Religion and Immorality…with Numbers


Does a greater influence of religion actually make a society less immoral and reduce crime? Many religious people claim it does, and that the violent extremists are nothing more than misguided and rare groups who would be violent even without the religion they claim to follow…which may or may not be true, depending on the religion and environment in which the extremists arose. It’s true that the majority of religious people are good and moral, but that says nothing about the overall picture.

I’ve occasionally mentioned that there is a correlation between more secular societies and lower crime rates, but perhaps it’s time to see some actual data. I decided to research the numbers and put together some charts that might help us get an idea of what’s going on. To start with, I chose ten of the most religious countries and ten of the least religious, and listed them out with the percentage of the population that claims to be religious, as opposed to secular or atheistic or simply “not religious” (75% of Israeli people are Jewish, but 65% say they are atheist or not religious). The percentages are drawn from multiple sources and they aren’t perfect due to the subjective nature of religious surveys, but they should be accurate enough.

Ten of the most religious countries:

  • Iraq: 97% (>90% Muslim)
  • Ghana: 96% (71% Christian)
  • Thailand: 94% (>90% Buddhist)
  • Nigeria: 93% (50% Muslim, 40% Christian)
  • Bangladesh: 93% (89% Muslim)
  • Georgia: 93% (88% Christian)
  • Morocco: 93% (>90% Muslim)
  • Kenya: 88% (82% Christian)
  • Peru: 86% (>80% Christian)
  • Brazil: 85% (>80% Christian)

Ten of the least religious countries:

  • Switzerland: 42%
  • Australia: 42%
  • Germany: 41%
  • Japan: 38%
  • Israel: 35%
  • UK: 34%
  • Netherlands: 34%
  • Hong Kong: 30%
  • Czech Republic: 25%
  • Sweden: 24%

One interesting thing to keep in mind is that the top-ten list has a good mix of major religions, with one predominantly Buddhist country, three that are mostly Muslim, five mostly Christian, and one with a possibly dangerous Muslim/Christian split. We’ll see how that plays out.

First, I made a simple graph of these twenty countries with their annual homicide rates. These rates mostly come from 2010-2012 data, and of course there’s some fluctuation over the years, but again they provide a pretty accurate look at reality. I also added a point for the USA, which falls in the high-middle area in terms of both religiosity and homicide rates.

Religion vs homicides

A few interesting observations: The highest homicide rate on my chart is from one of the most Christian countries. The second highest is Nigeria with the Muslim/Christian split, and the third is another very Christian country. Of the ten highly religious countries, the two with homicide rates low enough to be comparable to the secular countries are both predominantly Muslim.

If we look at the list of countries with the highest murder rates, we find these five at the top of the list: Honduras (>80% Christian), Venezuela (>80% Christian), Belize (>70% Christian), El Salvador (>70% Christian), and Guatemala (>80% Christian). All of them have a homicide rate between 40 and 90 per 100,000, literally off the chart.

This is a fascinating start, but so far all we have is a correlation. What exactly causes the homicide rates to be higher, and is there any link to religion? When it comes to South American and Caribbean countries, which are predominantly Catholic (though often with nearly as many Protestants), the extremely high homicide rates seem to be related to drugs. The black market in the USA is highly lucrative for drug cartels, which produce their drugs in South America and then smuggle them north. I would be curious to see what happens to South American homicide rates if we followed Portugal’s example and legalized all drugs. We could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives, in both North and South America, by ending our war on drugs.

Rather than just looking at homicides, I thought it would be interesting to look at crime in general. But it’s difficult to quantify actual crime rates in many countries, due to lack of law enforcement, government corruption, or other issues. Instead, I found the results of a survey that asked people to rate their country’s crime level. The resulting crime index is generated on a 1-100 scale:

We still have a correlation with higher crime in countries that are heavily religious. However, Georgia makes an interesting outlier, and Thailand is low as well (perhaps expected–Buddhism is a non-theist religion and often emphasizes peace). Further analysis of crime data shows that South American countries again score very high, while Asian countries and Europe tend to have medium to low crime rates. A picture is emerging from the data, looking something like this:

homicide rates

That’s a map showing homicide rates. The darker the color, the higher the rate. To sum it all up on a global scale, areas like Central and South America, most of Africa, parts of the Middle East, and a few other countries have both high rates of crime and highly religious populations. More secular areas like China, Japan, Europe, Canada, and Australia have lower crime rates. The USA is right in the middle, with a small but growing secular population, and a relatively high but dropping crime rate.

The safest conclusion so far is that religion and crime are not related. Perhaps the same social phenomena that lead to high crime rates also prompt more people to be religious. But we can also say with certainty that a lack of religion does not lead to higher crime. There isn’t even a correlation in that direction, let alone any evidence of causation.

However, let’s narrow our focus to one country. Data from the entire world is interesting, but when so many different religions and cultures are involved, plus government structure and poverty and many other factors, it isn’t really useful for exploring the relationship between religion and crime. So let’s look at America by state, and consider several different popular markers of “immorality”: teenage pregnancy, divorce, rape, homicide, and crime in general. To start with, let’s narrow our sample down to the ten most and ten least religious states. Thanks to a Gallup poll, we can use the percentage of people in each state who call themselves “very religious”.

