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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:
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]
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.
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?
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.
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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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