Dave’s Mailbag, Thursday 9/22/11

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Hello all!

I regularly receive emails about my articles here; depending on the nature of the message, I sometimes get one that I think is better served with a public response. Last night I received the following, presumably in response to my blog post about religious identity vs. practice in America, and thought you all might be interested:

Dave,

You are an asshole. In a depressed society where kids are turning to identity in gangs, and their parents are working as hard as possible to keep them in church based programs and out of trouble, you are running your mouth in opposition. Really dude…you are pathetic. No one has to “identify themselves” as you say. These are churches set up to create a positive identity for a child, and you inflect that kids are forced to go to church. The church in some poor depressed neighborhoods is the very outlet for safe harbor for children…

[sender's name withheld by Dave]

Sender,

Thank you for your message. To make sure I understand your position, your claims are:

1) We live in a depressed society
2) Kids are turning to identity in gangs
3) Parents work to keep their kids in church-based programs
4) …and out of trouble
5) No one has to “identify themselves”
6) These churches [in poor, depressed neighborhoods] are set up to create a positive identity for children
7) Churches in some of these neighborhoods are a safe harbor for children

Let’s break this down:

As a student of economic anthropology, one of the things I study is quantifying and analyzing data about social welfare, the overall well-being of societies. There are a couple of ways to assess your claim. You didn’t mention where you’re writing from, but considering you said “we live,” I’m presuming we’re both from the United States. The HDI (Human Development Index) is the most common composite statistic used to rank countries by level of human development. It’s a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living for countries worldwide.

The United States is among the highest in the world when it comes to human development. In fact, using 2010 data (the latest available), we rank at #4, with an HDI of 0.902, behind only Norway, Australia, and New Zealand.

Now, human happiness is not totally dependent on life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living. People are happy or depressed for all sorts of reasons, many of them subjective:


My ex, Bekka, took the above picture during her Peace Corps service in Liberia, West Africa. These are her brothers and sisters from her host family during training. They are all smiles basking in the attention, and from what I understand talking to her, some of the hardest-working, gentlest, and nicest people you could hope to meet. Liberia is one of the poorest countries on Earth, ranking 162nd on the Human Development index, with a GDP per capita of $392, or about $1.07/day. It is also one of the most religious, with approximately 100% of the population self-identifying with a religious tradition (mostly Christianity, also Islam and indigenous religions). Liberia recently went through two terrible back-to-back civil wars, in which about 1 out of 7 people in the entire country died, and unemployment is still around 90% (!), with 85% of the population living below the international poverty line of $1.25/day purchasing-power parity. Lest readers retort, “Well, I don’t know what $1.25 can buy you in Liberia. Maybe you could live like a king on $1.25/day there,” well, that’s what purchasing-power parity means. In other words, 85% of the population lives on less than what you could buy in the United States for $1.25/day in US dollars ($456.25/year).

I think that, if your claim that we live in a depressed society is true (it’s not; “depressed” is a relative term meaning “in a state of relative unhappiness”; according to 2006 figures, we rank fairly high, at #26 on the Satisfaction with Life index; see also this link – it’s not even that we’re not below-average when it comes to happiness; we’re actually in the top 1/7), we ought to examine what the happiest societies are doing differently than we are.

You imply that promoting atheism, as I do, leads young people away from church and into gangs, and therefore is damaging to the goal of lifting our society out of its depressed state. If I have misunderstood your logic, please let me know, as I don’t desire to tear down a straw man.

We can test your claim empirically. I have already addressed that this is a loaded claim in that our society is, in fact, not in a depressed state by any of several quantitative measures. Even if that were true, though, if atheism leads to crime, then the most atheist societies should have the most crime, especially gang-related crime as you are concerned with. We can also test your claim the other way around: If religion leads to less crime in society, than the most-religious societies should have the least crime, especially when it comes to gang-related crime as you stressed.

I could quote to you a bunch of statistics, graphs, charts, maps, and studies that demonstrate beyond any reasonable refutation that the opposite is true: The most atheistic societies (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, etc) have the least crime, and the most religious societies have the most. I can’t help passing up two quick examples: South American & Mexican drug cartels, and the Italian mob, both in countries with the largest populations (and proportions of the population) of Roman Catholics in the world. If anything, it appears that the hierarchical example of Roman Catholicism may have taught them how to organize their crime! To demonstrate the absurdity of this claim, I’m could say two words to you that you’ve never heard back-to-back before: “Swedish mobsters.” Exactly.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) receiving The Order of St. Sebastian (The Godfather, Part III). Did you know that “Corleone” is actually Swedish, not the name of a city in Sicily, Italy as portrayed in the films?

