Why Religion Facilitates Crime and Immorality

This summer, i often find myself watching reruns of The Sopranos. In last night’s episode, Christopher Moltisanti was in the hospital with a bad gunshot wound, technically dead for about one minute before being resuscitated. Everyone in the extended family, especially Carmela and Tony Soprano, brooded on their relationships to God, to the church, to religion (season 2, episode 9: From Where to Eternity).

The episode concludes with everything returning to “normal”: Tony kills somebody, Carmela does nothing. As usual, the occasional onset of moral brooding amongst the members of the Soprano family does not bring about any great changes whatsoever: Tony carries on with his life in crime, Carmela remains at his side, as always enabling Tony in his career as professional criminal.

One might ask oneself: how is it even possible for Tony, Carmela, Christopher, et al to be so deeply religious, to be such hardcore Catholics, to practice such hardcore Catholicism? This is the wrong question to ask oneself. It makes more sense to ask: why do so many of us tend to assume that religion will make people “better”?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel The Brothers Karamazov famously declared that if there was no God, there would be more immorality and crime, i.e. when people do not fear punishment from God after death, they automatically become immoral killing machines and start murdering off everyone in sight — while in fact, and contrary to what Dostoyevsky would have expected, global secularization in the 20th and 21st centuries has brought more peace and higher moral standards to the world than organized religion was ever able to bring for thousands of years.

Religious people often imply that religious people are morally superior to us nonbelievers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As it turns out, it’s the exact opposite that is true. Religious people are in fact greater “sinners” than nonreligious people. Religion, in fact, facilitates crime and immorality:

Religious people believe that there are entities “above” mere mortals (gods, goddesses) and there are entities “beneath” mere mortals (demons). I imagine that, to religious people, the psychological leap between (a) placing only metaphysical entities above and beneath oneself, and (b) to also start placing other mere mortals above oneself (saints, nuns, priests) as well as beneath oneself (homosexuals, adulterers, thieves, confessors to other religions than one’s own, people of other nationalities or races) on the hierarchical steps of that very same metaphysical ladder must be a very short psychological leap indeed.

Once the believer makes this leap, from thinking (a) to thinking (b), the concept of metaphysical hierarchies begins to serve worldly and political and nationalist and racist purposes (for instance). The metaphysics of religion thus not only distills in people the fear of a god, but — extrapolated into the everyday — facilitates despising and debasing and looking down on other people in general as well.

By contrast, the secularized mind has no concept of a metaphysical ladder of hierarchy between entities. The psychological and political and moral leap into placing other mere mortals above or — more alarmingly — beneath oneself is much greater for nonreligious people than for religious people. No wonder secularized people are more likely to actually practice the golden rule, for instance. No wonder secularized nations are more democratic, less corrupt, less violent, more peace loving, etc.

In addition — and contrary to what the nonbeliever might expect — to the believer there never is a clear line drawn between acceptable and unacceptable (religious) behavior. Being a law-abiding citizen, for instance, is not enough for a religious person. Also the most law-abiding of citizens constantly commit religious infractions of a greater or lesser nature. In the believer’s universe, one day does not go by in which a person does not “sin” in one way or other: in the believer’s universe, everything is “bad” behavior to a greater or lesser extent.

And if there is no clear line drawn between “good” and “bad” worldly acts (if more or less all acts are more or less “bad” acts, in a religious sense), then no wonder the clear line between secular lawfulness and secular criminality is so easy for religious people to cross. No wonder deeply religious people (like Tony and Carmela Soprano) make such little distinction between petty (?) everyday sins, like cussing, and — well, murder.

By contrast, nonreligious people can live entire lives without ever feeling they are necessarily “bad” people, without feeling they are behaving really “badly” — as long as they do not break the law. In the nonbeliever’s universe, there is in fact one clear line drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, i.e. the line between legal and illegal. And therefore, this clear line between legality and illegality in secular society (albeit often making more or less arbitrary distinctions: in some countries it’s illegal to drive on the right side of the road, in other countries it’s illegal to drive on left side) is really important to nonreligious people. It is in fact more important to nonreligious people than to religious people. To break the laws of secular society and to cross the border into lawlessness is psychologically and morally a very great leap indeed to make for the nonbeliever. Most nonbelievers take pride in being law-abiding citizens. Religious people not so much. (!) No wonder secularized peoples and nations enjoy societies that are less crime laden.

In today’s infected public debate about the role of religion in modern society (for or against Richard Dawkins, etc.) one often hears to religious people referring to their particular religion or religious denomination as an especially “peace loving” one, thus supposing that those religious individuals who/those religious nations which are actually making war, committing violent acts, and committing acts of terrorism in the name of religion merely are sad exceptions to the (religious) rule of thumb that religious people are “better” than other people. When are religious people going to admit to the world that violence is not an anomaly, but a normal occurrence in religion. Violence is something to be expected from both extremist individuals and organized mainstream religion. I, for one, certainly expect religious people to be prone to violence: if religious people seem peace loving and meek, the way I see it, they simply aren’t that much into it; they simply aren’t that religious to begin with...

Secular peoples/secularized nations make less war/less violence/less crime than peoples/nations of any — any! — religion. The frequency and amplitude of criminal acts and acts of violence can after all be measured. The statistics all show the same thing: nonreligious people/peoples are more peace loving. Nonreligious people/peoples behave “better!”

Dostoyevsky was obviously wrong. Religious people in general are obviously wrong: religion will never do away with disdain or oppression or violence or crime. Au contraire ma chère; religion facilitates crime: it’s easier for religious people than for nonreligious people to behave badly. Religion facilitates double standards and moral ambiguity: it’s easier for religious people than for nonreligious people to treat other people like dirt.

People would live happier and better lives — including morally better lives! — if they stopped praying and gave up their religion. Religion is not pretty; religion is certainly not harmless and cute. Religion is bad for you! Religion is bad for us all.


This is a work in progress: first version July 4, latest rewrite November 13, 2010. Thank you, Åke Nygren, for your very helpful comments.

More by Mikael Askergren on religion and morality, and on why art is always secular and why religion always is kitsch: “There Is no Religious Architecture”