Some Hard Truths About Prayer and Crime

Are there prayers in these cells?

I recently wrote about the Republican school prayer myth. I thought we’d revisit the question of prayer and violence  given the Republican mania over the question. They’re pushing a narrative of prayer = nonviolence. They want us to believe that the absence of prayer in our public schools is breeding criminals. They want us to believe barring religion from politics at the government level is corrupting America. Religion, they say (as do many Muslims) is the maker and enforcer of morality. Without God, morality, so the narrative goes, is impossible.

That’s what dogma tells us. Let’s look at the facts and see what they tell us.

If the morality police are right, most of our criminals are nasty old atheists and secularists and Pagans.

But they’re not! Atheists and agnostics commit fewer crimes than Christians.  A Pew Research Values Study shows that “crime correlates inversely with levels of religious conviction.”

Ouch.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be. Religious people are supposed to be the most violence free. After all, they have prayer. The rest of us schmucks wallow in the muddy waters of moral relativism.

We already noted that secularism is on the rise, from 8% of Americans in 1990 to 15% in 2008. If this is the case, and if the morality police are right, then crime should be on the increase as well, because these are the immoral slobs committing all the crimes.

Instead, violent crime remained at a steady level from 1990 to 1993 and since 1993 it has declined. As America has become more secular, it has become less violent.

If the narrative is true, this is another logical impossibility.

The morality police will continue to argue that the reverse is true but in a fact-based world this cannot be the case. Prayer does not reduce crime. Those who pray are more likely to be criminals than those who do not.

Who fills up our prisons? Why, secularists of course! Atheists! Pagans!

Wrong again. The Federal Bureau of Prisons says that nonbelievers are only two-tenths of 1% of inmates. Since Christians are approximately 80% of the population and 75% of it’s prisoners, we should be drawing some vastly different conclusions, shouldn’t we?

While I’m sure the apologists will explain the 91% of executed murderers on persecution of the faithful, the numbers suggest that Christians are simply more likely to murder somebody. How many atheists were executed for murder in the same ten-year period? Less than a third of 1%.

And all this is true not just nationally but internationally as well. Europe, far more secular than America, has a much lower crime rate. Denmark and Sweden are recognized as the “most atheist nations in the world” as Timothy Ferris points out, but they “enjoy admirably low levels of corruption and violent crime while scoring near the top of the international happiness indices.”

How can this possibly be, we must ask ourselves. It’s the reverse of the truth! It’s all a lie.

But the numbers don’t lie. The believers lie.

As an aside, the “family that prays together stays together” is just as false. According to a study by the Barna Research Group born again Christians have a higher divorce rate than the rest of us – and much higher than atheists and agnostics (27% vs. 21%). Of the various Christian denominations, Evangelicals lead the pack but another group that prays from much the same scripture, the Jews, lead the way with 30%.

Another interesting if disturbing tidbit is a Pew poll which shows that Christians are more likely to support torture – an illegal activity. Fifty-four percent of those who attend services at least once a week say torture of suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed.  Again, Evangelicals lead the way with 60%.

And all the prayers in the world haven’t stopped Catholic priests from molesting children, or Evangelical megachurch pastors from engaging in activities they have preached loudly and vehemently against, from drugs, sex, prostitution and homosexuality.

The narrative is flawed. If there is one thing proven ineffective in enforcing societal norms, it is prayer.

In fact, those most fervent in prayer advocacy as a cure for society’s ills seem to be part of the problem, not its solution.

Taken as a whole, the numbers demonstrate that prayer does not make for morality. Morality in fact seems fairly common across the spectrum of humanity and most groups have the same taboos. And laws were around long before Abrahamic religion – the suggestion that without the Ten Commandments society would fall into wicked anarchy is not only demonstrably baseless, it’s ridiculous.

Conservatives can and will continue with their narrative; it is up to voters to educate themselves on the facts as opposed to the dogma, and to understand that society’s underpinnings are not religious, but liberal.

Source:  This article was inspired by Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty:  Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature (Harper 2010).