But instead, I’m going to follow Phil Zuckerman’s advice [the sociologist at Pitzer College who wrote an ethnographic book about his studies in Denmark & Sweden called “Societies Without God: What The Least-Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment”]:

Don’t get sucked into arguments about “Can we be good without God?” Don’t try to convince theists that secular morality is actually more rational and, well, more moral. Rather, just insist that morality is ultimately revealed and shown through human action and deed. And we can plainly see that the least religious countries and states are generally the most moral, peaceful, and humane, while the most religious countries and states are the most crime-ridden, corrupt, and socially troubled. End of discussion.

Let’s move on to the United States, since that will give us data most applicable to our real concern, religiosity vs. crime & depression [of society in general] in this country. I think two complementary facts should demonstrate to you the fundamental flaw in your claim: In the US, in states with the highest percentages of atheists, the murder rate is lower than average. In the most-religious US states, the murder rate is higher than average (PDF link). The National Gang Intelligence Center, a subdivision of the Department of Justice, put together a nice map illustrating where gang activity is concentrated in the United States:

A vast majority of gang activity in Illinois can be attributed to the fact that it contains Chicago (see below). This makes it an outlier in the Midwestern states. Most gang activity in the rest of the country (California, Florida, New Mexico) is immigrant-related, almost exclusively from Mexico & Latin-America (the Latin Kings gang, which is the largest & most-organized in the United States, is actually based in Chicago).

ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) at Trinity College produced this excellent video lecture with Professor Juhem Navarro-Rivera explaining the demographics of religious belief among Latinos in the United States (roughly 21 of every 25 Latinos in the United States identify as Catholic/Christian):


You can download the full report as a PDF here. I can’t help but mention the similarities of the map on the cover of the above report to the map of gang members per capita I posted above from the Department of Justice. Not to say that correlation implies causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy), nor to imply that all Latinos are involved with gangs, but read the reports, look at the statistics, and see for yourself: Self-identification with a religion is highly positively correlated with criminality, both in the United States by state, and in countries around the world. Whether the lower crime rates among atheists is due to their atheism or a third factor is something we should definitely look into, but what is clear is that advocating atheism cannot be said, reasonably, to lead to higher crime rates, nor to depression as a society. In fact, the data suggest the opposite.

If that were true, when we compare a map of religious adherence to a map of crime rates, we should expect to see TWO things:

1) The areas with the MOST adherence should have LOW crime rates

2) The areas with the LEAST adherence should have HIGH crime rates

What do we see when we look at the data?

Click for source data

At best, the correlation is inconclusive. For certain states, it seems to be the opposite – the more religion, the more crime; for others, religiosity and crime don’t seem to be linked.

There is a myth, perpetuated by theists, that religion is necessary in order to keep people from becoming criminals. You made the claim that no one has to “identify themselves,” and then go on to say that churches provide a positive identity for children. Well, which is it? You seem to be implying (again, correct me if I’m wrong) that without a religious identity, children would fall into the trap of 1) no identity or 2) a criminal or gang identity.

This is a false dichotomy. You are ignoring the obvious alternative of an atheist identity. As a demographic, atheists have fewer divorces, abortions, and STDs, and lower poverty rates, homicide rates, overall crime rates, and teen pregnancy rates. As a demographic, atheists have higher IQs, incomes, education rates, and literacy rates, and more Nobel Prizes, university professorships, etc. You paint the picture as though without after-school church programs or Sunday School, youth would be lost. You’re forgetting philosophy clubs, science fairs, Camp Quest, the wonderful world of reading, of history, mathematics, biology, COLLEGE, hope for the future, and so on.

Religion is for people who have never matured in their understanding of ethics. Religion teaches a child’s view of ethics, that “being good” means “obeying your parent.” It gives a moral blank check to those bold enough, dishonest enough, to claim to speak for God. Atheism means looking at ethical questions as an adult among other adults, considering ethics as a means of maintaining peace and cooperation among equals, so that all may pursue happiness within the limits that ethics defines. – John B. Hodges

It seems to me that the best thing we can do is teach ethics to young people. You may argue that teaching religion IS teaching ethics, but I would ask, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?” and point you, again, to the expert on this topic, Phil Zuckerman, and his quotation: “We can plainly see that the least religious countries and states are generally the most moral, peaceful, and humane, while the most religious countries and states are the most crime-ridden, corrupt, and socially troubled.”

What we need is to teach young people how to think critically, how to understand the social and psychological pressures of what draws people to criminal behavior, and the alternative: Not more religion, not more thinking that if you just close your eyes really tightly and cross your fingers, society will magically improve, but more science, more reading, more knowledge – the only things that have ever demonstrably led to actual improvement in human societies, as Steven Pinker aptly points out in this linked video, tipping exponentially toward a better world starting with the Age of Enlightenment in the 16th century, when science really began to shape how we view (and govern) ourselves.

