Putting New Atheist Talking Point to the Test

We are often told that the world would be a vastly better place if only we could get rid of religion, as religion is supposed to be responsible for all kinds of miseries and harm (as AC Grayling insisted).   I think this is wishful thinking propped up by confirmation bias, largely because the New Atheist cyber-world is clearly no better than any cyber-community of religious people.

Sometimes, people try to compare whole nations to answer this question, but there are so many different and uncontrolled variables when making such comparisons that I think such analyses are essentially meaningless.   Instead, I think it would be more meaningful to compare different cities from the same nation with similar demographics, but differing degrees of religiosity.

Lucky for us, Gallop did a survey that looks at the religiosity of many different metro areas across the country.  It turns out the most religious area in the USA is Provo-Orem, UT, where 77.2% of inhabitants were highly religious and 12.7% were non-religious.  The least religious area was Burlington, VT, where 17.2% were highly religious and 63.8% were non-religious.

What’s nice is that both areas have very similar demographics according to Wikipedia, even to the point of the median family income being essentially identical.

Burlington:  As of the census of 2010, there were 42,417 people residing in the city. The racial makeup of the city was 88.9% White, 3.9% Black or African American, 0.3% Native American, 3.6% Asian, and 2.6% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.7% of the population.There were 16,851 households and the average number of persons per household was 2.13.

As of the census of 2000, the median income for a household in the city was $33,070, and the median income for a family was $46,012.

Orem: As of the census of 2010, there were 526,810 people, 143,695 households, and 116,844 families residing within the MSA. The racial makeup of the MSA was 89.5% White, 0.5% African American, 0.6% Native American, 1.3% Asian, 0.7% Pacific Islander, 4.6% from other races, and 2.7% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 10.7% of the population.

As of the census of 2000, median income for a household in the MSA was $41,986, and the median income for a family was $46,426.

So let’s compare.  If New Atheist claims about the bad influence of religion are correct, we would expect Orem, UT to have much higher crime rates that Burlington, VT.  To test this “religion-is-bad” hypothesis, I went to city-data.com to get the crime index for both areas (where the higher number means more crime).

Burlington 

Orem

The plotted results are below the fold (with crime index values on Y-axis).

crime data

Looks like the New Atheist hypothesis in some serious trouble.  Despite the fact that Orem has 10 times the population of Burlington, it’s crime index rate is consistently much lower than that of Burlington.  Furthemore, what if we compare the incidence of sex offenders?

  • The ratio of number of residents in Orem to the number of sex offenders is 814 to 1. The number of registered sex offenders compared to the number of residents in this city is smaller than the state average.
  • The ratio of number of residents in Burlington to the number of sex offenders is 577 to 1. The number of registered sex offenders compared to the number of residents in this city is near the state average.

So the non-religious metro area has a higher incidence of sex offenders.

Now, unlike the New Atheists, I am not going to try and make the case here that a higher incidence of non-religiosity is correlated with higher crime and sex offender rates.  But what I will say is this – the New Atheist talking point about religion being the cause of “miseries and harm” is certainly not supported by these empirical data.

[originally posted in 3/3/13]

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4 Responses to Putting New Atheist Talking Point to the Test

  1. mechanar says:

    Good but Post you miss something. The New atheist Claim of what the Impact of religions of any kind is in the world is that by just existing it causes war and misery, they dont claim that it makes People Criminal but they Claim “The religious” are about to overthrow democracy. To see what Purpose a christian muslim or whatever depending on the situation has for the this ideology replace the word Christian or muslim or Faithead or hindu or religious with the word jew.

    I Know People are very quick these days to make nazi comparisons but when it fits it simply fits. The religious is the cause of most if not all harm in the world and in history and the atheist übermensch has always Prevailed by being the superior in every single way, the religious is wrong just by breathing if these guys are to be belived, you can tell me what you want but these People are not activists they are a fascistic hate group.

  2. Dhay says:

    > We are often told that the world would be a vastly better place if only we could get rid of religion, as religion is supposed to be responsible for all kinds of miseries and harm …

    I see there is an article in the TheHumanist online magazine entitled “New Atheism, Meet Existential Risk Studies”. Apparently, we’re all going to die, We’re All Going To Die, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE (allegedly very probably quite soon), because:

    While humanity has always been haunted by a small number of improbable threats to our survival, such as asteroid/comet impacts, supervolcanoes, and pandemics (call these our “cosmic risk background”), advanced technologies are introducing a constellation of brand-new existential risks that humanity has never before encountered—and therefore has no track record of surviving. These risks stem largely from technologies like nuclear weapons, biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and even artificial superintelligence, which a growing number of scholars identify as the greatest (known) threat to the long-term survival of humanity. …

    http://thehumanist.com/magazine/march-april-2016/features/new-atheism-meet-existential-risk-studies

    This adds a new twist to those words of sweet reason often repeated by the late Victor Stenger, namely, “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” It now looks like Stenger should more accurately have proclaimed, “Science ‘flies’ us to extinction from nuclear weapons, biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and that greatest (known) threat to the long-term survival of humanity, artificial superintelligence.”

    *

    Of course, with a title (and source) like that it’s going to get onto a New Atheist agenda, and that turns out to be the claim that climate change in particular will cause wars, and the above will get weaponised by those horrible religious people, especially Muslims, who, experiencing are looking forward eagerly to Armageddon.

