More God, Less Crime

An article in the prestigious journal, ‘Foreign Affairs’, reckons religion is in decline in much of the world, and not just in rich countries, and this is no bad thing because it is not resulting in increased crime and corruption as some religious leaders would have predicted. But this is misleading, for reasons to be explained.

The piece, entitled ‘Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion’, is by Professor Ronald F. Inglehart and is based on his forthcoming book ‘Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Next?’

He charts how religion seemed to enjoy something of a comeback in various parts of the world, including in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, between the 1980s and 2007, but since then has gone into decline again, in particular in the United States.

There are many aspects to the article, but I want to briefly focus on just one, namely the claim that we need not worry about the moral effects of religious decline because it turns out that the most secular countries have less crime and corruption than the most religious countries.

As Inglehart says: “The highly secular Nordic states have some of the world’s lowest levels of corruption, and highly religious countries, such as Bangladesh, Guatemala, Iraq, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, have some of the highest.”

He says that the same pattern applies to crimes such as murder: “As surprising as it may seem, the murder rate is more than ten times as high in the most religious countries as it is in the least religious countries.”

Inglehart is not foolish enough to simply leave it at that. He knows perfectly well that crime and corruption go down as a country becomes wealthier.

Rather than compare poor religious countries with rich secular ones, he should be comparing religious people in poor countries with non-religious people in those countries, and then do the same for secular ones.

In other words, in poor countries, are religious believers (devout Christians, say), less likely to commit crime and be corrupt than the non-religious (or outwardly religious)? What is the situation in rich countries?

If it turned out that after all other major demographic characteristics had been controlled for, religious people were still more likely to engage in crime and corruption than secular people, then the thesis that religion reduces crime and corruption really would be falsified.

In fact, studies indicate that regular religious practice does reduce crime and therefore has a positive moral effect. Here is one such study

In other words, even from a purely utilitarian point of view, the decline of religion in various parts of the world should alarm us.

As the title of a book on the matter succinctly puts it, ‘More God, Less Crime’.