Religious Belief and Moral Behaviour
Morality is what you do when no one is looking.
(Investigator 166, 2016, January)
A professor once told me, “The first thing you should ask about any
research is, ‘Who is paying for it?’”. Quite often you get the answer
you pay for. The results of studies are not only affected by money, but
by other base motives, such as power or ideology.
In #165 Kirk Straughen inferred that secular atheism resulted in better
moral values and less crime based on American studies by Vern
Bengeston. These showed that secular people had well developed moral
values and that their behaviour was actually superior. Other recent
studies have also claimed that secular children are more altruistic
than their secular counterparts. On the other hand there are many other
studies that show the exact opposite. There are many overviews of the
studies on religious belief and moral behaviour. For instance, see
“Does religious belief make you more moral: a case study in misusing
The relationship between morality and religious belief is a highly
sensitive subject and so individual motives can easily skew the
conclusion. So, studies on morality give varying results and you can
choose the conclusions you want, but you are probably better off if you
open your eyes to the obvious.
Kirk mentioned that secular Scandinavian societies have less social
problems, but that is in a galaxy far, far away and we do not know the
details. What has happened in Australia, where we can see what is going
At the beginning of the 20th century about 50% of people attended
church regularly and Christianity was a fundamental part of Australian
society. By the end of the 20th century this had fallen to 10% and
Christianity has been marginalised from the mainstream, so what has
changed over that period?
I was born in 1951 and was brought up in a public housing estate at the
poorer end of society. However, it was still pretty decent. If we
wanted to catch a train, we would ride our bikes to the train station
and hang our bike up on a rack and not lock it (we didn’t even have
locks); and when we came back it would still be there. My dad left his
car keys on the floor mat in front of the driver’s seat and our house
was often unlocked. We walked to school or rode our bikes. We played
cricket with the neighbourhood kids in the street. We were often away
from home riding round the neighbourhood with our friends. Our parents
had little idea where we were, but they were not worried, provided we
came home at a reasonable time.
Since then social conditions have changed slowly but inexorably. It is
happening so slowly that we do not even notice it, unless we stop and
look back. Now we don’t only lock our bikes but also lock the wheels
and other removable parts. We don’t just lock our cars and houses, we
alarm them and insure them against theft. Parents don’t send their kids
to school, they drop them off in their car. Women are far more wary
about walking the streets at night. The standard of living has improved
since then, but the level of public honesty and safety has gone
However, correlation is not causation. What are the causes of these
changes? I am not an expert but this is how it appears to me. In past
times there was a stronger sense of duty to God, other people and to
our country. Now the word ”duty” seems somewhat anachronistic. The aim
of life now seems to be the maximisation of individual pleasure. This
is what we are told in the media and in advertising: “For the most
important person in the world…you.” It is really quite sickening.
This has encouraged a prevalent selfish attitude, especially amongst
younger people. They throw their cigarette packets and McDonald
wrappers on the roads, footpath and in our front yard. The other day I
was in the supermarket. There was a group of 3 young people. One guy
decided he didn’t want a particular item and so he just blatantly threw
it on the floor and walked off. Young people are more likely to become
involved in drugs, and gambling has grown as a social disease etc. We
have also grown a dependent underclass that thinks that the rest of
society owes them a living. These people lack any purpose or desire to
extricate themselves from their circumstances and are a drain on the
rest of society.
Many people lack any other purpose than to be happy and acquire goods.
Now that I am approaching retirement, I often ask others what they are
going to do with their retirement. The usual answer is that they will
spend time with their grandkids and go on holidays until they drop. Now
these desires can be quite good, but is that all there is?
Kirk mentions that secular morality is based on empathetic reciprocity.
Most people do have a sense of empathy (which I am very glad about),
but why act in an empathetic manner when there is no obvious reciprocal
benefit? I am sure Joseph Stalin had a sense of empathy but it did not
motivate his behaviour.
Richard Dawkins has claimed that there is no logical connection between
atheism and evil, which is debatable, but he does not mention that
there is also no logical connection between atheism and doing good. The
whole notion of good and evil has a dubious status within atheism.
