The recent massacre at Sandy Hook has left us grasping for answers. How could such a horrible event occur? Who could do such a thing? Why is there so much violence in our society? In a frantic effort to make sense of this tragedy, people are entertaining all sorts of explanations.

One position that seems to be prevalent is the notion that our country is turning away from God. I have seen a few variants of this assertion. Some people simply say that the United States is becoming less religious and thus less moral (and more violent). Some put forward a slightly more specific claim that a decline in traditional Christian faith is making our society less respectful of human life and more violent. And others go even further by specifically implicating the lack of religious teaching in public schools as the critical variable.

All of these perspectives would thus presumably hypothesize that the less religious (particularly Christian) a society is, the more violent it will be. The problem is the data clearly do not support this hypothesis. In fact, the opposite is often true.

Countries that tend to be more secular have lower murder and violent crime rates than countries that tend to be more religious. For example, murders and other violent crimes are more commonplace in the United States where religiosity is relatively high than in countries in Europe that tend to be less religious. Of course, countries are different in many ways and thus maybe it is not fair to compare the United States to countries like Norway and Switzerland.

However, the data are very similar within the United States. The states that rank lowest in religiosity also have the lowest murder and violent crime rates. In addition, though atheists make up somewhere between 3 and 10 percent of the U.S. general population, they make up less than one quarter of one percent of the U.S. prison population. Similarly, almost all polls on issues related to public support of aggressive or violent policies suggest that atheists are more passive and peaceful than Christians. For example, a Pew Foundation survey found that Christians were more likely to support the use of torture in terrorist interrogations that non-believers. White evangelical Christians were the most supportive of torture as an interrogation tool. In polling on topics such as the death penalty and support for U.S. led invasions of foreign countries a similar pattern emerges. Generally speaking, non-religious folks are not that interested in tactics that involve violence.

If turning away from God leads to a collapse of mortality and respect for human life shouldn’t prisons be full of atheists? Shouldn’t atheists be indifferent to the human rights of suspected terrorists and criminals? Shouldn’t the United States be less violent than more secular democracies? Shouldn’t the Bible Belt have lower violent crime rates than the more secular regions of our country? Clearly, the data do not support the belief that abandoning religion leads to increased social problems such as violent crime and decreased compassion for others.

I can already hear someone saying that it is not the “truly religious” or “real Christians” committing violent crimes in the United States. Perhaps this is true. However, though this rationale could be employed to maintain the belief that religion is not increasing violence in America, it in no way makes the critical argument that a lack of religious faith leads to violence or indifference towards others. That is, even if the “true” believers are not violent the fact remains that neither are the non-believers. Remember, relatively non-religious democratic nations appear to be fairly peaceful and atheists are an underrepresented group in American prisons. There is simply no compelling evidence that the absence of religion within a society or within a person leads to a moral vacuum. In fact, compared to the United States, more secular European nations have lower rates of other social ills related to morality such as teenage pregnancy.

I am not in any way attacking religion. I have written extensively about the benefits of religion and this post is not intended to derogate anyone’s faith. So I will again emphasize that I am not saying (nor is the data) that religion causes violence (though others have made this argument). I am also not contesting anyone’s personal position that religion is an important inner strength that provides moral guidance. But what I will say based on the data is that religion is not the simple solution that people want to believe it is or could be. The argument that a lack of religion is the cause of our problems and the presence of religion is the solution is a weak one. Clearly there are societies and regions of America that are both secular and relatively peaceful. And the prevalence of religion in America does not seem to be suppressing the violence that is so common in our culture.

Let me put forward another way to think about this issue. For the readers of this blog who are religious, if you believe that God created humans, then presumably you believe that God equipped our species with the brains that allow us to do science in the service of bettering our world and our lives. If so, then perhaps you would agree that God would want us to use our intellectual abilities to empirically investigate the causes of violence as opposed to clinging to our religious beliefs as simple answers to complex social problems. Religion can do a lot for people but there is little reason to think that it alone will make our cities, neighborhoods, or schools safer.

About the Author

Clay Routledge

Clay Routledge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

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