Friday, June 05, 2009

Atheism, Theism, and the Peace Index

Recently, I have seen a few atheist blog sites post correlations between the rankings of countries on a "peace index" (See Guardian Peace index ranks New Zealand the safest country in the world) to the numbers of atheists and regular church goers in those countries (See Epiphenom Atheist Nations Are More Peaceful). The correlation shows that countries with more atheists tend to be more peaceful.

It's a form of argument that I find as morally repugnant as correlating crime rates to the percentage of a population that is black. This correlation would show that the states with a higher percentage of black people tend to have higher crime rates, and to draw the conclusion, "White communities are more law-abiding."

I would expect a correlation between race and crime rates to be happily displayed on any white-supremacist organization. These types of statistics are popular among those who are in the business of selling hate. They provide an invitation to the reader the hate whole groups of people based merely on correlations of statistics.

However, we can find any number of correlations just like this that give us reason to hate any group of individuals.

One of the correlations I have written about in this blog is the relationship between atheism and charitable giving in the United States. Statistics show that theists in general, and regular church goers in specific, give more to charity than atheists. People who use this fact do so in a way that invites the reader to look down on and disrespect all atheists. "Atheists are selfish individuals – so, you should hold the same attitude towards atheists that you hold to those who are selfish."

One of my counters to this line of argument has to do with the fact that a significant portion of the atheist community happens to believe in "the virtue of selfishness." In contrast, desire utilitarianism holds in the "virtue of those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others." Since a desire to help those in need will tend to fulfill the desires of others, desire utilitarianism holds that charity is a virtue.

Let us assume, for illustrative purposes, 80% of atheists believe that we have nobody to depend on in times of trouble but each other. There is no God to rescue us and no afterlife to reduce the sting of death and suffering. As such, 80% of atheists give 12 units to charity. However, the other 20% of atheists are the "virtue of selfishness" variety who give nothing to charity. If we had a population of 10 atheists, we would show that atheists in general give 96 units to charity or 9.6 units per person.

Let us further assume, for the sake of argument, that theists give, on average, 10 units to charity. Every one of them.

In this illustration, we can see how these types of statistics are used. The presence of a small faction of atheists who do not give to charity is being used to taint all atheists. The desire utilitarian who gives 12 units to charity is being depicted as worse than the average theist because some other group of atheists believes in giving nothing to charity.

This is how bigotry works. This is WHY these types of relationships are the bread and butter of the hate-monger. With these types of statistics, we can tar whole groups of people with the excesses of a small faction, and then use this to sell hatred of the whole group.

We see the same strategy being used when white supremacists draw upon relationships between the percentage of a population being black and crime rates. Racists love these types of statistics because they can use it to invite people to take the hostility that they feel towards criminals and to apply it to all blacks.

The statistics I referenced above are, in turn, an invitation to take the attitudes one has towards those who are violent and to turn it against all who believe in a God.

It all represents the same type of thinking.

Here’s the rule: Keep your criticism focused on those who are actually guilty of the trait that makes them worthy of criticism. Criticism of those who are selfish should be specifically targeted to those who are selfish. Criticism of those who break the law should be targeted specifically at those who break the law. And criticism of those who engage in violence should be targeted specifically at those who engage in violence.

You will find that you will be tempted to generalize – to take what you discover about a particular subgroup and apply it to a whole group of people that you have decided to target as 'them' or 'the enemy'. This is a tendency that we must learn to resist.


Anonymous said...

Here is the source of the statistics:

Correlation is not causation, of course. But a good counter-argument can be made using those statistics that a decrease in the religiosity of a country will not necessarily (or probably) result in the decrease of peace. Since this is a common argument by theists (from my experience), it is appropriate to show them the statistics that disproves their argument.

Epiphenom said...

Yes, and if you read my post (on Epiphenom), that's exactly the point I make!

anton said...


I believe that your "morally repugnant" reaction may be slightly misplaced. Could it be that you haven't been more than a visitor to several of these "safer" nations if you have been there at all?

These statistics tend to parallel how I "felt" when I visited 12 of of them and worked in eight of them. Yes, some of them are not as "comfortable" as they were in the 90s. Neither is New York, Chicago, Washington, New Orleans, Philadelphia or Los Angeles. I agree that making a case of "religion vs atheism" may be playing a numbers game that is in turn "worked" by those with agendas but lets face it, feeling "safe" contributes substantially to "enjoyment of life".

My experiences in US America are influenced by the fact that my work was based in your larger cities and those cities may be strong contributors to US America's ranking.

So, lets throw another fact into the picture. Most of those peacefully ranked countries don't allow their citizens to bear arms! In some of them, even the police are not armed.

Anonymous said...

I like to look at those stats, because I would like to be able to say " A rational life leads to a more peaceful state/community/world", but I don't want to dehumanize Christians because of it.

Mike said...

When dealing with the dominant religions, how do we address their ideological precepts that we would condemn, while sparing the better individuals of the group the insult of generalization or demonization?

For example, ideologically, Judaism has the concept of 'chosen-ness' and supports a birth-right entitlement and genetic preference for other Jewish people. Christianity and Islam, at their ideological cores, explicitly claim that non-believers, even moral ones, and are condemned to death, while immoral believers are spared.

The ideological foundation of the dominant religions, and those that would claim to be members, offend most of all, my desire for universality and moral equality, and I must admit that am guilty of contempt for that conceit and the religions' built-in assumptions of moral superiority.

Is it not fair to confront all members of these groups to either confirm the bigotry and inequity written into their faith, or demand they reject religious proclamations from their God that go against universality and moral equality?

Is it unfair to assume a person who generally claims to support an ideology, that they likely, support specific condemnable concepts that belong to the texts purporting the ideology, and can be criticized or even ridiculed for it?

I hope, as a supporter of Universality, that this position does not imply that religions people are 'below' me somehow, and justifies harming them, or denying them the same liberties in society, but I do mean to offend them with the condemnation of their beliefs that I find offensive. Notably those that go against the value of Universality and Moral equality.

Elisa said...

very good article!

Epiphenom said...

Hi, you may be interested in my follow up, which is based on my paper that has just been published. Why some countries are more religious