Hey, We Actually Do Have Morals

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.

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16 Responses to Hey, We Actually Do Have Morals

  1. I’m not sure why, but the word “godless” feels kind of insulting. I’d prefer atheist or agnostic, even with the connotations they have. Still, it’s refreshing to occasionally see a study where they say hey maybe people who aren’t in church every second are not so bad. The irony of fundies being the most likely to divorce is staggering, considering how the refuse to let the gayz “ruin” marriage and are always harping on people who “live in sin.” And let’s not forget that women shouldn’t be given birth control because we don’t want to encourage them to be sluts having sex willy-nilly, yet be sure to keep abortion away because that is EVIL. Then deny them welfare benefits when the baby is born, because that encourages laziness and only single mothers are on that stuff and as we all know single mothers got that way by themselves.

    And on and on.

    • “Godless” definitely has an air of condescension about it, along with strong implications about a lack of morality. I don’t know; I might just be projecting my own feelings on it, but that’s the impression I get. Even the word “atheist” has the same kind of bad connotation to make me want to use the term “non-believer” or “non-religious” instead.

      The rest of your comment is depressingly accurate. I was damn near shooting fire out of my eyeballs when I heard Newt Gingrich yapping about how gay marriage was some kind of affront to our moral standards. Meanwhile he’s been married three times … and each one was to the mistress he was schtupping behind his previous wife’s back.

      I am convinced that good people will still be good without the carrot and stick of religion. I am convinced that the majority of everyday believers would still be good without religion, considering how modern mainstream “biblical morality” is nothing more than an odd cocktail of secular and cherry-picked religious rules that generally falls in lockstep with the modernization of society. (Even if there’s a little bit of a lag.)

      • “Even the word “atheist” has the same kind of bad connotation to make me want to use the term “non-believer” or “non-religious” instead.” This is the same reason why I shun the word atheist, too. Over the past decade, it has picked up some bad connotations.


        • It’s had some bad connotations for a long time … but I think it got worse during the Cold War, and with the ever increasing degree of pandering the GOP does to the fundamentalists who fill their coffers. I still use it, if only to get it out there and make people realize it’s not as much of a four letter word as they’ve been led to believe.

          • Charity says:

            I actually like the term “atheist”. When I came out to my Messianic Jewish friend, I flat out said, “I’m an atheist now.” It felt good. I am also truly “godless”, so, I like saying that word too. I know, I’m an oddball. 🙂

          • By the way, I subscribed to your blog but it still keeps asking me to log in to post a comment … even after logging in several times in a row. Do you ever run into this problem?

    • Charity says:

      Absolutely, great points about opinions of single moms by the Right.

  2. Charity says:

    Thanks for another great post, Jason.

    I live in a nice subdivision in a county north of Memphis. I can believe this study’s findings. I am a bit of an outcast here because I’m the one who doesn’t gossip with my neighbors nor do I go to a church to do the same. No one in my family bullies, trespasses or litters. Unlike other parents around me, I am often outside while my boys play. My husband and I wouldn’t even think of buying a violent video game like “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto” for our little boys, but we have seen other parents do this for their kids as young as seven years old! We’re the parents who set boundaries, and times for our kids to be home. Quite frankly, we did all these things before leaving our faith, but then again, we were a little different than other Christians around here. For instance, we never wanted public prayer in our schools because we didn’t feel that it was the educational system’s burden to teach morality and religion to our kids, it’s ours.

    As far as teenage sex, divorce and abortion go, I know firsthand that the numbers are high in Church for all of the above. I was also an executive director at a Christian pregnancy center in Hawai’i and I would have to say at least 80% or more of the girls seeking a pregnancy test went to church at least twice a month. While I worked that job, a church leader informed me of a local church’s women’s retreat/conference where ANYTHING spoken about abortion brought up a lot of anger. When asked why it was revealed that at least 3/4 of them have had at least one abortion.

    Growing up in a Pentecostal home I’ve seen the same. I have six younger sisters and we were terribly neglected, and suffered emotional, mental, and at times, physical abuse. My parents are not happily married, but stay together because they don’t believe in divorce. Five of us daughters married, and I was the next to last one of that bunch to marry. Two of my sisters got pregnant while they were still single, both at around 20 years old. One of them married the dad of the baby, and she was the first one of us to leave home for good by becoming a wife. The other sister was the last one of us to marry and it was to a man who was not her baby’s father. By the time she met her husband her little one was already in school. She had a baby with this man, and they just divorced.

    • I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon around here. Every time I go to the New Seasons supermarket (the local organic, locally-sourced, granola hippie food store), I have some of the worst experiences with other drivers and pedestrians. No consideration, no common courtesy, and no one watches where they’re going. My wife suggested that since they were already doing something good for the environment by being here, they figured they did their good deed for the day, so screw everyone else.

      Funny, since even before getting that perspective, I was reminded of leaving the church parking lot every Sunday when I was growing up. We would see the same thing. I get the feeling that with some people – especially the more evangelical / fundamentalist types, there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with the knowledge that they’re saved that makes them feel as if they have the luxury of neglecting other moral and personal obligations as a result.

      I’m so sorry you had to deal with abuse and neglect from the very people you are supposed to be able to trust during your most vulnerable years. No one should have to go through that. Your personal experiences about working in a pregnancy center remind me of this article from about 12 years ago: The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion. Kind of drives home the point that religion isn’t always as good at teaching empathy and compassion as it thinks it is …

      • Charity says:


        Thank you for the link, it’s so true! I didn’t counsel girls too often, but I remember this one girl in particular who was a daughter of a mega church pastor in Honolulu. She was 17 years old. I have to admit, I was a little rough on her when I spoke to her privately. Sorry, I was. She told me that she had been sexually active with four different guys, and alcohol consumption usually affected her decision making. She was beautiful, poised, and spoke very well. I just basically told her that she was just giving it away to anyone at any random place or time. I told her that she knew better. Thankfully, she wasn’t pregnant that day, but I had heard two years later that that same mega church pastor had a 19 year old daughter who was expecting a baby.

        For the most part, I was super kind to every girl who walked through our doors, and I don’t remember preaching anything to them except this: they were wonderful, smart, precious, and beautiful human beings who did not need to share the amazing experience of sex with just anyone. Okay, so I didn’t tell them to wait until they’re married, why? They weren’t virgins anymore, what would have been the point to convince them that they could be born again virgins? Luckily, most girls who walked into our center were not pregnant.

        The employees and volunteers at that place were really wonderful pro-lifers. We all cared for people immensely. They weren’t just people I worked with, they were my family. We made provisions for girls such as clothing and supplies for them and their babies. We connected them with a local adoption agency, WIC, a food bank and offered them help if there was domestic violence. We also filled out reports and contacted the police department if we suspected girls were minors involved with adult men. (After much questioning and consideration, of course.) Whether they were pregnant or not, authorities need to be notified and there needs to be intervention in cases like that. We did not offer birth control and we did not make referrals to anyone who performed abortions.

        I didn’t know until I worked with that pro-life organization the real reason why there is such an outrage over birth control by some pro-lifers. Yes, it is in part of their belief in discouraging sexual activity. As we all know, some tend to believe that if you give out contraception or condoms you are asking for kids to have sex. Part of the anti- birth control stance is also to encourage the quiverfull movement:


        and some believe that contraception dispels any fertilized egg that may already be in a woman’s body, and as far as they’re concerned, that’s an abortion, and they call all birth control pills, objects and chemicals abortifacients:


        Now, while I worked there I didn’t support their stance on NO ONE using birth control, and I didn’t put their concepts into people’s minds regarding the issue. Once I was married, and had my first child I immediately got an IUD. I worked for this same pregnancy center up until my first month of marriage, and they actually encouraged married people to practice NFP, Natural Family Planning. Which is more less a newer version of the Rhythm Method.


        I was a virgin when I married at 31 years old, however, I wasn’t exactly innocent. My husband was one too, and I swear, our whole first weekend of marriage just flat out sucked! None of our parents ever talked to us about sex, ever! Except, of course, the usual “DON’T DO IT!” The most I ever got was a discussion with my mom about periods as a pre-teen in the 80s. It was a year exactly after she gave me permission to be apart of one of those half days of separating the boys from the girls in fifth grade to basically do a Q & A with the school nurse and some teachers about periods, human anatomy and sex. My mom brought out this book from 1963. It was the one that she used at my age, and the pages were all loose from the binding. No lie, she just talked to me about periods, that was it! It’s even worse, she showed me pictures, as well as explained to me, how to put on sanitary napkins by using a belt! Yes, that’s how old the book was!

        Jason, I would so love to address more of what you just said, but once again, I have been your blog hog, and I am sorry. All I know is abortions would go down some in number if we would all clearly present information about birth control, sex, adoptions, open adoptions, self respect, and respect for others in an understanding, honest, and loving fashion to our kids, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, students, and youth organizations. Sex should never be “the talk”, but a continual conversation. Knowledge is STILL power.