We need to teach young people to be more skeptical, not more obedient. Teaching obedience is not only demonstrably ineffective (see above) but leads to rebellion (at best), or worse, the idea that people can do whatever they want – no matter how disgusting, inhuman, cruel, and savage it may be – because your invisible friend will still be your buddy and let you live in his invisible mansion when it’s over. Teaching young people how to read, and teaching them philosophy, leads – demonstrably – to more ethical behavior. And as Phil Zuckerman said, that is really what our concern is in all of this.

If I have misrepresented your view, please let me know exactly what you meant to say, and I will respond. I hope this has helped you (and other readers) see that religiosity is, actually, a bad influence when it comes to moral, pro-social thought & behavior.

Take care,

Dave

mail@davemuscato.com
(573) 424-0420 cell/text

If you like this post, please upvote it on Reddit.

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

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Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

YouTubers: Evid3nc3, Thunderf00t, TheAmazingAtheist, The Atheist Experience, Edward Current, NonStampCollector, Mr. Deity, Richard Dawkins, QualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta Christina, PZ Myers, The Friendly Atheist, WWJTD?, Debunking Christianity, SkepChick

and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too! :)

41 thoughts on “Dave’s Mailbag, Thursday 9/22/11

    • This is a way to kill a wife: With kindness
      And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor.
      He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
      Now let him speak: ’tis charity to show.

      (William Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene I)

      - Dave “I Try!” Muscato

  1. Amazing. The information (facts and statistics) were well presented and articulated in a clean, smooth manner. You both supported yourself and showed faults in his statement clearly. Awesome. (applauds)

  2. Have you ever wondered if crime and religiosity correlates with poverty rather than with each-other? Perhaps irreligiosity is a bi product of well-being rather than the latter follows the former?

    • I have definitely wondered that, and poverty is a contributor to the predictability of criminality, but it’s a weak one. Melissa Deller, a sociology and criminal justice professor at UW-Whitewater, spoke about this recently for an interview:

      http://gazettextra.com/news/2008/aug/24/does-poverty-crime-scholars-disagree/

      As the article says, if poverty automatically led to crime, then we would expect crime rates would rise when poverty rates rise, and we would expect to find that the world’s poorest countries would also be the world’s most crime-ridden. Deller says neither is the case. She cites housing values & conditions, education, and chronic unemployment as the largest contributing factors to crime, and the best predictors. Now, lack of [access to] education/low education levels achieved, and chronic unemployment, both do contribute to poverty. But there is no direct correlation between poverty and crime, especially when you start looking outside the United States. Some other factor(s) are at work here.

      As I said above in the article, I’m putting my money on education as the best way to fix this. Historically, teaching people how to think critically – how to solve problems with logic – has been the #1 path to human development. In every country that has adopted a scientific methodology to curing diseases, reducing poverty (my personal focus), governing itself, etc, historically, has achieved the highest levels of human development. See the Steven Pinker video I posted above for the correlation with adoption of science during the Enlightenment with the reduction of violence (and structural violence, too).

      - Dave

      • I’ve seen some studies that have linked crime with poverty, but not the crime of the day being influenced by the poverty of the day, but rather, the crime wave of the 1980s being caused by the outlaw of abortion and repression of birth control through the 1970s. In the 1980s, there was also a massive increase in wealth disparity, whilst the wealth of the nation as a whole went up.

        Most people link the 1980s crime wave to drugs, but I view this as a symptom, not a cause. The overall cause of crime in my eyes is individuals raised in poverty, and not individuals IN poverty.

        Perhaps this could be why you don’t see the crime rates rise when poverty rates rise? Perhaps you need to fast-forward about a decade to begin seeing the effects of poverty/wealth disparity on crime.

    • have u ever wondered if that poverty is linked to lack of education
      yes u are probably correct
      but then how come theres more atheists in areas and countries with lower poverty :/
      well have u thought of it that a lack of knowledge a lack of ways to understand the world
      actually leads to theism.
      There arent rlly many ways around it
      hasnt it always be like that
      100s of years ago when it was believed that devil teached people the 7liberal arts
      as in the story of mariken ban nieumeghen for example
      would love to hear your answer

    • Sure thing. It’s an interesting question; I’ve considered doing an entire article about that before. Actually, I might do that this weekend and dig up the primary sources while I’m at it. Thanks for your comments. – Dave