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28 Replies to “Some Hard Truths About Prayer and Crime”

  1. Excellent post!

    “I cannot help remembering a remark of De Casseres. It was over the wine in Mouquin’s. Said he: “The profoundest instinct in man is to war against the truth; that is, against the Real. He shuns facts from his infancy. His life is a perpetual evasion. Miracle, chimera and to-morrow keep him alive. He lives on fiction and myth. It is the Lie that makes him free. Animals alone are given the privilege of lifting the veil of Isis; men dare not. The animal, awake, has no fictional escape from the Real because he has no imagination. Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie.”
    —Jack London, The Mutiny of the Elsinore

  2. I have no problem admitting that I am an atheist. I was brought up religious and in a religious home, but in my mind anyI knew that I would never need to be religious.
    But more to the point I have no dogmas to protect. I have no religion to fight for, nor do I have beliefs that tell me everyone else is wrong and I’m right. I have no sense that without religion there would be no morality. Especially when I consider that in my mind mankind is over 1 million years old and has survived without religion for the greatest part of that time. I think it’s man’s native instinct to not kill or harm others.
    Prayer is a form of meditation, and I think those who practice it may be better people individually. Praying towards a goal such as less crime, for your children, or for anything physical for that matter is completely useless in my mind. You must remember that you’re only doing it for yourself and that it cannot affect anyone else.

    of course this is just my opinion

  3. Shiva,

    I am a polytheist, and as such, I’m much in the same frame of mind as you – ironically enough, since I believe in all gods and you believe in none.

    Polytheists don’t hold onto dogmatic truths. If all gods exist, each group of people have the religion that is right for them – true religion being “religion that works” not some ultimate truth it is revealed to be from on high.

    Nor was morality handed down from on high by the pagans of old. Laws might be sanctified by the gods, and treaties too, but it was humans who made – and enforced – the laws, not the priests.

    Jan Assmann called polytheism a means of translation between cultures, a form of religion that transcended cultural and ethnic barriers before monotheism invented the true/false dichotomy in religion. But false gods do not translate and that problem remains with us today. People not unreasonably see religion as the problem today, but that was not always the case. Once upon the time, it was the solution.

  4. I have no problem with people who are religious or have chosen a God for themselves. I think of Christians no differently than I think of Hindus or Muslims. If you’ve got a guy that works for you and it’s not being forced on you by all means go for it.
    However I do not think that I would have a problem seeing it your way. The gods of the ancient Romans and Greeks are just as relevant to them as the current gods of Islam, Christianity, and Hindus. In a real sense, a belief in one God would garner respect for the rest of the gods, not war and not social disorder.

    I just used to think that there are no gods and that this is a natural world and natural universe without divine intervention

  5. I understand entirely, Shiva. And though I can’t speak for all polytheists or Pagans, from my experience, we have less of a problem than do monotheists with the idea of atheism.

    I simply have no need to prove my gods exist or to push my ideas about them or anything else on anybody because all that matters is religion that works for me, not a religion that not only works for everybody but is FOR everybody, whether they want it or not.

    I will be accused of being a moral relativist for my troubles, but at least I’m not going to start any crusades.

  6. Isn’t it fascinating how what we’re reading can impact our thought process? I’m really enjoying your thoughts re your latest book endeavor. I’m reading Backlash right now (well, I have 11 books on the nightstand, all awaiting further attention) and it’s really helping me put into context what is going on with the crazy Right. To that end, I have to say that the more I read about the Tea Party’s movement of paranoia and misinformation, the more I wish progressives could band together to support the mandate for change we voted for.

    As for prayer, if prayer was a force that killed crime, why wouldn’t we want the Cordoba House? Oh, right. It has the be the “right” kind of prayer.

    I can’t get over the hump of arrogance it takes to assume as a mortal that I would know the right god versus the wrong god, nor can I make sense of a god who would send all citizens to hell who failed to recognize her.

    Our religious beliefs don’t belong in government or in schools. And while I imagine it comforts these folks to think of their religion as a moral compass, it is clearly not acting as one — a fault of the leaders as well as the followers. Another book I’m reading – Red State Blue State — talks about the lack of discipline in red states (this is a generalization/paraphrase for the sake of brevity on my part) and explains their adherence to the Bible as an attempt to get control over their children and straying adults. They found that liberal areas were much more disciplined – kids not pregnant or even having sex as early, kids working harder in school, etc. Looking for moral guidance and control in all the wrong places, apparently.

