Nothing causes Americans to clutch their pearls and get their panties in a twist like arguments about religion. Let Starbucks omit snowflakes from their seasonal cups, and the fundamentalists are up in arms–they just know that those plain red cups are an attack on Jesus!
Is a failure to specifically endorse a religion (a la the offense of plain red cups and “Happy Holidays”) really equivalent to an attack? (And not so incidentally, don’t you people screaming about these assaults have lives to live and other things to do?)
Americans don’t agree on the definition of religion, let alone what constitutes an insult. What is the difference between a religion and a cult? Between religion and ideology? Are some religious beliefs better for society than others, and if so, which ones and why? We may not be able to answer these questions, but most of us seem firmly convinced that whatever it is, religion is good for us.
Maybe it’s more complicated than that.
In the aftermath of the shooting at Umpqua Community College, for example, Fox host Bill O’Reilly cited weakening religion as the culprit. “As the world becomes more secular,” he declared, “civilized restraints to bad behavior drop.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee offered similar sentiments after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., blaming such wanton violence on the fact that “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”
The theory is simple: If people become less religious, then society will decay. Crime will skyrocket, violence will rise, and once-civilized life will degenerate into immorality and depravity. It’s an old, widespread notion. And it’s demonstrably false.
If it were true that when belief in God weakens, societal well-being diminishes, then we should see abundant evidence for this. But we don’t. In fact, we find just the opposite: Those societies today that are the most religious — where faith in God is strong and religious participation is high — tend to have the highest violent crime rates, while those societies in which faith and church attendance are the weakest — the most secular societies — tend to have the lowest.
Zukerman notes–quite properly–that correlation is not the same thing as causation. But the correlations are certainly striking:
According to the latest study from the Pew Research Center, the 10 states that report the highest levels of belief in God are Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma (tied with Utah). The 10 states with the lowest levels of belief in God are Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Alaska, Oregon and California. And as is the case in the rest of the world, when it comes to nearly all standard measures of societal health, including homicide rates, the least theistic states generally fare much better than the most theistic. Consider child-abuse fatality rates: Highly religious Mississippi’s is twice that of highly secular New Hampshire’s, and highly religious Kentucky’s is four times higher than highly secular Oregon’s.
Given self-proclaimed “Christians” proclivity to wax hysterical over the loss of snowflakes on a Starbucks cup, I think we might infer some measure of causation…