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Testing the proposition that lack of religion leads to violence

When last we met, I noted Pat Robertson’s contention that the cause of violence in the streets, i.e. Las Vegas, is that America has turned away from godliness. Or, as Robertson paraphrased Proverbs 29:18, “When there is no vision of God, the people run amok.”

Similarly, Tony Perkins asserted, “It’s time to recognize that the cure for violence isn’t in Washington. It’s in the hope and the healing offered through faith in God.”

Let us subject this point of view to an empirical test by examining the relationship between state religiosity levels and murder rates.

Last year Pew compiled a religiosity ranking based on four criteria: the percentages of American adults who say 1) religion is very important in their lives; 2) they attend worship services at least weekly; 3) they pray daily; and 4) they believe in God with absolute certainty.

Those criteria, I surmise, would satisfy Robertson and Perkins as providing an accurate index of godliness. And according to Pew’s index, six states get a rank of 70 percent or better: Alabama (77 percent), Mississippi (77 percent), Tennessee (73 percent), Louisiana (71 percent), Arkansas (70 percent), and South Carolina (70 percent).

At the other end of the scale, four states rank in thirties: Massachusetts (33 percent), New Hampshire (33 percent), Maine (34 percent), and Vermont (34 percent).

Turning to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2016, those top six religious states rank in the top 10 when it comes to murder rate: Louisiana (1), Alabama (3), Mississippi (6), South Carolina (8), Tennessee (9), and Arkansas (10). By contrast, the four least religious states rank close to last in murder rates: New Hampshire (50), Maine (49), Massachusetts (46), and Vermont (45).

In other words, in America there is an inverse correlation between religiosity and murderousness. You might even re-paraphrase Proverbs 29:18, “When there is no vision of God, the people behave themselves.”

Of course, correlation is not causation, and there are other ways to read the data. The South was a violent region of the country long before it became a religious one. You could argue that its high religiosity is a function of the effort of its citizens to control the violence — and maybe even a semi-successful one.

On the other hand, New England — now the country’s least religious region but once the most — has always been a pretty well behaved place, notwithstanding the occasional Indian war, witch hanging, and anti-Catholic riot.

The point is, at the societal level the pious association of godliness with good behavior is nonsense. There’s far more evidence that gun control reduces violence than does religiosity.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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