  3. Great article! A great read for me here in Norway. Im lucky enough to be an athiest living in a state that has a clear divide between state and church.. Although we are “officialy” luthern chistian state, (our flag is a cross even..) there is supreme tollerance for athiest.. When asked if im christian, i can without fear respond: No.. im an athiest.. i belive religion is the root of most evil, and is basicly a form of thought control” 5 out of 10 times the reply is: Ok :) 4 out of 10 is: i know religion has problems, but SOME things in it are good!! 1 of 10: “You have to open your heart to christ..!” turns out the tenth time im talking to a Jevovhas vitness or similar…

    anywho i digress.. great job on the article.. keep it up!! :-D

  4. Dave,

    The bottom line is you took all the time to defend yourself for what you know is wrong. You should never denounce any attempt by parents, whether religious based or not (as you did in saying parents force children to church)…when even a small percentage of those children are occupied by those religious based programs, and kept out of trouble. Take all your statistics, and your scholarly self-righteousness, and especially the time you spend to have others massage your ego, and go coach a church based children’s basketball team.

    And, by the way, I don’t have to read the Bible to know WTF, as you say, I am talking about. Keep me posted as to what youth programs your group is setting up in Durham!

    Ty Greene,
    Durham, NC

  5. Dave,

    You really crack me up…Come on to Durham, and take the pulpit in one of our larger minority churches, and tell the Mommas in the congregation that you know better than they, how their children should be taught. That you think they are forcing religion down their throats. And that they are “dressing up for one another”…”in the South”….

    Does the expression “kicking a hornet’s nest” mean anything to you? Laughing…

    Ty Greene

  6. Atheists are all still living in the seventies, and are as dumb as the doorknobs that they find thier only ground in any spark of their intellectual thought. They are ignorant, but wise, so God bless them. Maybe thats why they are wise, they don’t have to behold the grave all day long or regard it,like the wise thiest does, making their thinking simple minded, and fashionable, not imaginative or far reaching, but usefull nonetheless, I sometimes I wish I could only see so little, like those fearfull ones; fearfull of their own death, and the space apart them void. Athiests are stupid!

    • Poe’s Law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.”

      Poe’s Law is an axiom suggesting that it’s difficult to distinguish between parodies of religious fundamentalism (or, more generally, parodies of any crackpot or extremist belief) and its genuine proponents, since they both seem equally insane.

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Poe%27s_Law

      - Dave

  7. Corleone IS a small town in Sicily, known in the native tongue as Cunigghiuni. I don’t know where the Swedish thing came from.

    Other than that, fantastic post!

  8. “And we can plainly see that the least religious countries and states are generally the most moral, peaceful, and humane, while the most religious countries and states are the most crime-ridden, corrupt, and socially troubled.”

    This has always bothered me. Are there explanations for this phenomenon? Is relegion lax on ethics? Dont we have all the admonishments in relegion? so is it the faulty practice?

  9. Hey Dave, I fear you have thoroughly wasted your time and that of everyone who took the time to read this long-winded response to a passionate barrage against your character and goals. Your level of arrogance is astounding as you sidestep any attempt at a thoughtful and personal correspondence with the unnamed verbal assailant so that you can wow everyone with your “superior” intellect and powers of research. Sadly, it appears that many visitors to this page have been easily duped by your many words and shower praise upon you for gaining yet another victory in a battle that has grown altogether vague and meaningless.

    As I don’t have time to address every point, I’ll just stick to your primary interpretation of the unnamed person’s post. The majority of your response is based upon this interpretation anyway. Your assertion was this:

    “You imply that promoting atheism, as I do, leads young people away from church and into gangs, and therefore is damaging to the goal of lifting our society out of its depressed state.”

    Quite simply and obviously, this is not what the unnamed person wrote, and you are indeed defending a straw-man. It can certainly be implied from the unnamed person’s comment that promoting atheism, as you do, leads young people away from the church. But the comment in no way makes the implication that you are leading young people into gangs. It merely implies that churches are seeking to lead young people away from gang-related environments. The unnamed person’s comment makes no statement to the effect that promoting atheism then leads these same young people directly back to gang-related environments.

    As far as all the “lifting our society out of its depressed state” mumbo-jumbo that you went into, you should have taken due time to find out exactly what the unnamed person was thinking in his mind while writing the words “depressed society”. Due to the small likelihood of this individual being as informed about economic anthropology as you appear to be, perhaps his statement was much less concerning the purely qualitative and measurable elements of quality of life and more based on something far more important to him/her: personal/subjective experience. Engaging in worthwhile dialogue usually requires that there be a common frame of reference in regards to the subject. In this case, your definition of “depressed society” may mean absolutely nothing to the unnamed person, who’s own definition might consist entirely of memories and feelings he/she has associated with the term.

    In short, despite all your effort, you probably have not done a single thing to understand this individual. Granted, this person did not appear to extend to you such grace. However, two wrongs do not make a right.

    • “thoughtful & personal correspondence” with someone who begins his argument by calling you an asshole… hahhahahahah

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