  7. I’m in the same boat with regards to books I’m reading – waiting to read, etc. I started Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World a few days ago as well, which stresses science’s role as a candle to hold back the darkness. We don’t have enough Carl Sagans unfortunately.

    I think the availability of information and the ability and willingness of people to talk about it is essential, and the red states are trying to control information, just as are Angle, Palin and now McDonnell. It can only be certain information from certain sources and there can be no debate. Choice is heresy.

    Anyway, like you, I agree religion does not belong in politics, any religion, any gods. Gods are for home and hearth and church and temple and they can be your moral compass if you wish, but mixing religion in politics is a recipe for disaster in a modern liberal democracy. The 18th century Evangelicals were so wise in this respect, and ours today are such fools.

  8. I truly admire Carl Sagan, but have never read a single book of his except Cosmos. I must get around and order a few used from Amazon, as the book a million and Barns and Nobles dont carry them.

  9. Hey there have been so many gods over time, who on earth knows? All the current religions today as did the previous ones will have a shelf life and then something else will come along.

    you mentioned the crux of why I am not religious. Here we have a God who so loved the world, created the universe and then created men on this tiny little planet and then demands servitude. Why does a God need servitude? Is he paranoid, does he have low self-esteem. The God of today is patterned directly from the gods of the Romans and the Greeks and Egyptians. They all demanded sacrifice and worship. I cannot conceive of a God who created everything we see so far out into space who would send you to hell if you don’t give him your servitude. That is just so corporate

  10. My local Borders carries A Demon Haunted World but I bought a used copy via Amazon. I haven’t checked Barnes & Noble.

  11. I can tell you how the logic goes…just like a landlord deserves his rent, a god deserves sacrifice. It’s an act of love, not servitude, at least for those of us who engage in it, and I place offerings on my altar all the time, or under a tree outside, or pour a libation when I have wine or mead with supper. The gods are beneficent, not angry and demanding, not to be feared, as the Pagan critic Celsus pointed out is a libel upon god, but to be loved. At the sacrificial feast following a sacrifice, folks believed the gods were there with them, sitting down to enjoy the meal as well.

  12. I was going to add that the beauty of a modern liberal democracy, unfettered by religion, is that we are all free to find what works best for us, from one god to many to none.

  13. Well done. Nicely sourced, clear and relevant facts pointing to logical conclusions which follow. Thank you for hitting this issue head on.

  14. It may be an act of love, but its still under duress in most religions. Do it, or go to hell. Thats not a god to me.

  15. The problem is that (fundamentalist) christians lump ‘sin’ and ‘crime’ together. Basically, they see the laws of man as inferior to the laws of their god.
    So, logically, they will consider sex out of wedlock, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, etc. as crimes. Which sort of explains their disconnect with the reality of crime statistics. The ‘moral degradation’ they see everywhere is real, which proves their point.
    It’s a circular argument: disobeying ‘God’s law’ is basically a crime, therefore the fewer devout christians there are, the more crime exists. What these people really need to understand is that modern democracies don’t work when they’re based on bronze-age ‘divine’ lawmaking. They are based on compromise.

  16. I think that being a public school teacher and a former minister’s wife has given me unique insight into the question of religion in schools. I know first-hand about Christians and violence. The man I married would preach a sermon on Sunday and be physically and verbally abusive to me the rest of the week. Even before the physical abuse started I was having trouble reconciling tenets of my long-held Christian faith. Thankfully, I was finally able to leave him. What I didn’t foresee is that I would eventually allow myself to relinquish the label of “Christian, ” and thereby relinquish the teachings of unquestioned moral superiority, the self-appointment as mouthpiece of ultimate truth, and the justification of irrational, offensive, and even immoral behavior because it serves a desired end. Now, today, I really don’t know what to call myself. But I believe, with a certainty that remains open to alteration, that NO organized religion I’ve had experience with has it “right.” What I DO KNOW is that a great deal of the prejudice, the judgment, and the emotional bullying that I see in my school today comes from students who are strongly identified with a particular “faith.” While NOT ALL kids who profess to be Christian engage in such behavior, some of the most offensive instances I’ve seen involve kids who, because of the indoctrinations of their particular faith, refuse to consider alternate viewpoints or concede that they don’t “know” the “Truth” about everything. My son, who is in middle school, is frequently hassled by his “Christian” classmates because he does not ascribe to their particular world view. So, I am in agreement Hrafnkell. I think he’s done an excellent job of pointing out fallacies in the arguments of those who insist that individuals who are NOT a part of the traditional religious framework bear the blame for all of society’s ills.

