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 data?” at

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 on?

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 backwards.

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 principles.

Kevin Rogers
Director, Reasonable Faith


Religious Belief & Moral Behaviour —  A Reply

Kirk Straughen

(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 2005). (1)

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), shows:

•    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 crime.

What is the media's role in shaping public constructions of crime and criminality?

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 format;
•    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 crime (2).

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:

Frequent church attendance is a different measure to affiliation. It measures the proportion of the population who attend church at least monthly.

Between 1950 to 2007 frequent church attendance has declined from 44% to 17%.

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] century 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 violence associated 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). (5)

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 attendance.

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:

Research by 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 exploit the 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 necessarily 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)

•    Most criminals are young men
•    Involvement in crime often starts in late adolescence
•    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 violence)

•    Lower than average intelligence
•    Poor school performance
•    Truancy

•    Delinquent peers are a risk factor, but only when parental controls and attachment is weak

•    Poverty and unemployment cause stress. Parents under stress are more at risk of inadequate parenting practices which increase the risk of juvenile crime

•    Consumption of alcohol can increase aggression
•    Heavy drinkers report more alcohol related violent offences
•    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 use
•    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 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 more 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 surprise and 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 Security Council.
•    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 less.

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: _library/publications/tandi_pdf/tandi396.pdf

(2) Media Portrayals of Crime:

(3) Australian Social Trends, Nov 2013: 2013#introduction

(4) National Church Life Survey:

(5) Australian Institute of Criminology. Violence, Crime and Australian Society:¬9/vt0l.html

(6) Scientific American. The Decline of Violence:¬-violence/

(7) How Criminals use Religion to Justify their Crimes:!scienceonreligion/2013/06/how¬criminals-use-reI igion-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: