Timothy Ferris, in The Science of Liberty, looks at the numbers:
Many [religious believers share] a conviction that religion is the sole or at least the most effective defender of morality. It is not. If it were, religious believers ought at the very least to commit fewer serious crimes than do atheists and agnostics, but such is not the case. As many surveys have shown, atheists and agnostics are, if anything, less apt to commit serious crimes — and they persist in their erstwhile ethicality even though they belong to the most distrusted minority in the modern world. What is called secularism — meaning atheism, agnosticism, or simply having no interest in religious faith — is on the rise in the United States, having jumped from 8 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend is geographically widespread — secularism is growing in all fifty states — and likely to accelerate. […] Yet the American violent crime rate remained flat from 1990 to 1993, and has since been declining. Indeed, crime correlates inversely with levels of religious conviction, if it correlates at all. While 15 percent of all Americans identify themselves as having no religious beliefs, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that nonbelievers make up only two-tenths of 1 percent of its inmates. (Christians constitute about 80 percent of the American population and 75 percent of its prisoners.) A ten-year study of death-row inmates at Sing-Sing found that 91 percent of those executed for murder were Christians, less than a third of 1 percent atheists. Similar anticorrelations between religion and crime are found internationally. Only 20 percent of Europeans say God plays an important part in their lives, as opposed to 60 percent of Americans, but Europe’s crime rates are lower than America’s. Denmark and Sweden rank among the most atheistic nations in the world — up to three quarters of their citizens identify themselves as nonbelievers — yet these Godless souls somehow enjoy admirably low levels of corruption and violent crime while scoring near the top of the international happiness indices.
Religious fundamentalists are often surprised to hear this, just as their forebears were surprised to learn from explorers’ reports that upright Hindus and Buddhists living in faraway lands comported themselves as ethically as did Anglican bishops. But the basis of such confusion disappears when the genesis of morals is examined empirically. The basic tenets of morality, such as prohibitions against murder and incest, are common to most peoples and most religions. This makes sense if the moral precepts evolved over time, socially and perhaps biologically, because they promoted human survival — as they obviously do — and are reflected in religious texts rather than having been handed down from heaven. If morality evolved, rather than having been independently invented by thousands of gods, people should behave at least as ethically without religion as with it — as, evidently, they do.
Ferris adds in the chapter notes:
Since religiosity fails to correlate with individual morality, the Christian right has resorted to claiming that atheistic nations behave immorally even though the same is not true of individuals. Nazi Germany and communist Russia are the examples most often cited. But fascism was not irreligious — at least not in the considered view of the Vatican, which supported Hitler, or of the Nazi party, which in its charter stated that it “stands for Positive Christianity,” or of Hitler himself, who claimed in 1938 that “by warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.” Communism, as many have observed, was its own religion. “A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy,” wrote George Orwell, “and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible.”
I’ll add here only that, between the Vatican’s historical support for the Third Reich and the current child abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church — including the revelation that the Pope himself delayed, for years, the defrocking of a known child molester — the notion of papal infallibility, as well as of the irreproachable virtue of the clergy, has been taking some pretty hard blows. (To say the least.)
Whatever else, these instances, among many others, demonstrate that believers cannot claim a monopoly on goodness. The fact that many godless people are good, and many god-fearing people aren’t — and vice versa — shows that morality and religion have less to do with one another than some may think.
(Image h/t Justice Action)