Unfortunately, in his recent post, "Do we need religion to be ethical?" Thomas Plante, PhD, makes statements that perpetuate common misinformation with regard to religion and secularism. While I doubt that Plante intended the comments to be disparaging toward secular individuals, they most certainly are. In fact, considering that the statements come from an educated man and not some uniformed member of the general public, they are especially troubling.
Plante casually claims that religious people are "better citizens" and "behave better." And without citing any sources, he tells us: "Research has consistently found that religious people are less likely to engage in criminal behavior, marital infidelity, alcoholism, unprotected sexual activity. . ."
In other words, according to Plante, if you're not religious you might be a good person, but on average you are more likely to have these undesirable characteristics. This is a bold assertion that, of course, immediately puts secular individuals on the defensive. (Just imagine if the same claims were made against any other minority group.) It is precisely claims like these that lead to many Americans having an unfavorable view of atheists and other nonbelievers.
Fortunately for atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists, there is no factual basis for Plante's claim that "research has consistently found" secular individuals to be more prone to such antisocial behavior. Consider, for example, a March 2009 academic article in Sociology Compass that extensively researched the subjects raised by Plante. The article, by Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College, is entitled "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions" and, unlike Plante's article, it cites detailed studies of the areas in question.
Zuckerman analyzed a wide array of data comparing religious nations to less religious nations and also, interestingly, religious states within the United States (i.e. "Bible-belt" states) to less religious states. While I encourage readers to examine the article directly through the link above, here are just a few of the highlights:
Citing four different studies, Zuckerman states: "Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread." He also states: "Of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries."
Within the United States, we see the same pattern. Citing census data, he writes: "And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be the highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be the among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon."
And these findings are not limited to murder rates, as rates of all violent crime tend to be higher in "religious" states. Zuckerman also points out that atheists are very much under-represented in the American prison population (only 0.2%).
Zuckerman cites a 1999 Barna study that finds that atheists and agnostics actually have lower divorce rates than religious Americans.
He also cites another study, in Canada, that found conservative Christian women experienced higher rates of domestic violence than non-affiliated women.
As for Plante's claim that studies have "consistently " found that religious people are less likely to engage in unprotected sex, that claim is directly refuted by a 2009 study that found the reverse - teens who make religion-inspired "virginity pledges" are not only just as likely as their non-pledging peers to engage in premarital sex, but more likely to engage in unprotected sex.
Happiness: The most secular nations in the world report the highest levels of happiness among their population.
Altruism: Secular nations such as those in Scandinavia donate the most money and supportive aid, per capita, to poorer nations. Zuckerman also reports that two studies show that, during the Holocaust, "the more secular people were, the more likely they were to rescue and help persecuted Jews."
Outlooks and Values: Zuckerman, citing numerous studies, shows that atheists and agnostics, when compared to religious people, are actually less likely to be nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, dogmatic, ethnocentric, and authoritarian. Secularism also correlates to higher education levels. Atheists and other secular people are also much more likely to support women's rights and gender equality, as well as gay and lesbian rights. Religious individuals are more likely to support government use of torture.
Of course, studies can be cherry-picked to present religiosity in a better light than above, and the point of this article is not to prove the moral superiority of secularism. Nevertheless, whatever Plante wishes to cite, it is impossible to claim that studies "consistently" support his claims of positive social outcomes correlating to religion. To the contrary, the weight of most data seems to indicate that religiosity is a poor indicator of social health or personal virtue.
To Plante's credit, he acknowledges that religion is not necessary for ethical behavior. Still, the thrust of his message attempts to make a case for religion (and implicitly critical of secularism) that simply isn't supported by facts. Most secular individuals would not argue with him when he asserts that religion might help some to be good, and even when he argues that religious institutions can sometimes help toward that end, but such claims do nothing to justify the perpetuation of plain falsehoods regarding atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists, falsehoods that in turn perpetuate prejudice against them.
David Niose's new book is Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. Order the book here.
Article copyright David Niose
Cartoon credit: atheistcartoons.com