Lies, Damned Lies, and Vox Day’s Statistics

Before we move on to chapter two of TIA, I want to go back and spend a little more time on the issue of what statistics tell us about the relative morality of atheists versus theists. In a footnote, Vox writes:

There are some silly bits of information floating around the Internet claiming to prove that Christians are fifty times more likely to go to prison than atheists. Of course, by cherry-picking this data, one could claim that English and Welsh Christians are 315 times more likely to go to prison than atheists and be superficially correct. One would have to be an intellectually dishonest ass to do so, though.

In the section on the “Low Church Atheist,” however, Vox spends a considerable amount of time discussing this same British study, and concludes that

when one compares the 31.6 percent of imprisoned no-religionists to the 15.1 percent of Britons who checked “none” or wrote in Jedi Knight, agnostic, atheist, or heathen in the 2001 national survey, it becomes clear that their Low Church counterparts are nearly four times more likely to be convicted and jailed for committing a crime than a Christian.

So even though you “would have to be an intellectually dishonest ass” to use these statistics to draw conclusions about the relative morality of theists vs. atheists (if you’re concluding that theists are less moral), it “becomes clear” that these same statistics allow us to draw conclusions about the relative morality of theists vs. atheists (if you’re concluding that atheists are less moral). Sweet, eh? He’s using these carefully chosen statistics to conclude that “Low Church Atheists” have “criminal proclivities” that “strongly suggest that they are less intelligent on average than theists and High Church atheists alike,” but if anyone calls him on it, he can claim that he already said such conclusions were intellectually dishonest, and you must just be misreading him. But let’s look at those statistics a little more closely.

Vox makes a few assumptions here. First of all, he assumes that everyone who reports having “no religion” is an atheist.

They simply don’t describe themselves as atheists. Instead, they show up on various religious surveys as “no religion” or occasionally “secular.”

In other words, some who do not believe in God describe themselves as having no religion, therefore all who describe themselves as having no religion are people who do not believe in God—a simple converse fallacy. Besides being a fallacy, this conclusion is highly suspect for a couple reasons. First of all, religion is primarily a social function. God does not show up in real life, and therefore people’s only option for religious socialization is to have a relationship with each other. Religions are social groups united by shared superstitions. Criminals, however, are significantly lacking in social connections and affections. That’s why they’re in jail for committing antisocial acts. So the prison population is self-selecting for having fewer social connections, including connections to religious groups.

By the same token, however, they’re also more prone to superstitious and irrational thinking. Just because you don’t sign up with some organized body of religious practitioners doesn’t mean you necessarily abandon all belief in some kind of Supreme Being(s). Even among the non-criminal majority, a large number of those with “no [formal] religion” are what you might call disaffected theists—they’re sure that some kind of Higher Power must be out there somewhere, they’re just fed up with all the nonsense and internal contradictions they see in the religions that men preach. It’s not uncommon, in fact, to hear some ardent evangelical Christian claim to have “no religion”—Christianity, you see, is supposed to be the Truth, and not just some man-made institution. “No religion” does NOT equal “no God.”

So the number of new prisoners reporting themselves as “no religion” likely contains a far lower percentage of genuine atheists than Vox is assuming. But there’s another factor at work here, due to the circumstances under which the question is being asked. Imagine, if you will, the following conversation:

GUARD: What’s your religion?

CONVICT: I’m a Christian, and I’d like to tell you about all the wonderful things Jesus has done for me!

GUARD: Yeah? What, did he help you hold down that little kid you raped?

If there’s ever a time in a believer’s life when he might be tempted to play down his connection with a religion he genuinely believed in, it would have to be when he’s on his way to jail for a flagrant sin he got caught committing. There’s at least a significant chance that a certain percentage of convicts are reporting “no religion” out of embarrassment—if they admit they’ve been a life-long evangelical, then not only did they let their church and family down by sinning, but they also look like real chumps because they’ve had the exposure to moral precepts, and should have known better. Thus, there are at least two reasons why the “no religion” figure might be significantly higher than the number of actual atheists.

Another assumption Vox makes in drawing his conclusion that atheists are four times more likely than Christians to end up in jail is that all Christians are theists. This might seem like a no-brainer unless you take into consideration the number of Christians who are liberal Christians—who, by the way, received no small amount of “attention” in Ann Coulter’s book, Godless!. Among those who are well-educated, successful, capable, and socially well-connected (and who are thus less likely to break the law and go to jail), there are a considerable number who, for social and cultural reasons, identify themselves with this or that religion even though they don’t really believe in God as an actual person. Yes, they attend church, and yes they sing the songs and recite the prayers, but when it comes right down to it, they believe God is a supreme being the way they believe Santa is the spirit of generosity and giving. He’s a myth, naturally, but He’s a nice myth, and after all everyone has to believe in something.

