Murders, Christianity, and Research

There's a lot of fear going about out there. My mailbox lights up on a regular -- almost daily -- basis. I receive local news circulars, you see, and the focus of every one is violent crime. There's one email update that keeps count of 2007's murder rate; there are others that blaze headlines across their tops when you open them. And talk shows and newspapers keep us thinking about our crime rate.The most common response to the murder rate, the crime rate, all the rest of it, is that we need to turn to God. Now I have to confess that I find this strange. After all, the same people who pontificate that God is the Answer to our Crime Problem are the same people who proclaim, loudly, that The Bahamas is a Christian Nation, that Adulterers and Homosexuals will not enter Heaven, that God Blessed The Bahamas, etc.And yet. We have a screamingly high rate of violent crime. Paradoxical, no?Well, here's the thing.At least two studies of religion and society suggest that the higher the religiosity of any society, the more violent that society is.The studies I'm talking about are both published in the Journal of Religion and Society, an electronic publication that examines religion in its social dimension.The first one, conducted by Gary Paul and published in 2005, begins with the following question:

If religion has receded in some western nations, what is the impact of this unprecedented transformation upon their populations?

The popular conception, of course, is that belief in God, or, in our case, commitment to Christ, leads to a better life and a stronger society. But the facts appear to contradict this idea. What Paul, who focussed on developed democracies in his study, seems to have discovered is that the more Christian the society, the more violent and dysfunctional it is.The results are summarized thus:

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. ... No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional.

The study says considerably more, and I encourage people to read it for themselves.There's a second study, carried out by Gary Jensen, that pushes that idea further. Jensen begins by considering Paul's research, and recognizes the weaknesses in it. As he says:

His conclusions were based on an examination of scatter-plots for a small set of nations with no attempt to consider alternative explanations nor to encompass the research in the larger body of sociological theory and research on the topic.

So Jensen examines a wider swath of nations, using a different methodology -- he refers to a compilation of data collected during the 1990s called the World Values Survey. In this survey, Jensen explains, which covered up to 54 countries, "respondents were asked questions about the importance of God and religion in their lives, beliefs in the Devil, Heaven and Hell, belonging to a religious faith, and attendance at religious services." (paragraph 11) He's more cautious in his conclusions than Paul is, taking into consideration a number of possibilities, and being more specific in his observations, but he still suggests the following:

A more reasonable explanation for the high homicide rates would focus on religious and moral cosmologies. Indeed, it is reasonable to propose that variables such as inequality may have significant, but indirect, consequences for homicide by reinforcing dualistic moral cosmologies. High levels of inequality may be associated with high levels of “us-versus-them” views of the moral cosmos and tendencies to blame external forces for interpersonal problems.

He's saying two main things here. One, that high levels social inequality may affect both the cosmology of the society -- inspiring a greater tendency to believe in both God/Heaven and the Devil/Hell, for instance -- as well as the crime rate. His data appears to suggest that where societies have a strong belief in God and the Devil, the level of lethal violent crime is high. What's interesting about his study is that simply believing in God doesn't appear to be enough to make societies' homicide rates spike; societies have to believe in an opposing evil force as well.Go read it for yourself. It has some interesting things to say about belief and action, especially when it comes to violent crimes. If you've got a high tolerance for academic jargon, read this passage to see what he's suggesting:

It seems quite reasonable to hypothesize that the evangelical movement encourages high levels of passion and moral and/or religious dualisms. It is plausible to propose that religious and moral dualisms may coincide with other forms of dualism at the individual level. ... homicide is one outcome of situated transactions where honor is at stake with a narrow range of options for responding and heightened sensitivity to what might appear to be minor affronts. Whether called a “culture of violence” or a “code of the street” ... disputes are easily triggered and there is little flexibility in acceptable responses. In short, other cultural or sub-cultural dualisms may help explain variation in behavior at the individual level. If a youth grows up in a world where there are rigid boundaries for attaining honor, a wide range of situations that are interpreted as disrespect, and limited cultural means for reestablishing honor, the range of situations generating interpersonal violence are enhanced.

My point? That the persistent invocation of "God", which appears to be the only solution offered by anybody in discussions of this current crime wave, could be as much a part of the problem as it might be a solution. We have to be careful with our cosmologies, and avoid transmitting intolerance and hate along with our religious beliefs. These studies suggest, and I believe, that our apparent piety is as much a source of the problem of our social violence as it can be a solution.It's something to think about, at least. Go on. I dare you.