  17. What are the statistics, by percentage, for those that actively pray on a regular basis and end up in jail / get arrested vs. those that do not? Your use of the statistics in the article doesn’t hold up if the total numbers of believers vs. atheists does not start out equal. 500 believers with 50 in prison (10%) can’t be compared to 10 atheists with 3 in prison (30%). Sure, you can then say 94% of criminals are believers. Yet in reality we see that in this theoretical example the atheists are 3 times more likely to be criminals.

    So – what are the statistics seen in this respect?

  18. you are liar. no Pew study says that. I’m going to contact them and prove that you are full of it. the garbage atelier liar who did the allege “study” on pres ion just forge to screw his head on and I have proved that he made up his stats. Adherents.com has a letter form the researcher stating that the atheist go the stats wrong. I can show you form the table he mad up his version.

    you are a liar and atheist in general are liars. you stupid adn you ar mkaing up garage to flue you hate.

  19. http://www.doxa.ws/social/Prison1.html

    One attempt at this bogus atheist social sciences is a site by Boyd Swift. Swift, thought he would be a wrote the bureaus of prisons for stats, but unfortunately he doesn’t know how to read a table.

    Response Number %
    Catholic 29267 39.164%
    Protestant 26162 35.008%
    Muslim 5435 7.273%
    American Indian 2408 3.222%
    Nation 1734 2.320%
    Rasta 1485 1.987%
    Jewish 1325 1.773%
    Church of Christ 1303 1.744%
    Pentecostal 1093 1.463%
    Moorish 1066 1.426%
    Buddhist 882 1.180%
    Jehovah Witness 665 0.890%
    Adventist 621 0.831%
    Orthodox 375 0.502%
    Mormon 298 0.399%
    Scientology 190 0.254%
    Atheist 156 0.209%
    Hindu 119 0.159%
    Santeria 117 0.157%
    Sikh 14 0.019%
    Bahai 9 0.012%
    Krishna 7 0.009%
    —————————- ——– Total Known Responses 74731 100.001% (rounding to 3 digits does this) Unknown/No Answer 18381 What’s really intereting is what Adherents.com has to say about these stats and Swifts website. Here is a letter by researcher on Adherents.com who checked out Swift’s data: Adherents.com

    David Rice has written to us (23 October 2002) concerning the origin of the data in the table below: The data came from Denise Golumbaski, who was a Research Analyst for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The data was compiled from up-to-the-day figures on March 5th, 1997. (Note that as of the year 1999, Analyst Golumbaski is no longer working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons; I had telephoned Analyst Golumbaski to request the latest figures, and was told by another analyst that Golumbaski was no longer employed there.) The data was requested by Mr. Rod Swift, who passed it on to me for my web site. I later called the Federal Bureau of Prisons and confirmed that the data did in fact come from their database.

    This is the actual data Swift had to work wtih and Rice documents that fact, here it is:

    19.908%
    Response Number %
    Catholic 29267 39.164%
    Protestant 26162 35.008%
    None/Atheist/Unknown 18,537
    Muslim 5435 7.273%
    American Indian 2408 3.222%
    Nation 1734 2.320%
    Rasta 1485 1.987%
    Jewish 1325 1.773%
    Church of Christ 1303 1.744%
    Pentecostal 1093 1.463%
    Moorish 1066 1.426%
    Buddhist 882 1.180%
    Jehovah Witness 665 0.890%
    Adventist 621 0.831%
    Orthodox 375 0.502%
    Mormon 298 0.399%
    Scientology 190 0.254%
    Atheist 156 0.209%
    Hindu 119 0.159%
    Santeria 117 0.157%
    Sikh 14 0.019%
    Bahai 9 0.012%
    Krishna 7 0.009%

    I have represented both talbes exactly as they appear on the adherents.com website.

