a notable positive correlation with property crime. To see this, I simply used Microsoft Excel to plot the numbers against each other (see charts below).
If nothing else, this data disproves the notion that less religious belief inexorably contributes to, or is correlated with, more crime. Not only is this completely false, but the opposite--that religion is correlated with crime--is somewhat true.
Property crime correlated with religious attendance
Property crime correlated with religion in daily life
God and Crime Around the World
As a general rule, religiosity is highest among the poorest nations of the world, and lowest among the richest. This Gallup study of global religiosity, asked people around the world if religion was an important part of their daily lives. Unsurprisingly, there is a general correlation between the importance of religion in daily life, and homicide rates.
Less scientifically, we can generally see that the more secular and agnostic societies of the rich world tend to be among the most peaceful, at least in the area of homicides. The US is the most murderous country in the rich world by far, while being one of the most religious. About 33% of Americans indicate religion is not important in their daily lives. For the least murderous societies (which include Singapore, Austria, Norway, Switzerland and Germany), this number is never lower than 40%, and goes as high as 78%.
A similar trend is seen globally, but it is weaker because of challenges in collecting international data, the wide diversity in laws, political issues (including terrorism and war), and a number of cultural and social factors that affect crime rates. This BBC article explains the complexity and difficulty of international crime comparisons.
God and Crime: Conclusions
On an international, national or sub-national level, greater religiosity does not inevitably lead to a more peaceful society. Increasing rates of atheism and agnosticism do not and have not correlated with increasing crime rates. In fact, in many instances, the opposite has been true: increased religious adherence is correlated with more violence and social instability.
A number of reasons may be suggested for these results. Religion is caused by circumstances of poverty, lack of opportunities and violence (especially as people turn to religion to find peace). In addition, religion itself often cultivates violence, whether terrorism, domestic violence, or rivalry among religious groups with competing claims to the truth.