Atheism is essentially amoral. Richard Dawkins also claims that there
is a logical connection between religion and evil. He cherry picks a
few OT passages, misinterprets them and extrapolates them and
completely ignores Jesus’ ethical teachings.
In fact, Jesus’ ethical teachings do provide a significant logical
reason for doing good. At the basest level people can be motivated by
the carrot and stick approach by a system of rewards and punishment.
Proverbs claims that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
However, the fear of God may be the beginning of wisdom, but it is not
the end. At a higher level, Christian behaviour is a response to the
grace of God and results in behaviour that is motivated spontaneously
by love, rather than legalistic behaviour motivated by fear.
This is borne out in Australia and other countries in fairly obvious
ways. The overwhelming number of charitable organisations in Australia
are Christian based. Charity did not exist in Graeco Roman society
until it was introduced by Christians. The whole notion of charity is a
Christian idea. So if a person is homeless or drunk, who is there to
help them? They may well be wearing a Salvation Army uniform.
Christianity claims that we are made in the image of God but we also
have a dark side that needs fixing. So all people are capable of
great good and great evil. So even an atheist can be a Joseph Stalin or
a Fred Hollows. The problem with atheism is it provides no clear reason
for choosing between Joseph and Fred, whereas Christianity does.
Through Jesus’ teachings, Christianity provides a purpose and meaning
in life that provides a reason for living in accordance with moral
Director, Reasonable Faith
Religious Belief & Moral Behaviour — A Reply
(Investigator 167, 2016 March)
In his article Religious Belief and Moral Behaviour (No. 166, page 51)
Kevin seems to imply there may be a link between a decline in religious
belief and church attendance, and an increase in violence — "public
honesty and safety has gone backwards." (page 52).
The evidence he has presented seems largely anecdotal in nature. The
problem with anecdotal evidence is that we don't obtain a complete
picture from what could be a small non¬-representative sample.
Kevin may have lived in an area where violence was particularly low,
whereas if he lived in another part of Australia (a deprived and
marginalised Aboriginal community, for example) his experiences may
have been very different. Either way might result in a distorted
perception of the true situation.
So, is 21st century Australia specifically and the world in general a
more violent place in which to live than it was in the past, and is
there a correlation between religious belief, church attendance and
violence? In order to get a clear picture it is important to look at
long term trends. The life of any civilization is measured in
centuries. Rates of violence fluctuate and a small sample can often
give a false impression, a situation that can be compounded by people's
erroneous perception that things are worse than what they actually are:
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008), the number of
crimes reported to police was lower in 2007 than in 1998 in the
categories of homicide and related offences, robbery, unlawful entry
with intent, motor vehicle theft and other theft. The rate of crime
reported to police for kidnapping/abduction and blackmail/extortion
increased marginally between 1998 and 2007. However, the aggregate
crime trend shows a decline.
However, despite this decline, it is clear that public perceptions of
crime rates and crime trends often do not match with police statistics
of recorded crime or surveys on victimisation rates (Rex & Tonry
2002; Roberts & Indermaur 2009). Studies of the US and Canadian
public indicate people perceive crime rates as increasing even though,
in general, crime rates have been declining over the last decade
(Maguire & Pastore 1999). Results are not isolated to the United
States and Canada, with evidence of similar misperceptions present in
Australia (Indermaur & Roberts 2005).
In Australia, studies have shown a substantial proportion of the
population incorrectly believe crime rates are increasing when, in
fact, they are stable or declining (Weatherburn & Indermaur 2004).
Research has found that women, older people and more poorly educated
people hold less accurate perceptions of actual crime rates than those
who are male, younger and more highly educated (Indermaur & Roberts
This misperception tends to arise from the media's sensational
portrayal of crime. Research has also revealed the following:
Official crime statistics indicate that most crime is non-violent, but
media reports in many instances suggest the opposite; changes in the
amount of crime news coverage seem to bear little relationship to
variations in the actual volume of crime between places or over time.