    Several interesting points. The original says “National of Islam,” Swift’s Version says “Nation” only. The Original puts Muslims at 5.837% While Swift’s version puts them at 7.273%. Swift’s has Mormons as seventh from bottom. The original doesn’t have Mormons on it.

    What’s really interesting is the major difference for our puposes, the original includes “none/ahteist/unknown as third from the top. Swift puts them much further down. The Originals give the atheist category almost 20% while Swist tives it 0.2% or less.

    Examine this table with the one above.

    Swift’s Table

    On Swift’s table there is no mention of atheist in the first five and atheist is listed fifth from the bottom. In that table atheist is 0.209%. Now here is the table sent by the Bureau of prisons to Rice, first five:,br>

    In this table Atheist/unknown/none is third form top and has 19%! Fifth from the bottom on this version is not atheist but “Hindu.” So the version sent by the Bureau of Prisons is significantly different than the version put up by Swift.

    It seems Swift misrepresented the data.

    So in other words, the actual number of atheists is about a quarter as high as the Christians. It’s not this tiny 0.something percent, it’s actually pretty high.
    It’s pretty clear he fabricated the data. These mistakes are too far off to be merely mistakes in recording.

    Swist goes on to expalin how the disproportionate number of atheists in prison from the general population means they are so far better behaved than Christians.

    Now, let’s just deal with the nasty Christian types, no? “Judeo-Christian Total 62594 83.761% (of the 74731 total responses) Total Known Responses 74731 Not unexpected as a result. Note that atheists, being a moderate proportion of the USA population (about 8-16%) are disproportionately less in the prison populations (0.21%).”

    Of course he’s distorting these figures too because it’s not 8% certianly not 16%. He’s including people who believe in God but don’t like organized religion as well as agnostics as atheists. He’s also dealing with his flase figures. The actual figure is 20% atheists in prison and 3% in society. So what does this tell us? Atheist are a lot less well behaved.

    adherents.com
    answers Swift’s page directly:

    One atheist web page (http://holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm) presented statistics stating that 0.209% of federal prisoners (in 1997) stated “atheist” as their religious preference. This site said that this is far less than the 8 to 16% of the American population that are atheists.

    The atheist site, however, provided no source for the notion that “8 to 16%” of Americans are atheists. This statistic is completely without support from the available data. Gallup polls which include questions about religion have consistently shown that between 93 and 96% of Americans say that they believe in God. Presumably atheist writers would not suggest that up to half of their claimed “atheists” believe in God. The actual proportion of atheists in the United States is about 0.5% (half of one percent). This is the figure obtained from the largest survey of religious preference ever conducted: the National Survey of Religious Identification (Kosmin, 1990), which polled 113,000 people. The religious preference questions were part of questioning completely unrelated to religious preference (consumer preferences, entertainment, etc.), so the frequent retort of atheists that their numbers don’t like to admit to atheism, and hence are undercounted, is unlikely.

  20. I searched for a Pew study like that and I found that there is none.

    It has been proved that the alleged ‘studies that show Christians are more likely to go to prison was based upon fabricated data. Adherent’s.com proves this.

    here

  21. The quote “crime correlates inversely with levels of religious conviction” appears to be a quote from Timothy Ferris’ “The Science of Liberty”. Do you have pointer to the Pew study you refer to? Is that a study that Ferris quotes?

  22. 1) Learn to spell and use grammar properly.
    2) Prove where Hraf is lying. Bonus points if you can do so in a cogent manner.
    3) Hraf is not an atheist. He is a polytheist. There is a marked difference–not that I expect a Talibangelical to understand that.

  23. So the facts are contingent upon my spelling hu? You mean there is such a Pew study because I have dyslexia? Where is it? why don’t the Pew research center people know about it?

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