One of the more unexpected themes in the critical responses to my three “Clowns of Reason” columns was the counterintuitive assertion that atheists are more moral than religious individuals in general and Christians in particular. This assertion was usually supported by various rationalizations, one historical, one theoretical and one statistical.
The historical argument for atheist morality is the most easily addressed, as it is simply a variant on the demonstrably false “religion causes war” claim. The critic usually pointed to the Spanish Inquisition or the European witch-burnings and said: “See, atheists don’t burn people at the stake.” Well, that’s technically true, although since atheists are currently crushing Christian skulls with bulldozers in North Korea and beating them to death in China, it’s an argument that is as nonsensical as it is outdated.
The theoretical argument is that since atheists don’t require the threat of punishment in the afterlife to behave morally in the here and now, they are better, more moral individuals. Of course, this would be true, if it could be established that they were, in fact, better behaved – and that they possessed a universal morality to which their behavior could be reasonably compared.
Now, some atheists have claimed that the irreligious are better behaved in terms of Christian morality, but little evidence to support this has been offered, while John Stossel and Arthur Brooks have both found that “the single biggest predictor of whether someone will be charitable is their religious participation”; religious people give four times more than the non-religious.
Charity, of course, is far from the only measure of morality. And this leads us to the third argument, the statistical one. It should come as a surprise to no one that the last and least of Reason’s clowns leans heavily upon it; in his latest proselytistic pamphlet, “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Sam Harris writes:
While political party affiliation in the United States is not a perfect indicator of religiosity, it is no secret that the “red states” are primarily red because of the overwhelming political influence of conservative Christians. If there were a strong correlation between Christian conservatism and social health, we might expect to see some sign of it in red-state America. We don’t. Of the 25 cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in “blue” states and 38 percent are in “red” states. … Of the 22 states with the highest rates of murder, 17 are red.
As with so much that Harris writes, this immediately triggers the thinking man’s bovine ejectus detector. Since Christian conservatives aren’t generally known to be big-city dwellers, the implication would seem to be that Texas Christians are driving into Houston, Dallas and San Antonio to wreak lethal havoc. Of course, as with his blatant errors on war and suicide bombers, it’s easy enough to prove that Harris not only has it wrong, but backwards.
Consider Florida, which went Republican in 2004. It has 67 counties, and the 10 that supported John Kerry most heavily (thus, by Harris’ reckoning, the least religious) were home to 367 murders in 2006. The 10 counties wherein Bush found his strongest support, on the other hand, had only 19. Even taking population differences into account, the murder rate per 100,000 in the “blue” counties was more than twice that of the “red” counties, 4.7 to 2.0. And the two most murderous counties in the state, Gadsden and Madison, averaged a murder rate of 13.9 to go with their 60 percent support for the Democrat.
It is clearly perverse, bordering on the intellectually dishonest, to attempt charging these godless “blue-county” murders to the religious “red-state” account.
Nor are American statistics the only means of demonstrating a godless proclivity for crime, the inherent problem of equating legality with morality notwithstanding. A comparison of a 2000 survey of the British prison population with the 2001 national census revealed that whereas individuals claiming atheism or no religion make up only 15.5 percent of the British population, they comprise 31.9 percent of those imprisoned.
Of course, it stands to reason that those who do not believe in biblical morality would not subscribe to it. The fact that so many atheists behave as well as anyone else is not testimony to superior atheist morality, but rather, the moral inertia fortuitously intrinsic to Western civilization.
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