Encore post: religiosity vs homicide rate (by country)

Note: I wrote this for my old blog after the Sandy Hook shootings. And little has changed since then; you still have those saying “we need GOD back in our schools”, as if that would solve anything.

So I decided to crunch some data (this was from 10 years ago, of course) and to the surprise of no one, religiosity positively correlated with homicide rate.

Note: I am NOT suggesting that religiosity leads to the desire to murder; it is likely linked to poverty or possibly a coping mechanism for a violent world.

The encore post follows:

There was a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut today, and 27 people are dead (mostly kids). Of course this is horrible; I can’t imagine the reaction from the other kids, parents, grandparents and other loved ones. My heart goes out to them.

Some perspective: where the death of a kid is sad, and more shocking when it is unexpected and enraging when it is as the result of an intentional, senseless act, death from these events is not the biggest risk that kids have. Here is a bigger one that doesn’t make the headlines (because it doesn’t kill as many at one time):

In 2009, a total of 1,314 children age 14 and younger were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes. Of those 1,314 fatalities, 181 (14%) occurred in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. Out of those 181 deaths, 92 (51%) were occupants of a vehicle with a driver who had a BAC level of .08 or higher, and another 27 children (15%) were pedestrians or pedalcyclists struck by drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher.

In short, drunk driving crackdowns can save more kids than, say, potential measures to prevent such massacres.

And don’t even get me started on wars…

But what about this event? Of course, the debates over gun control open up full throttle. You will see: “we need more gun control” and “guns don’t kill people” and “if only the teachers or others were armed, they could have killed the gunman.” Yeah, sure, to the latter.

And of course, we have the usual: “see, God let it happen because we turned away from God”:

(uh, the less religious countries have much lower rates of violent deaths than we do) I’ll post some data at the end of this post.

But while I have an argument that makes sense to me, I realize that I had little or no data to back up my argument. So I found an article that did pose some data:

So what are the factors that are associated with firearm deaths at the state level?

Poverty is one. The correlation between death by gun and poverty at the state level is .59.

An economy dominated by working class jobs is another. Having a high percentage of working class jobs is closely associated with firearm deaths (.55).

And, not surprisingly, firearm-related deaths are positively correlated with the rates of high school students that carry weapons on school property (.54).

What about politics? It’s hard to quantify political rhetoric, but we can distinguish blue from red states. Taking the voting patterns from the 2008 presidential election, we found a striking pattern: Firearm-related deaths were positively associated with states that voted for McCain (.66) and negatively associated with states that voted for Obama (-.66). Though this association is likely to infuriate many people, the statistics are unmistakable. Partisan affiliations alone cannot explain them; most likely they stem from two broader, underlying factors – the economic and employment makeup of the states and their policies toward guns and gun ownership.

Firearm deaths were far less likely to occur in states with higher levels of college graduates (-.64) and more creative class jobs (-.52).

Gun deaths were also less likely in states with higher levels of economic development (with a correlation of -.32 to economic output) and higher levels of happiness and well-being (-.41).

And for all the terrifying talk about violence-prone immigrants, states with more immigrants have lower levels of gun-related deaths (the correlation between the two being -.34).

Of course, these are STATISTICAL findings (e. g., Connecticut is a blue state); and yes, we have gun deaths in Illinois…a LOT of them, especially in Chicago.

Here is another list of facts about mass shootings: the US is more prone to these than other countries (duh) and the mere presence of more guns doesn’t lead to more gun deaths (Switzerland is an example). Switzerland does require firearms training though.

Data on Religiosity Vs. Homicide rate (reposted from an earlier blogpost about theater shootings)

WASHINGTON — Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said Friday that the shootings that took place in an Aurora, Colo. movie theater hours earlier were a result of “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs” and questioned why nobody else in the theater had a gun to take down the shooter.