In Australia homicide statistics have remained remarkably stable over
the last 20 years despite the public's perception of there having been
an increase; and recent research has found that the amount and type of
crime reported on Australian news bulletins, when compared with data
from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Report of Crime statistics),
• an over-representation of violent crimes,
• an over-representation of children and the elderly
as victims, and
• an over-representation of youth as perpetrators of
What is the media's role in shaping public constructions of crime and
Television is a primary source of values, agendas and perspectives and
helps to shape the meaning of crime and criminality for the public:
• television cultivates a view of the world as a mean
and scary place;
• media reporting often highlights random and
unexpected crimes, with the consequence that individuals readily
identify themselves as potential victims;
• television plays a crucial role in the creation of
moral panic (outrage directed at certain groups e.g. youth or
particular ethnic groups) by depicting crime in a sensationalist
• media reporting of crime can be selective with the
focus being on "newsworthiness".
Research in the US found that a consistent predictor of newsworthiness
was if the victim was:
• under 18 or over 62, if the victim was white, and
if the victim was female; and
• media reports seldom analyse underlying causes of
As can be seen reliance on the media and anecdotal evidence is
inadvisable as these can give a false impression of the true situation.
Belief and Church Attendance
Media reporting distorts the public's perception of the level of
violence. Violence exists and the level fluctuates, but is a decline in
religious belief responsible for periods when violence increases?
Before attempting to answer this question it is necessary to know the
extent of the decline and when it commenced. Here is the relevant data
from the Australian Bureau of Statistics:
The number of people
reporting no religion in Australia has increased
substantially over the past hundred years, from one in 250 people to
one in five. In 1911 there were 10,000 people (0.4%) who chose the
option 'No religion' on their Census form; in 2011 there were just
under 4.8 million (22% of Australians). As a single response to the
question on religion, only Catholic was higher at 25% of the
population, with Anglican third highest at 17%.
Although numbers of people reporting no religion were
relatively low in
the first half of the century, the specific instruction 'if no
religion, write none' included in the 1971 Census saw an increase in
this response from 0.8% in the previous Census to 6.7%. From this time,
reporting no religion has increased at an average of 3.9 percentage
points per decade, with the sharpest increase (6.8 percentage points)
between 2001 and 2011. (3)
So, we can see that there has been a decline in religious belief over
time and, as the following information shows, an accompanying decline
in church attendance that started in the 1950s:
attendance is a different measure to affiliation. It
measures the proportion of the population who attend church at least
Between 1950 to 2007 frequent church attendance has
declined from 44%
Whilst church attendance may be declining overall, it
is not the case
that all denominations are declining. In Australia, NCLS analysis over
time identifies that there are Evangelical and Pentecostal
denominations that are growing. (4)
The Prevalence of Historical Violence
The Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicates that the aggregate
crime trend shows a decline and that religious belief is also in
decline. If there was a causal link between high levels of religious
belief and low levels of violence we would expect to see centuries of
high religious belief and church attendance having lower rates of
violence than today. So, in Australia, what is the overall trend in
violence? Here is the conclusion, based on statistical analysis, from
the Australian Institute of Criminology:
Scarcely a century ago
Australia was a much more violent and dangerous
society than it is today: rates of homicide were as much as ten times
higher than those experienced in contemporary society, and bushrangers
terrorised rural communities (Grabosky 1977).
Even during the first few decades of the present [20th]
violence was commonplace in Australia. In 1916, for instance, drunken
soldiers caused havoc, at Sydney's Central Railway Station. During this
incident one rioter was shot dead by police, six were wounded, and four
policemen were injured (Grabosky 1977, p. 108).
The Depression years, also witnessed substantial
with labour unrest and protest. In New South Wales, late in 1929,
police opened fire on a group of striking miners at Rothbury, wounding
seven and killing one. This particular event was one of historical
significance, representing the 'most severe repression of labour
protest in twentieth century New South Wales' (Grabosky 1977, p. 108).
