Monday, December 20, 2010

Religion and crime... today's ecological fallacy

This post on the website cites a study that finds that crime rates in less religious countries are lower than those in more religious countries. Okay, I can accept that as plausible.

But then the post veers off-course by exclaiming that: "Atheists don't commit as much crime as the religious do."

This is an ecological fallacy. Correlations at the group level don't necessarily hold at the individual level. In fact, at least here in the United States, religion is associated with less crime rather than more crime.

How do I know? I coauthored a meta-analysis of 60+ articles on the topic.

The abstract:

Do religious beliefs and behaviors deter criminal behavior? The existing evidence surrounding the effect of religion on crime is varied, contested, and inconclusive, and currently no persuasive answer exists as to the empirical relationship between religion and crime. In this article, the authors address this controversial issue with a meta-analysis of 60 previous studies based on two questions: (1) What is the direction and magnitude of the effect of religion on crime? (2) Why have previous studies varied in their estimation of this effect? The results of the meta-analysis show that religious beliefs and behaviors exert a moderate deterrent effect on individuals' criminal behavior. Furthermore, previous studies have systematically varied in their estimation of the religion-on-crime effect due to differences in both their conceptual and methodological approaches.

I posted this on the atheism resources website, but I'm cynical enough to think that they won't correct their post. It's too consistent with what they might expect and too juicy to change. I expect this not because they are atheists, but rather because they are advocates of a particular position... and advocates often don't like data that disagrees with them.

I hope to be pleasantly surprised, though.

(Thanks Edward)


Charles said...

Well, it's been three days since you posted your comment.

You have been thoroughly ignored.

I know the feeling, having tried on occasion to introduce a little actual research into online discussions involving research. Might as well have been talking to a rock.

Congrats on the publication. I plan to incorporate it into my Psychology of Religion course.

Jay said...

Yes, it's the ecological fallacy. But they do have some evidence that supports their assertion that atheists commit less crime. Atheists are about 10% of the US population. The account for less than 1/4 of one percent of the prison population. (Of course it's possible that once in the slammer, nearly all the atheists convert and get counted as believers.)

Brad Wright said...

I know what you mean, Charles. I usually don't bother, but sometimes...

Jay. The 10% figure for atheists sounds a little high. I think both Pew and ARIS put it at less than 2%. Did you mean the religious "nones"? That would be up north of 15%.

Interesting about the prison population. Where did you see that?

Shayne Mason Vincent said...

I think it is significant that social darwinism has contributed to the deaths of about as many people in 1 century as the 15+ centuries of the theistic Church State.

Jay Livingston said...

The 10% seemed high to me too, and I can't remember where I found it. But even if it's 2%, that's ten times more than their representation in prisons. That figure (0.209%) I got from a page that I found by clicking on thelink you provided in the first line of your post.

buddyglass said...

I've often wondered whether the correlation between various negative traits (divorce rate, crime rate) and "the religious" or possibly "evangelicals" is due to the fact that religiosity and/or evangelicalism correlates with poverty. That is to say the negative outcomes are the result of these groups being "more poor" and not the result of them being "more religious" or "more evangelical".

Or to stray off into more dangerous category, one could consider race. I've always assumed African Americans, as a group, to be "more religious" than non-African Americans. Obviously that population also suffers from disproportionately high levels of poverty, divorce, and crime.

I guess that, in a discussion of religion/Christianity/evangelicalism and crime/divorce/etc, I'd like to see a study that compares apples to apples with respect to income and etnhicity.

Brad Wright said...

Those are really good questions. What you describe isn't an ecological fallacy (not that you said it was) but more the difference between a bivariate and multivariate correlation. If Christians are poorer, and the poor are more likely to divorce, than controlling for income, Christians might actually be even less likely to divorce.

buddyglass said...

Educational attainment might be more interesting to look at instead of raw income. From what I've read it's a better measure of "social status". So I guess I'd like to see a broad survey that asks: race, religion (differentiating between different strains of Christianity and asking some basic theological questions similar to Barna's), highest degree earned and level of religious activity ("about how often to do you attend church").

CSMR said...

Useful research, thanks!

An obvious point:
-"religion is associated with less crime"
-"atheism is associated with less crime"
These statements don't seem to me to be in any conflict. Atheists are not typical of the non-religious in their social background. Some forms of atheism also seem to me quite religious.

Brad Wright said...

Interesting idea, CSMR. What you say implies that strength of beliefs about religion (whether for or against) = less crime. That would be interesting to explore.