I suppose that if I had a different upbringing, I’d laugh at such absurd statements. Unfortunately, I grew up among superstitious people who think EXACTLY like that. Whereas I am grateful I no longer have to associate with that crowd, I feel the need to point to, well, statistical evidence. Let’s look at homicide rates by country:
(rates: per 100,000 population; the US rate is 4.8 per 100,000; we rank 27’th:

Our religiosity rate (by the “unimportant” rating) is 34.5 percent, which is 42’nd (less religious is higher in this scale).

What do you notice? That’s right; the less religious countries are also LESS violent.

I decided to run a regression on the religiosity versus homicide rate; here “x” is “percent saying that religion is UNIMPORTANT” and “y” is homicides per 100,000 population.

The regression formula is y = 23.4 – 29.8 x which means that the the higher percentage of the population saying that religion is unimportant, the lower the homicide rate.

The plot is a bit of a mess:

Vertical axis: homicide rates per 100,000 population. Horizontal axis: percentage of population saying that “religion is unimportant” That is about as clear as it gets, though the relation is non-linear (and really shouldn’t be either).

and of course, this is highly non-linear; r^2 = .153.

Then look at the US prison population (FBI statistics):

In **1997**, the Federal Bureau of Prisons released the professed religious adherence rate of those in the U.S. Federal Prison system.

Christians make up about 80% of the American population AND prison population.

However, Atheists make up about 8% of the American population but only 0.2% of the prison population.

Bottom line: atheists are LESS likely to commit crimes than believers, though some of that might be due to factors such as educational level.

In any event, there is zero evidence for the claim that being religious and believing in superstitions makes someone more moral.

When superstition kills

Yes, I was once a Catholic and haven’t been one in many years (30+) I did outgrow believing in much of the hocus-pocus ..though even when I was still going, I didn’t take it seriously.

I remember once describing the throat blessing ritual (with the candles) and my date just laughing hysterically. She asked “do you REALLY believe that?” I said: “Well, I did get my flu shot so…draw your own conclusion.”

That might seem harmless. BUT:

But you should see some of the responses! Oh goodness..
Believing in the mumbo-jumbo can kill.
It is NOT “all symbolic” to them.

Book of Mormon plays in Peoria

We caught the matinee. And yes, this came out in 2011. It is easy to find the commentaries and a synopsis of the plot.

But though it was “over the top” comedy and the vulgarity might repulse some (simulated sex, dysentery jokes, “maggots in my scrotum”, etc.), and their depiction of Mormon theology wasn’t accurate, they did make some true comments about humans, suffering, the relevance of “hope through myth” and how missionaries might (have?) changed things to get people of a different culture to accept..and how sometimes religions bifurcate into different religions.

The profaneness was “with a point.”

And so, I enjoyed the humor, music, acting…pretty much everything about it.

Why I am an atheist (with disclaimer)

First, I should define the term “atheism”: I am using it to mean “lack of belief in a god, deity, supernatural spirit, etc.” This is not a statement of knowledge; it is a statement of belief.

Strictly speaking I am an agnostic in that I do not claim to have certainty in my belief; I remain open to evidence. For example, there may be some concept of deity that have never heard of…or perhaps some sentient beings in some other part of the universe have it all figured out and I am just unaware of it.

But, I do not label myself an “agnostic” in public because others tend to take that as a sign that I haven’t made up my mind about, say, the Abrahamic deity, or perhaps one of the several thousand Hindu deities. Trust me, I have. Oh sure, perhaps Joseph Smith really had those golden plates, or maybe Jesus really did die and rose from the dead. But I see those things as having what Richard Dawkins calls “fairies in the garden” probability that I just use the approximation that they are false. I take the probability of the existence of such deities as seriously as you might take the probability of the existence of, say, magic goats. (yes, some really do take this seriously….)

Anyhow, if you find the idea of a magic goat ridiculous, that is what I think about YOUR stories of supernatural miracles.

Yes, I know…there are “sophisticated theologies” out there; I am sometimes told that all I have done is to reject the simple minded deity of my childhood. And yes, there might be some “grand” deity that is out there that can’t be detected by humans. It does something like this (a discussion between Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins)

DAWKINS: To me, the right approach is to say we are profoundly ignorant of these matters. We need to work on them. But to suddenly say the answer is God–it’s that that seems to me to close off the discussion.