Unfortunately, violence in Australia was prevalent at a time of high
religious belief and church attendance. Short term trends in violence
rise and fall, but the long term trend in Australia from the 19th
century to the present is towards a less violent society. Similar long
term trends can be seen in Europe as well:
Take homicide. Using
old court and county records in England, scholars
calculate that rates have plummeted by a factor of 10, 50 and, in some
cases, 100 — for example, from 110 homicides per 100,000 people per
year in 14th-century Oxford to fewer than one homicide per 100,000 in
mid-20th¬century London. Similar patterns have been documented in
Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The
longer-term trend is even more dramatic, Pinker told me in an
interview: "Violent deaths of all kinds have declined, from around 500
per 100,000 people per year in pre-state societies to around 50 in the
Middle Ages to around six to eight today worldwide, and fewer than one
in most of Europe. (6)
If there was a link between violence and lack of religiosity then we
should expect to see the opposite: Societies of the past with their
higher level of religiosity and church attendance should have been
societies where violence was lower than it is today. History, however,
shows that was not the case. Clearly, there is more to the cause of
crime and violence than the degree of religious belief and church
Religious Belief and Criminality
Most criminals have religious beliefs. Religious beliefs may make some
people less prone to criminality, but it certainly doesn't guarantee it
— if a person wants to commit a crime they will merely rationalise
their actions so these actions don't come into conflict with their
beliefs. Paedophile priests — men who should know better — are a sad
example of this fact:
criminologists Volkan Topalli, Timothy Brezina, and Mindy
Bernhardt (all Georgetown State University) suggests that "[t]hrough
purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance" criminals take advantage of
religious beliefs in order to justify their ongoing criminal behaviour.
...the hardcore offenders we interviewed are able to
absolvitory tenets of religious doctrine, neutralizing their fear of
death to not only allow but encourage offending." That is, the
criminals relied on the fact that their religion (overwhelmingly
Christianity) uplifts forgiveness and absolution, and so the criminals
reasoned they would be forgiven too.
The authors are quick to note that religion does not
justify crime, but that "[t]hrough purposeful distortion or genuine
ignorance" criminals think of creative ways to "exploit" religion to
their own ends. Of course, genuinely not knowing one's own religion
extends well beyond criminals, and the same goes for exploiting
religion for personal ends. Even if the criminals purposely distort
their religion's teachings, the authors conclude that such religious
rationalizations still may very well "…play a criminogenic role in
their decision making." (7)
What is clear is that a person's religious beliefs are distinct from
their ethical behaviour. Being religious or non-religious is not a
predictor of criminality any more than belief or unbelief in the idea
that 13 is an unlucky number.
Criminality Risk Factors
The evidence presented so far indicates that the presence or absence of
religion is not a factor in criminality and violence. If so, then what
is? The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics has in their Crime and Justice
Bulletin No 54 produced an overview in non-technical terms of what
researchers know about the causes. In summary no single factor
predisposes an individual to criminality. Rather, there are various
risk factors and the more risk factors an individual has the more at
risk they are of becoming involved in crime. Below is a list of some of
these factors and related facts. (8)
AGE AND GENDER
• Most criminals are young men
• Involvement in crime often starts in late
• The majority of young offenders commit just a few
offences then desist without the need for formal intervention
• Juveniles who remain involved in crime commit more
serious offences as they age
• Parental neglect is a strong factor (large family
size, poor parental supervision, inadequate parent-child interaction)
• Parental conflict and discipline is an intermediate
factor (abuse or nagging. Harsh, erratic or inconsistent discipline)
• Deviant parental behaviour and attitudes is an
intermediate factor (parental criminality, violence or tolerance of
INTELLIGENCE AND EDUCATION
• Lower than average intelligence
• Poor school performance
• Delinquent peers are a risk factor, but only when
parental controls and attachment is weak
POVERTY AND UNEMPLOYMENT
• Poverty and unemployment cause stress. Parents
under stress are more at risk of inadequate parenting practices which
increase the risk of juvenile crime
ALCOHOL AND DRUG ABUSE
• Consumption of alcohol can increase aggression
• Heavy drinkers report more alcohol related violent
• Criminal assaults cluster around licensed premises
• Areas with high rates of alcohol consumption tend
to have high rates of violence
• Involvement in crime usually precedes illicit drug
• Many early family precursors to involvement in
crime are identical with those which precede illicit drug use
• Many individuals already involved in crime commit
far more offences when addicted to sustain their habit
TOLERANCE OF VIOLENCE
• Tolerance or justification of violence can be a
contributing factor in crime. For example, domestic violence is a crime
but in one survey nearly 20% of the Australian population reported that
they could see circumstances where such violence would be acceptable.