    Add to this the ongoing slow-motion catastrophes of climate change and biodiversity loss that threaten our planetary spaceship with environmental ruination. While these two risks could genuinely bring about our extinction, they’re probably best described as “conflict multipliers” that will nontrivially raise the probability of other risk scenarios being realized, as state and non-state actors compete for land and dwindling resources.

    And:

    As a matter of fact, a 2015 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that one can draw a fairly straight line of causation from anthropogenic climate change through the record-breaking 2007-2010 Syrian drought, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State circa 2014. So we already have one instance of climate change contributing to the rise of apocalyptic madness.

    Because:

    These are conflict multipliers that will almost certainly result in major disruptions to society, threatening the very identity and perpetuation of certain socio-cultural groups … loss of identity and existential fear are often triggers for the rise of apocalyptic movements. When the world looks like it’s about to end, some religiously-inclined believers will become convinced that it really is.

    The article tells us the “Doomsday Clock” has recently been advanced (by a vote) to a mere three minutes before final Annihilation comes at midnight. (Brilliant advertising, but a good demonstration that people who say they want to persuade using evidence-based reasoning — New Atheist Lawrence Krauss was mentioned as one of those voting — are not at all reticent in stooping to the merely emotional impact of fear-mongering and scare-mongering vivid imagery.)

    Isn’t it odd how that self-proclaimed expert on Islam, Sam Harris, never seems aware that anything except traditional Islamic teaching and its schisms might be a cause of those regional conflicts which have fuelled the rise of ISIS and its ideology. Harris’ critics, eg Omer Aziz, seem aware of other factors; this article shows that some of Harris’ allies are aware; but Harris himself seems so narrowly focused he’s oblivious to other factors obvious to critics and some allies.

  3. Dhay says:

    In his blog post dated 05 June 2016 and entitled “Anthony Grayling vs. Rabbi Rowe on God’s existence”, Jerry Coyne laments that AC Graylng was recently utterly trounced in debate on the existence of God by Rabbi Daniel Rowe. Even Coyne could see and acknowledge Grayling was trounced, and states why:

    The reason that Grayling didn’t crush Rowe was based on one thing: Anthony wasn’t up on the responses of physicists to the “fine tuning” and “first cause” arguments for God.

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/anthony-grayling-vs-rabbi-rowe-on-gods-existence/

    It is quite astonishing that, with “fine tuning” and “first cause” arguments for God being so commonly made nowadays, that Grayling seems not to have heard of them, to have considered them, and to have prepared some sort of reply. Grayling is a professional philosopher — actually, he’s head of a private university nowadays (though not one accredited to award its own degrees) so perhaps he is more correctly described as an administrator — yet he has not prepared, he doesn’t know the usual arguments.

    This is ignorant. This is arrogant. This is pig-ignorant.

    Coyne is perhaps lamenting that Grayling wasn’t up on eg the responses of physicist Lawrence Krauss, perhaps, responses which have been near-universally lambasted by philosophers and philosophers of science. And even by some prominent New Atheists — such as Sam Harris, and Coyne himself.

    As Harris wrote in his “The Mystery of Consciousness” blog post”, using the idea of a universe from nothing as an adequately absurd parallel to the evidently equally absurd idea that consciousness can “emerge” from unconsciousness:

    I believe that this notion of emergence is incomprehensible—rather like a naive conception of the big bang. The idea that everything (matter, space-time, their antecedent causes, and the very laws that govern their emergence) simply sprang into being out of nothing seems worse than a paradox. “Nothing,” after all, is precisely that which cannot give rise to “anything,” let alone “everything.”

    Yep, Harris gets it.

    Here’s Coyne:

    More important is the oft-discussed question about whether a quantum vacuum, which to Krauss was the starting point of the universe, can be described as “nothing.” The Atlantic interviewer, Ross Andersen, asks Krauss whether that’s justified, since a quantum vacuum has “properties.” Massimo’s take:

    . . . in my mind’s eye I saw Krauss engaging in a more and more frantic exercise of handwaving, retracting and qualifying: “I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing [so why the book’s title?]; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. … I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff [a nothing full of stuff? Fascinating], then I’ll go with that.”

    Now Massimo and I have had our differences, and I’m generally a fan of Krauss (though I didn’t much like Krauss’s new book), but I’m on Massimo’s side in this one.

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/philosophy-catfight-pigliucci-vs-krauss/

    Yep, even Coyne himself gets it — though on precedent I suspect it was just for a few minutes, before switching back — here Coyne is on Pigliucci’s side against Krauss regarding a universe from nothing.

    Here’s Coyne switching back, in the Grayling blog post:

    I’ve heard this many times, and what strikes me is that theologians never define what they mean by “nothing”. Empty space, the quantum vacuum, isn’t nothing, they say so what is? In the end, I’ve realized that by “nothing,” theologians mean “that from which only God could have produced something.”

    Harris gets it, Coyne gets it sometimes, erratically, Pigliucci and many other professional philosophers get it. Grayling … seems not even to have considered the issues.

  4. Dhay says:

    Here’s “old atheist” philosopher Jeffery Jay Lowder’s utterly dismissive take on Jerry Coyne’s ‘universe from nothing — whyever not?’ ideas.

    It’s a long article, so read it for yourself; it seems to summarise as Coyne misrepresenting his opponents (including who these opponents are) and their arguments and mounting a facile and sophomoric [my paraphrase] attack on those arguments. In short, Coyne’s clueless and way out of his depth.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2016/06/28/jerry-coyne-criticizes-a-c-graylings-handling-of-god-arguments-but-coyne-gets-it-wrong-himself/

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