TIME: Could the answer be God?

DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.

COLLINS: That’s God.

DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small–at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that’s the case.

And the physicist Mano Singham puts it very well:

As another example, here is the statement made by a commenter to my post arguing that religious atheists are getting even more atheistic who said, “I would suggest that you might want to bone up a bit on theology a bit before you pontificate on this particular subject… Your knowledge on religion appears to be quite limited, and you might want to learn a little more about it before you pontificate on it.”

Or again, “[A]ny number of philosophically illiterate folks can pretend to deal with the existence of God and not refer to Aquinas or Descartes or Kierkegaarde or any other notable genius who has spent the time and effort necessary to think about such a difficult and weighty and fundamentally complex topic… Any arguments about moral atheism are just amateurish attempts at what Kant and Spinoza and Berkeley were doing when they wanted to hold on to all the trappings of Christianity but do away with Christianity, and I’ll lay odds that anyone in the modern day who’s making similar arguments is going to be roughly a jillion times less intelligent than any of those three.”

That’s putting me in my place, isn’t it?

What is being asserted is that sophisticated theologians and philosophers, people who are much smarter than me, have studied these issues in great depth and have already explained everything and we need to go to them to find answers. God is so subtle that it is only through immersion in the works of these theologians and philosophers that we can obtain an understanding of him. Those of us who are not professional theologians and philosophers should shut up about our demands for dumb old evidence and not draw any conclusions on the question of god’s existence until we have devoted years to carefully studying the works of these theologians and philosophers.

This idea that god is so hard to grasp will no doubt come as news to the billions of religious believers who think they know god pretty well and have a good relationship with him without such study.

But we atheists are not talking about understanding the nature of god. We are not talking about the meaning of god. We are talking about whether god exists or not. This should surely be the prior question and is one that depends on evidence for an answer.

What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

(emphasis mine; last paragraph is also Singham’s writing).

So, yes, I am not that well versed in philosophy. And yes, I am sure you can posit the existence of word-salad deities. But I have no interest in those. Sure, the deity of a deist (see “deism“) could well be undetectable. But so what? I have no interest in investing thought and intellectual energy in that area. The only deities that I am interested in are those who affect the day to day events of the universe. If your deity cannot even do that (or won’t), then I don’t care.

What about “belief in belief”? Some think that atheism is arrogant. It might be…people become atheists for many reasons.

Some see evil as a problem (e. g. the deity didn’t prevent the Holocaust or other genocides). Some see believers acting badly or irrationally. Others see how utterly ridiculous the religious texts are (e. g. the Bible is full of howlers: talking snakes, talking donkeys, miracles, etc.).

None of that really applies to me. Who is to say that a deity couldn’t be, well, evil?

No, my current state is the result of evidence that I’ve seen. And, ok, there is a certain philosophical appeal as well.

Think about how huge the universe is: galaxies are enormous and there are billions of those. And all of this was done by some deity for the benefit of Homo sapiens? That just makes no sense to me whatsoever.

And I admit that there is an emotional appeal. To me, it is the height of arrogance to think that there is some deity that will rearrange natural law for MY benefit if only I beg enough.

But sure, my finding atheism appealing both philosophically and emotionally doesn’t mean that it is true; I admit that. So, *in theory*, I remain open to changing my mind …though not about the religions and deities that I’ve already heard of.

But what about religious practices? Yes, I do believe that some religious practices have value. Fellowship can be life affirming. Yoga can both strengthen and relax both the body and mind. Prayer and meditation can calm the mind and emotions, and possibly make you of more service to others. And yes, sometimes, church (or temple, or mosque) is a place where someone challenges you to live a better life.
And yes, religious texts and myths can provide a poetic framework with which to discuss things (e. g. “writing on the wall”, “judge not”, “cast the first stone”, “do onto others”, etc.)

I just see these practices as being beneficial for secular, naturalistic reasons, not supernatural ones.