We can see from the above that the factors that lead to crime are many
and complex, but not beyond combating through education, government
policy and community support.
Trends in Warfare over time
The evidence presented so far shows a decline in violence within
Australia and other societies. However, in order to get a broader
picture of global levels of violence it may be helpful to examine
trends in warfare. Research has shown that this, too, is in decline:
The post-World War II
conflict data offer compelling evidence that both
the decline in the number and deadliness of wars are real. The 2000s
are indeed relatively peaceful compared with previous decade.
The average number of international wars being fought
every year per
decade shrinks dramatically - from over six in the 1950s, to less than
one in the 2000s. This matters says Human Security Report Project
Director, Andrew Mack, because "international wars kill far more people
on average than do the far more numerous civil wars."
We should note however that the total number of armed
conflicts of all
types - i.e. not just international wars ¬increased three fold from
the 1950s to the end of the Cold War. But most of these conflicts were
low-intensity civil wars with relatively modest fatality counts. From
the early 1990s to the present day, overall conflict numbers have
dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that
kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.
What about wartime fatalities? Here the data are even
remarkable... between 1950 and 2007 the decline in the fatality rate
from combat was dramatic. In 1950 the annual rate was approximately 240
reported battle-related deaths per million of the world's population;
in 2007, it was less than 10 per million.
The extent of this decline, which is still viewed with
sometimes scepticism by non-specialists, is relatively uncontroversial
within the research community. (9)
The decline in violence in the form of warfare can be attributed to
some of the following factors.
• The strong normative proscription against the use
of military force — except in self-defence, or sanctioned by the UN
• Peacekeeping, peace building and peacemaking.
(UN¬speak for seeking to stop ongoing wars) These are inefficient,
but also effective.
• Increased economic interdependence — which in turn
increases the costs and decreases the benefits of the resort to war.
• Inclusive democratization — at its best a form of
non¬violent conflict resolution.
• Increased economic development — the politics of
economic growth are much less of a cause for conflict than the negative
sum politics of economic decline.
So, is Australia specifically and the world in general a more violent
place in which to live today than it was in the past, and is there a
correlation between religious belief, church attendance and violence?
Firstly, Australia isn't a utopia, true, but media sensationalism can
make things appear worse than what they actually are — that crime,
particularly violent crime, is spiraling out of control and that youths
are responsible when in fact this isn't so.
Secondly, although religiosity has declined since the 1950s recent
crime rates are declining in terms of aggregate trends: 2013 - 2014
recorded a five year low in homicide, robbery and motor vehicle theft,
and although there has been an increase in sexual assault the overall
number of recorded assault victims has decreased. (10)
Thirdly, in the distant past when religiosity was higher than it is
today violence was much higher. If the level of religiosity in the
population was a significant factor in the suppression of violent
instincts then the level of violence in past ages should have been far
Fourthly, the causes of crime are not attributable to a single factor
such as religiosity. No single factor predisposes an individual to
criminality. Rather, there are various risk factors and the more risk
factors an individual has the more at risk they are of becoming
involved in crime.
Fifthly, the world overall is becoming less violent due the growing
interdependence of nations and the efforts of the international
community to peacefully resolve sources of conflict. Australia is at
less risk of being invaded by a hostile foreign power.
Considering all of these factors and taking a broad holistic view I
think we can say that Australia today, even with the threat of
terrorism, is a safer and less violent place than it was in the past,
and that there does not appear to be any conclusive evidence that
fluctuations in the level of violence in Australia are linked to the
degree of religiosity of our society.
(1) (Mis) perceptions of Crime in Australia:
(2) Media Portrayals of Crime:
(3) Australian Social Trends, Nov 2013:
(4) National Church Life Survey:
(5) Australian Institute of Criminology. Violence, Crime and Australian
(6) Scientific American. The Decline of Violence:
(7) How Criminals use Religion to Justify their Crimes:
(8) Crime and Justice Bulletin No 54: What Causes Crime? NSW Bureau of
Crime Statistics and Research, ISSN 1030 - 1046 ISBN 0 7313 2625 3
(9) The Decline in Global Violence. Reality or Myth?
(10) Recorded Crime Victims, Australia 2014: