In the latest installment of “Does the Pope Shit in the Woods”, we have an article by libertarian** pollster Al Westerfield who compiled research done by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Barna Research Group, and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (which I’ll occasionally link to myself), comparing rates of incarceration, divorce rates, and education levels among people of various religious affiliations, including the “godless” (gasp!).
The interesting part of the article was not that atheists scored about how we’d expect … but that it was freely acknowledged by the author along with a healthy dose of criticism for those who claimed otherwise: “The godless commit less crime, have longer marriages and are more highly educated than almost any other group in America.”
Well. Color me pleasantly surprised. Continue.
First, the Federal Bureau of Prisons showed that only 0.2% of the prison population identified as atheist. Compare that with the roughly 10% of those on the outside, Westerfield comes to two possible explanations:
The fact that the actual number is 50 times less than expected can lead to only one of two conclusions: either the godless commit less crime than the religious or they’re too smart to get caught very often.
There’s been some debate over the 1997 study from which this statistic was taken. Another one, done by the Pew Research Center last year, has the percentage of nonreligious inmates – not just atheist – at about 11%. Compared with the approximately 32% of non-religious on the outside, and taking into consideration the subjectivity of those making the evaluation, it’s still comparatively small, showing that even those who don’t adhere to any particular religion are under-represented in the prison population.
The Barna study had atheists tied with Catholics and Lutherans for the lowest divorce rates. The highest? Fundamentalist Christians, with Baptists and Jews both tying for second. As before, there are some choice words:
It seems that some groups that claim to follow the Bible most strictly are not putting their money where their mouths are. The godless who are thought to be without morals seem to take their vows more seriously.
There’s also the possibility that atheists tend to get married a little later, living together for longer periods of time and getting used to things before deciding to spend the rest of their lives with each other by tying the knot. I think it’s a little more common among the more fundamentalist demographics to get married at an early age, where generally less thought is given to the future and there is less opportunity to live as a couple before the blessed event. Never mind the religious repression of sexuality turning marriage into the only way to finally have hellfire-free sex. That’s always a plus.
In the field of education investigated by the Pew Forum, we were beaten out by the Reformed Jews and possible the Unitarian Universalists in the category of “most educated”, but I’d say that’s not too bad. The lowest scoring were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Black Protestants, and fundamentalist Christians. I’m not surprised considering that some of them are convinced that the Earth is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs walked the earth with man in the Garden of Eden. What result did they really expect?
His final comments are the best:
So what conclusion can be reached? It is obvious that you do not have to believe in a higher power in order to live a moral and successful life. Quite the opposite.
I won’t attempt to claim a correlation of religion with crime, infidelity and ignorance. However, it is total hypocrisy for those in such groups to claim that the godless are not and cannot be moral. Yet in a recent study atheists were believed to be no more trustworthy than rapists.
The moral of the story is not in any way that atheists are somehow better than religious people. We’re not. It’s that for a group of people widely considered be devoid of any kind of moral compass due to a lack of belief in God, we actually appear to be doing quite well … and are deserving of a lot more trust than the general public tends to give us as soon as they hear the word “atheist”.
**The original article I was linked to referred to Westerfield as an “evangelical” pollster … but after doing some research I haven’t been able to find much to back this up. He is a self-described libertarian, but that’s about as much as I was able to find. His findings stand on their own merit in either case.