        • Blog hog away! Please. I enjoy the interaction and the feedback. Just don’t be too concerned if I don’t have a chance to respond to every comment since occasionally I just lose track.

          It aggravates me to no end to hear misinformation about hormonal birth control and STDs thanks to crisis pregnancy centers, abstinence only education programs, politicians, and the church. First, we have the party line that BC causes abortions by preventing implantation, which has no evidence whatsoever. Same for Plan B, which they conveniently confuse with the abortion pill RU-486, hoping that no one will notice.

          Then, we have pretty much everything having to do with the horrors of abortion. Crisis pregnancy centers have a horrible reputation for giving out false information about the dangers and risks associated with abortion as a way to delay the woman’s decision past the point where she can get the procedure done safely and affordably. Politicians on the right will go on about the “abortion industry” the Planned Parenthood runs, while they ignore the face that it only makes up 3% of their services and only about 11% of their total income. Hardly a cash cow.

          Sorry. Maybe constantly linking to my own stuff constitutes shameless self-promotion. It’s really more laziness than anything else, since I’ve written a lot about some of these topics already and didn’t think it productive to try to repeat myself in so many issues in such a short span of time 🙂

          In the end I think, like you, that a lot of what I would call the “mainstream” pro-lifers – the ones who are against abortion because they were taught to value life, no matter how small – are just trying to do what they think is right. (Your description of the people you worked with, for example.) Unfortunately, the ramifications of that point of view begin come up when the choice has to be made between the developing fetus and the woman carrying it. We hashed all of this out already on another one of Deb’s posts about a week ago, but the bottom line agreed to on all sides was that it isn’t a black and white issue. I completely agree with you in that the best way to deal with this issue would be to incorporate comprehensive, age appropriate sex education. Sadly, this goes against the Christian values of many people … including the constituents of virtually every republican. For some reason, it’s for their spiritual good to keep kids and teens in the dark about sex so they’ll just end up finding out about it on their own one day, with no guidance, and no tools to make sure they don’t end up with an unexpected child or some potentially incurable disease.

          LAST COOL FACT: my grandmother thought you could get pregnant just by sleeping in the same room as a man. Obviously she learned otherwise in later years but the fact that she thought this at all shows how sheltered some families kept their kids, especially in generations past.

  3. Great post, Jason. I actually thought that we were just too smart to get caught…. (Joking.) We’re all pretty much the same–believers and nonbelievers–just a little less hypocritical in that we don’t pretend to be someone we’re not. We’re human. We fall. We’re animals. We’re tempted. It helps that we are aware of our vulnerabilities and limitations and that we hold to a standard we set for ourselves. (I say “we” but I mean “me” and possibly others!)

    We definitely don’t deserve the bad rap of immoral or amoral or devil-worshippers.

    • This very idea is what we need to convey to the public, and it’s the reason why I feel that in today’s “battle” between believers and non-believers, it should be about PR, not about philosophy. People like David Silverman tend sometimes to take the “your religion is dumb, come join us” approach, which works counter to that cause. I see signs around here that say something like “I’m secular, and I vote!” … which, along with “Not a believer? You’re not alone!” are the most effective, non-offensive ways to get people to think about the subject.

  4. Al Westerfield says:

    Hey, I just stumbled over this post. I’m Al Westerfield. I’m an agnostic atheist and have been for over 50 years. I’m married to a natural atheist and have been for 46 years. My main interest is equal rights for the godless. I stopped the local high school from saying prayers at football games and graduation. I helped create a public forum on the courthouse lawn when religious statues appeared and helped kick the Gideons out of the schools. The piece you saw was probably my widest re-posted but I average about 8 letters and op/ed pieces a year on similar subjects. As a scientist I also write about creationist frauds be it on America being a Christian nation or dissing evolution. Google me and go through enough pages and you’ll see a few of them. I was a model railroad manufacturer for many years so most of the references you’ll see are regarding my models.

    • Hi Al! Good to hear from you. I really enjoyed the article, and it’s encouraging to see a prominent and influential non-believer happening upon my neck of the woods every once in a while. I honestly find it sad, though, that in this day and age, it’s necessary for people like you to spend so much time reminding others of exactly how the First Amendment is supposed to work. Or the scientific method, for that matter.

      I’ll look up some of your other work … in the meantime, keep up the good fight.


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