Evidence For ‘Religion Causes People to do Evil’

Atheism, culture, philosophy, religion, skepticism 4 Replies

I’ve been thinking about religion being the cause of people doing evil a little more recently, and I’ve been trying to think of what would make a more compelling argument. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely anti-religion, but I’m also anti-crappy-argument. (Although some people I’ve discussed this with online have taken my latter stance to mean that I’m actually a religious moderate. Words fail me. Them too, I guess)

Data would make “religion causes people to do evil things” a lot stronger, rather than the typical post-hoc religious arguments that people make. So here’s a sociological observation that would bear that out.

Take, say, the population of the United States, and document as many of the churches as possible (of any and all religions). Attend sermons for six months to a year. Create a transcript of all the sermons, and (if they have them) everything said in the discussion groups. The names of all speakers can be anonymized from the outset, as this is not immediately relevant (and this would allay some privacy concerns). All of this should be coded for violence, calls for retribution, calls for peace/passivity, etc.

Correlate the catchment area of those churches with home addresses of people charged with crimes within that period. Control for all socioeconomic variables, and compare like with like.

Generally speaking, criminals tend to be produced by lower socioeconomic areas (due to lack of opportunity, role models, etc). If this were controlled for, and it could be shown that there were a significant difference in crime rates between two socioeconomically similar areas where the only difference was that the Religious Speaker in Area A focused more on the retributive/violent aspects of their religion vs the Religious Speaker in Area B, then I would start to lean more towards the notion that “religion causes people to do evil things”.


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4 thoughts on “Evidence For ‘Religion Causes People to do Evil’

  1. Daniel

    Hey there,

    You will not regret reading this study. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0039048
    Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates

    It’s the first and more robust study tying “belief in God, heaven, and hell” to large-scale cross-national trends in pro- and anti-social behavior, i.e., crime.

    As it turns out, belief in God is associated with higher crime rates, and yes, that is controlling for all the major factors (GDP, income inequality, poverty, unemployment, etc.). After belief in God, only belief in heaven and hell were major predictors. That is, they had a significant impact on crime rates even after controlling for other factors.

    This is essentially the best study in the books.
    It roughly shows that belief in heaven –> higher crime rates, while belief in hell –> lower crime rates.

    By the way, your idea of a study, coding the sermons of churches, sounds like a great project. They have done as much before through examinations of sermons. Recently there have been several analysis of the language used in mosques regarding extremism. I don’t know if they coded as robustly as media, tv, newspapers are coded in those kinds of studies, but I think it sounds like a great project.

    Get a PhD and propose the study!

  2. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    I appreciate the feedback. What that study fails to address, imo, is divergent background cultural beliefs/practices. But in terms of the general observation, it seems pretty on-the-money. 🙂

  3. Steve Latham

    How about studies of religiosity rates in prisons versus religiosity rates in society at large (standardized, of course, for sociological factors)? I thought quite a few of these had been performed, but I haven’t been paying close attention.
    Hmm, I note that one would only observe the antisocial effect in such a study design….

  4. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    That would tell us only whether or not religious correlates with being in prison. Even if you changed it to asking if they did terrible things “because of” their religion, you’d have to deal with massive self-reporting bias.

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