So really, believing in God makes you four times less likely to go to jail than not believing in God? I don’t think so. Vox’s conclusion is based on numbers that are likely to significantly over-represent the number of atheists in jail and to significantly under-represent the percentage of non-criminals who are theists in name only. His numbers are, just as he himself has said, “cherry-picked,” and do not reflect the most significant factors separating criminals from non-criminals (i.e. social connections, support systems, education, opportunities, and so on).

The only factor that is really significant from all these studies is that none of them is really consistent with the idea that mankind is under the care of a personal, all-wise, and all-caring Deity. Of those of us who are loving parents, I don’t think anyone wants their child to grow up to be a convicted criminal, and I believe most of us, fallible though we are, manage to achieve that goal without destroying our children’s free will. Why, then, should it be the case that any theists go to jail? How did they end up in such a bad state under God’s allegedly wise and loving care?

The usual cop-out is that God has to respect the criminal’s free will, but that’s a bogus excuse. These are criminals. It’s a given that they lack self-restraint and wisdom and strong ethical convictions. The whole premise of Chuck Colson’s prison ministry is supposed to be that God is able to help such people despite such weaknesses, but if He is, then how did He let them end up in prison in the first place? My kids still have free will, and I haven’t neglected them to the point that they’ve turned to lives of crime and mayhem. Why can’t God do as well as I’ve done?

The other cop-out is to blame the convict’s background. He was never really a believer, or his parents weren’t, so his faith doesn’t count. But again, why should that be the case if God were actually objectively real? You can’t claim that the convict and/or his parents secretly knew that God existed and were simply denying Him so they could pursue their own lusts. In the first place, they don’t deny His existence. They believe and practice the Christian faith, and yet God somehow never manages to make Himself real enough, even to believers, to influence them the way I’ve influenced my own kids. The cop-out is to blame the people, but it’s God’s behavior that is conspicuously and significantly absent.

Ultimately, what we see when we look at prisons is that it’s all up to men, not to God. God can’t help anybody unless they do all the work to help themselves, or unless some other group of men shows up to help. God does not show up to help, and where men don’t do the work, the prison ministry does not succeed. And where men do show up and do the work, the ministry does succeed, even when the convicts do not themselves actually believe in God. It’s the work of men that gets results, not the faith in God. Faith without works is dead, as the Bible says, but works without faith usually get along just fine.

I will agree with Vox that prison statistics don’t tell us whether believing or disbelieving in God makes you more moral. But any way you slice it, the fact that there are believers in prison for actual crimes (and not just for witnessing) is a fact that is seriously inconsistent with the notion that we’re dealing with a God who is willing and able to reform prisoners. If He could reform them after the rape/murder, why didn’t He intervene before the crime, and thus spare the victim?

He didn’t because He can’t: He’s the product of human imagination and can never do any more than any other imaginary friend can do. The prison situation is a collection of human failures and human successes, but though Colson et al would love to give God credit for the successes, He never shows up to claim it. God’s absence is one fact that everyone, everywhere, can verify by direct observation. And that’s the kind of statistic that is significant.

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Posted in TIA, Unapologetics. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Lies, Damned Lies, and Vox Day’s Statistics”

  1. NeuroLogica Blog » Ben Stein Hates Science Says:

    […] seen are open to numerous interpretations – that atheists are more or less moral than believers (for example.) My sense is there is no clear trend from this one variable so other variable predominate. But […]

  2. » TIA Tuesday: Dawkins on morality, theocracy, and psychological abuse. Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] looked at Vox’s statistics before, and it’s no surprise that he brings up the same spurious interpretations he’s […]

  3. » TIA Tuesday: Evolutionary reasons for religion Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] looked at Vox’s statistics before, and if I were him, I wouldn’t go around drawing too much attention to the problem of […]

  4. » TIA Tuesday: Irony and morality Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] we’ve already seen how Vox massaged the statistics to make it look like atheists were disproportionately represented in prison populations. […]

  5. A world without religion « Obsessed with reality Says:

    […] Deacon Duncan mentions these data (and points that it is impossible to conclude from the prison survey that atheists/non-religionists are being more “moral” or less “inclined to commit a crime” than any man/woman of faith) […]