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Problems with Cross-National Comparisons of Nonlethal Crimes, and the Very Low Homicide Rates of Atheistic Democracies

Posted by GregorySPaul on 24 Jun 2012 at 21:42 GMT

Sharif and Rhemtulla contend that a growing body of research is demonstrating that higher levels of religiosity are associated with higher levels of prosocial behavior. But the studies they cite are examinations of narrow data sets. A growing majority of cross regional and cross national studies using broad measures of socioeconomic success are finding that higher levels of such success are correlated with, and probably partly causative of, higher levels of popular atheism [1-11]. The socioeconomic dysfunctionality hypothesis that high levels of personal physical and financial stability and security dramatically reduces interest in seeking the aid and protection of supernatural deities enjoys a wide sociological consensus. There is also evidence that the policies advocated and often practiced by theoconservatives contribute to societal ills [6-10, 12-15]. The benefits of religiosity on an individual basis have also been challenged [16]. These issues are important in consideration of the evidence the western democracies including the U. S. are becoming increasingly atheistic [17,18].
Sharif and Rhemtulla conducted another narrow focus study in that it is limited to crime. This is a methodological weakness because their comparison of a large array of crimes on a cross-national basis is seriously problematic. Only intentional homicide statistics are reliable because they are based on forensic analysis and body counts. A comparison of nonlethal crime data is more a comparison of rates of inconsistent reportage by victims and recording of crime according to differing official criteria rather than of actual acts, and should not be used for direct quantitative assessments [6-8, 19-26]. Neapolitan states that homicide “is generally regarded as the most valid and reliable of official cross-national crime indicators…. In general, violent crimes other than homicides – such as rapes, assaults, and robberies – should probably not be compared cross-nationally, unless there is substantial improvement in the quality of the data. Indications are that definitional, reporting, and recording differences are too great for these crimes to be suitable for analysis. This is particularly true for sexual offenses and rapes. Thus, cross-national comparisons of violent crime should probably be restricted to homicides” [19]. Barclay and Taveres, who calculate criminal act rates only for homicide, agree that “comparisons between the recorded [nonviolent and nonlethal violent] crime levels in different countries may be misleading…. since the definition of homicide is similar in most countries, absolute comparisons are possible” [22]. Interpol merely gathers and reports nonlethal crime statistics provided by member nations without standardizing or vetting it [19, 22]. For example, assaults are reported at a rate about 6 times higher in Australia and Sweden than in Canada and France, this level of disparity is suspect. Rates of theft are reported to be twice as high in Sweden as in France; are the former actually twice as larcenous as the French, or are the latter twice as unlikely to file a report, or is the reality somewhere in-between? Similarly suspicious discrepancies exist in International Crime Victims Survey results. Reported rates of rape are two to twenty times higher in the U.S. than in other 1st world nations [24,25], but this only means that American females report being raped at far higher rates, not that American males are more prone to committing sexual assaults. Nonlethal crimes are difficult to compare even between the relatively uniform 1st world countries, they only grow worse when comparing 2nd and 3rd world nations with greater disparities between the quality of crime reporting.
The strong relationship between levels of cumulative crimes and levels of belief in heaven and hell in developed and under developed nations observed by Sharif and Rhemtulla is therefore suspect, and may represent correlations between varying beliefs in an after life on the one hand and inconsistent reportage by victims and recording of crime according to differing official criteria on the other. Similarly suspect is the weaker observed correlation between stronger belief in God and less general crime. The relationship between homicide and belief in heaven and hell is substantially less than for the cumulative crime statistics, and is less than for the other categories except for human trafficking and kidnapping. In contrast, Jensen found that more homicide is more strongly linked to greater popular support for the reality of hell than for heaven [12] -- he suggests that “malevolent” forms of religion produce inferior results compared to “benevolent” -- Sharif and Rhemtulla do not cite Jensen or explain the disparity in their results with his. Sharif and Rhemtulla find that more homicide weakly correlates with more belief in God, Rees [5] as well as Jensen [12] found a positive relationship in a large sample of nations. In the more uniform prosperous democracies the only example with high levels of homicide, the U.S., has the highest levels of religiosity including belief in heaven and hell [6]. The advanced democracies with the least, and remarkably low, homicide are the most atheistic. (It would be interesting to analyze correlations between measures of religiosity and homicide in different economic categories of nations.) Potential reasons that deity worship and scripture contribute to lethal violence have been proffered [6-8,13-15].
How crime in general corresponds to differing levels and types of religiosity remains inherently uncertain, but the most atheistic democracies appear to suffer relatively modest nonlethal misdemeanors and felonies, and definitely enjoy very low lethal violence. All studies agree that the most reliably measured crime, homicide, tends to be higher in less atheistic countries. Studies are contradictory regarding how homicide correlates with differing belief beliefs in the afterlife, further analysis may clear this up.


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No competing interests declared.