From the Mailbox – “Atheists and Violence”

Posted by on February 14, 2011 in From The Mailbox | 6 comments

Paul Sturman asks: Though not proving or disproving the question of whether highly religious people are more likely to commit murder, and interesting comparison is the opposite question…are the least religious people more or less likely to murder? The answer to this would most certainly be “less likely”.

It’s interesting, Paul, that you should bring this up. I happened to stumble upon this video by which talks about the correlation between belief systems and violence, happiness and abuse among other topics. It also talks at length about how atheists are the most despised people in the USA, according to various polls. The video is 15 minutes long, but is very interesting, and eye-opening, for those who have never seen these statistics before.

More after the video…

The video itself delves into ideas of why these numbers and statistics are the way they are, and what it is with a religious society that makes people more prone to act out in violence. One of the most telling statistics in the video is that, in the USA (in 2009 when the video was made and published anyhow) that the percentage of atheists in American prisons is a measly .16%. That’s 16 people in every thousand within a prison that identifies him or herself as atheist. That’s a pretty low number, and it means that the other 99.84% of inmates identify themselves as religious (or other). The sources for this information in the video can be found here.

There’s no denying that people go to prison because they break the law, most of them in violent and antisocial ways. If the percentage of inmates is that low in the test group of inmates, then surely the incidence of violence outside the prison system is an even lower number. Remember in order to go to jail, you need to be caught and charged, so there could easily be an even higher correlation of violence among the religious that simply goes unreported. (Of course this could be true of atheists too, but I would tend to think not to the same degree, given the numbers we have seen in the video.)

The video itself doesn’t delve into homicide specifically, but you can’t have homicide without violence. It is an often used quip that people use when decrying the virtues of religion, that religious people are much more likely to go to war, especially when the term “God-willed” or something similar is used when hyping up the people. Former US president George W. Bush  walked in the shoes of his father when promoting the second Gulf War. The people of Palestine and Israel fight against each other over a “Holy Land” and differentiate each other by religion AND ethnicity. The conflicts in the Balkans were between people who were more different in religion than in blood (Muslim, Christian and Orthodox.) And the list goes on. Whether these conflicts were due to religion, or whether they used religion as a catalyst is beside the point. These ideas can be, and are, used and misused to justify bloodshed. And that’s just in recent times.

Of course there’s that old chestnut that says Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were atheists. That is completely beside the point, as none of them used “atheism” as a cause or a means to an end. (And don’t mention Hitler, at very least he was a deist, and at most he was a Catholic, as historical records will show.)

I also found an article in actually talks about the correlation between religion and war, and may be of some use to those who wish to read further on this topic.

I think what I am seeing is definitely a trend toward non-violence among those who call themselves godless, contrary to pretty much everything that the religious would like to have to believe. I would attribute this to a few things; people often arrive at atheism because they think enough about the world and those around them to come to the conclusion that a God doesn’t exist; people who arrive at atheism have thought about what it means to be a good person, and that it can be attained without religious influences; people who arrive at atheism also see around them so much wrong done in the name of religion that they are likely to react in a positive manner towards others rather than carry the trend on into their secular lives; and the people who arrive at atheism are individualistic and may be less likely to band together under a banner of homogeneity.

A lot of this is speculation, as I don’t actually have data to back it up. I have however spoken to a great many atheists to whom this reasoning is sound. Of course it’s not true of all atheists, but then again these stereotypes can represent a majority without representing the whole.

There may also be a correlation between levels of education and violence also, but that is another topic, and deserves its own blog piece.

Don’t forget, if you want me to answer your question, or have a topic you’d like to see me cover on the blog, send me a message here. And stay tuned for more “From the Mailbox” coming soon to this blog!

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  1. A negative correlation between crimes and education has already been shown to exist. Similarly, a positive correlation between education and atheism. Almost seems like a connect the dots problem to say you won’t find many atheists in prison.

    What I guess I’m wondering is if the flip of the question like the user asked bringing us one step closer to showing religion as a cause of violence rather than a correlation. 0.16% is so much smaller than the number of atheists in the general population. There are several other questions around the statistics, like is this really just showing that people tend to gravitate to religion after committing a crime in an attempt to repent or address a guilty conscious (the classic murdered finding religion in prison).

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  2. ###
    Hi Martin

    You write: “…the percentage of atheists in American prisons is a measly .16%. That’s 16 people in every thousand within a prison that identifies him or herself as atheist…”
    ** That should read “16 people in every 10,000”
    ** How to define the term ‘atheist’ ? Do you include agnostics ? What do you do with the people who have never thought about it (or anything else) ?

    It’s very tricky to obtain a true figure for the % of atheists in any prison population. There’s no advantage to be had by claiming to be an atheist. While faking a religious affiliation is always a win:
    ** Manipulating the parole board often includes ‘finding god’
    ** More time out of the cell for religious observance
    ** Volunteer prison visitors are often religious. A smart inmate will profess faith to con visitors for short or long term gain
    ** Gang membership for personal protection sometimes requires an interest in religion ~ eg Radical Islam is actively converting inmates in prisons worldwide



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  3. When I was religious I did not think much about the problem of killing people because it was not a really bad thing because they continued on after death to be in heaven if good and HELL if bad, and that was g0d’s problem. And I still hear xtian say at the death of someone that it was g0d’s will and they are now with him.
    Once I became full atheist and thought about the consequences of killing, I found that I was the cause (if it ever happened) and that meant a total end of a unique thing. I found that very off-putting. I still have no problem with self defense but do general killing is not something a ignore any longer.
    The same with crime in general, I am the responsible one, not ‘g0ds will’ or ‘the devil made me do it’ or ‘I should not have eaten that twinkie’. This type of inside comes with skepticism and atheism.

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  4. All very salient points there, thanks for your comments guys. A lot of this I was wondering myself while writing the piece. There will be more on this subject though.

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  5. The statistics regarding the religious affiliations of people in prison in the USA is particularly interesting (this graph started at around 4:15 in the video), but I think it would be more informative if they were correlated with the percentage of each group in the general population. For example, mormons and scientologists registered at 0.3% and 0.2% respectively. How does that compare with the proportions of those groups *not* in prison.

    Mike Fisher’s comment is also very valid: there are many disadvantages and few advantages with proclaiming your atheism in prison, so I suspect that the true number of imprisoned atheists is significantly higher.

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  6. These statistics have always been quite interesting, and disturbing to me. As an atheist, I find it galling that I am so despised by so many people.

    The one statistic I find specious is the prison stats. I imagine that atheists are probably more equally represented in prison than the stats would indicate. I know that if I ever ended up in prison, I would lie about my atheism. It’s no secret that becoming a ‘true believer’ is very helpful when approaching parole boards.

    Another reason that I think that the US prison statistics are faulty is that secular nations have an equal representation of atheists in their prison populations. I don’t use these statistics because they falsely draw some sort of correlation between atheism and lawfulness.

    We have so many good statistics showing that atheism is either benign or beneficial, we should stop using this one. It’s obviously faulty.

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