Atheists do make good citizens
By Daily Bruin Staff
Jan. 24, 1999 9:00 p.m.
Monday, January 25, 1999
Atheists do make good citizens
FAITH: Morality, success, happiness not exclusive to religious
By George Stebbins
While Lisa Silver’s column "Questioning religion requires faith"
(Viewpoint, Jan. 12) made many good points, she falls prey to a
common misconception, one that never ceases to annoy me. Late in
the article, she states that "After all, those children who grow up
with religion generally become more law-abiding, successful, happy
and moral people than those who do not." This is utter hogwash.
Are religious people more law abiding? Look at the evidence. The
average level of religiousness of people in prison is higher than
that of the general population. Several studies have been done of
the religious beliefs in the prison population (Emmett McLoughlin’s
"Crime & Immorality in the Catholic Church," Leo Kalmer’s
"Crime & Religion: A Study of Criminological Facts and
Problems," Max D. Schlapp’s and Edward E. Smith’s "The New
Criminology"). Other studies, as well, all indicate that fewer
crimes are committed by those without religion than by those with
religion. This is particularly true of violent crimes.
The findings were interesting. While atheists make up about 5 to
10 percent of the population (depending upon how you define
atheist), less than 1 percent of the prison population is atheist.
In some prisons, there were no atheists. Admittedly, no recent
studies of this nature have been done, since it is no longer
allowed to ask the inmates what their religion is for such
purposes. But I doubt that human nature has changed so radically in
Are religious people more successful? This is harder to measure,
because many successful atheists and agnostics "blend in." That is,
many atheists and agnostics keep a low profile about their
religious beliefs. I am less likely to do so than most, yet I have
caught myself deliberately acting as if I agree with some religious
supervisor in order to protect my job.
In a country where the president can say "I don’t know if
atheists can be considered proper citizens." (George Bush) and not
a single news commentator takes him to task, it behooves atheists
to be circumspect. Could he have said the same thing about
Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Baptists, Buddhists or Hindus? Could
Lisa Silver have said something like this: "After all, those
children who grow up as Baptists generally become more law-abiding,
successful, happy and moral people than those who do not"?
The only study that I am aware of on this subject was done about
the religious beliefs of scientists. The study showed that the more
eminent the scientist, the more likely they were to be agnostics or
atheists (Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, Nature, July 23,
1998). So, at least for this field, religion does not make one more
successful, but less so.
As for other fields, there is not really a way to know (without
asking people) their religious preferences in a way that doesn’t
threaten to reveal that information to their coworkers and
There are few members of Congress that are listed as atheists,
yet there are a suspicious number that list themselves as
non-denominational Christian, and never go to church. So, while
there are careers for which stating that you are religious may make
you more successful, actually being religious has nothing to do
Are religious people happier? Maybe they are. Are children who
believe in Santa Claus happier than those who don’t? Is that a
reason for adults to believe in Santa Claus? Wanting something to
be true is no reason to believe that it is true; otherwise, I’d
believe that I was as rich as Bill Gates. Can the relative
happiness of religious vs. non-religious people even be
From personal experience, I have found happy people of all
religions, and of no religion. As for me, I am one of the happiest
people that I know. Many of my friends comment on how much happier
I am than most other people. Yet, one of the most depressed people
that I know is very religious. Having a supportive group of
like-minded friends (like a church) can certainly improve one’s
happiness. But there is no requirement that it be a religious
There are many non-theistic clubs and organizations that
non-religious people can join. Friendships, love, caring, and a
sense of belonging can help make people happy, religion per se does
Are religious people more moral than others? I doubt it. As we
saw above, they are not more law abiding. As for other types of
morality, one only has to look around at the world with unclouded
eyes to see that religion is the cause of much of the immorality
that exists: Northern Ireland, the Middle East and the Balkans.
Religion led to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch
Trials and many other horrors. Hitler was religious; Stalin was
not. Where’s the difference? (Margaret Knight’s "Morals Without
So the next time that someone tells you that religion is what
causes morality, or that religion makes people happy, or better
citizens, or whatever, don’t believe it. The evidence shows that
this is not the case.
Comments, feedback, problems?
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