Ten most religious states:

  • Mississippi: 61%
  • Utah: 60%
  • Alabama: 57%
  • Louisiana: 56%
  • South Carolina: 54%
  • Tennessee: 54%
  • Georgia: 52%
  • Arkansas: 51%
  • North Carolina: 50%
  • Oklahoma: 49%

Ten least religious states:

  • New York: 34%
  • Hawaii: 32%
  • Connecticut: 32%
  • Washington: 32%
  • Nevada: 32%
  • Oregon: 31%
  • Massachusetts: 28%
  • Maine: 27%
  • New Hampshire: 24%
  • Vermont: 22%

First, let’s look at teen pregnancy, specifically the rate of pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15-19. This data comes from a report by the Guttmacher Institute and the numbers are from 2010:

states and teen pregnancy

Okay, so obviously Nevada, Hawaii, and New York have some issues, and Utah is an outlier. But we have a nice grouping of high teen pregnancy rates in religious southern states. Texas comes in at 12th place on religion so it didn’t quite make the cut, but their teen pregnancy rate is the same as Arkansas. What’s going on here? We have an obvious concentration of teen pregnancies in the highly religious southern states. I wrote about this before, and the main factor seems to be the type of sex education in schools. Religious people often reject any sex ed other than telling kids “don’t do it”, and abstinence-only sex ed has proven to be ineffective.

Next we have divorce rates. Rather than make a chart, I used this data and simply added up the average divorce rate for each group of ten states. The ten most religious states average 11 divorces a year per 1,000 people over 15. All of them are at 10-13 except South Carolina, which is at 8. Oddly enough, even with Nevada in the mix, the ten least religious states have an average divorce rate of only 9.2. Half of them are at 10-12, half are at 7-9.

Rape statistics tell a similar story. Reported rapes per 100,000 people for the ten most religious states averages to 30.5, while the ten least religious states average just over 26. Only three of the least religious states are above 30, while two are under 20. Five of the most religious states are above 30, and none are below 20. Since many rapes are not reported, I wonder what the data would look like if we had an accurate picture.

Rates of divorce and rape aren’t strongly correlated to more religious states. There is a correlation, but it’s small, and only some of the non-religious states have significantly lower rates. But what about homicides?

states and homicide rates

Nevada still has issues…I think we all know why (something to do with high unemployment and gambling maybe?). And Utah is an outlier again. But we have a correlation, and out of curiosity I decided to make a graph of all 50 states:

50 states homicides

I find it interesting that most of the middle section is the same, with a lot of up and down (in general, high points are smaller, more urban states, and low points are large rural states). And yet, the highly religious states trend toward higher homicide rates, while the less religious end of the graph does the opposite.

Finally, I looked up a “crime index” for the states and graphed it:

crime index

At this point my main question is “What the heck is going on in Utah?” Apparently Mormons are good people. Or maybe they all go to Nevada to commit crimes.

Once again, we have a correlation. Mississippi scoots down closer to Utah, and Washington almost joins Nevada as a big troublemaker, but the rest of the religious south is all higher than Washington. Again, Texas is right at the same level as Arkansas.

Ultimately, on both the global and American scales, we don’t have much more than a general correlation between religion and crime. We can say that the most secular societies are also the most peaceful, and the most violent are among the most religious (both Christianity and Islam are well-represented). There are aspects of some religious sects that lead people into violence, so maybe there are enough such sects to cause a general rise in violence among religious people. Or perhaps poverty tends to breed both violence and religion, or it could be that people are naturally religious until peace and better education frees them to explore other ideas (there is also a correlation between religion and a lack of education). I have my own ideas about how fundamentalist versions of Christianity, especially Calvinism, tend to perpetuate evil.

No matter how you look at the data, there is zero support for the idea that religion of any sort is needed in order to have a peaceful and moral society. If you tried to draw a connection between religion and crime, the data would tell you the exact opposite. If there is a cause, rather than just a correlation, it would link religion with higher rates of crime and general immorality.

UPDATE 11/6/2015: I just came across an interesting study that supposedly indicates children raised in religious homes tend to be less altruistic, less generous, and exhibit a more punitive attitude toward offenses. At the very least, it shows that secular people are not any less moral. I am curious to see what further research uncovers.

UPDATE 1/26/2016: I found another study that is particularly interesting. It shows that GDP per capita very closely correlates to religion, with poorer nations being more religious and wealthier ones being less religions. The USA and China are outliers, however. This seems to imply that either poverty leads to higher incidence of religion, or that both poverty and religion are caused by the same factors. Another possibility is that religion is detrimental to a country’s economic growth, but I’m guessing religion would decline after a rise in wealth, not before.

UPDATE 4/13/2016: Another study brought to my attention backs up my findings on divorce in religious southern states. It shows that even after adjusting for the effects of higher marriage rates and poverty, people in very conservative religious areas are still more likely to divorce.


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