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Crime rates from FBI, % "No Religion" from General Social Survey

Crime rates from FBI, % “No Religion” from General Social Survey

The_Blank_Slate It’s easy to point out the cultural Left’s adherence to all sorts of social constructionisms. My post Men Are Stronger Than Women (On Average) has a lot of Google juice because it now gets cited online a fair amount in arguments…because people are obviously taking the converse position (not that women are stronger, but that the difference is not major). But, there’s a fair amount of ignorance and flight from reality to go around. Probably the biggest blind spot on the cultural Right in the United States is the “family values” Uber Alles stance. As documented over 15 years ago in The Nurture Assumption shared family environment, basically your parents’ non-genetic influence, is relatively minor in affecting behavioral life outcomes (this is not to say that the issues aren’t subtle, but a simple projection from family home to individual outcomes is not viable).

But there’s another major confusion when it comes to the religious Right in particular, and that concerns the origins of morality and ethics. Most people are probably aware of the Josh Duggar fiasco at this point. If you aren’t, Google it. There isn’t much to say that hasn’t been said, but this post from his father-in-law has been raising eyebrows:

…It is a mercy of God that he restrains the evil of mankind otherwise we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. Many times it is simply lack of opportunity or fear of consequences that keep us from falling into grievous sin even though our fallen hearts would love to indulge the flesh. We should not be shocked that this occurred in the Duggar’s home, we should rather be thankful to God if we have been spared such, and pray that he would keep us and our children from falling.

This attitude is entirely unsurprising to me, I’ve heard it many times from evangelical Christians. The theory is that without religion, and particularly their religion, they would be “a rapin’ and murderin'”. Why? Because that’s what people do without God. Believe it or not, I have never believed in God, nor have I raped and murdered (or molested). Nor do I think that raping and murdering would be enjoyable. Nor do I think that the evangelical Christians who proudly declaim that without their savior they would rape or murder with abandon would actually rape or murder.

This idea that without religion there is no morality is very widespread in the subculture, to the point of being an implicit background assumption that informs reactions to many events in concert with the idea of original sin and fundamental human depravity (thank you St. Augustine and John Calvin!). I have a socially liberal friend from an evangelical background, who is still somewhat associated with that movement, who confided in me that to did look forward to debauchery in a post-Christian life on some occasions. I had to convince him that even if he was not religious life was not likely to change much for him in the sex department unless he shifted his standards somewhat. Without God all things are not possible, believe it or not.

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_cover The fundamental misunderstanding here is actually one of intellectual history. Many evangelical Protestants in particular envisage the world before the revelation of God to Abraham, but sometime after the Fall, as a Hobbesian one of “all-against-all.” This is not limited to evangelical Christians. Many Muslims also conceive of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya in Arabia as one of pagan darkness and debauchery. The root misunderstanding is conceiving of morality and ethics as a historical human invention, as opposed to formalizations of deep cognitive intuitions and social-cultural adaptations. Broadly, I agree with Peter Turchin that the origin of modern organized religions has its ultimate roots in the social and institutional needs of pan-ethnic imperial systems during the Axial Age. The synthesis of a supernatural Weltanschauung with the nascent enterprise of philosophy and the older intuitions of tribalism allowed for the emergence of the multi-textured phenomenon which we now term organized religion. Religion co-opted and promoted morality, but it did not invent it. The Israelites put in their Lord God’s mouth their own morality that was existent before his invention! Prior to the development of organized religion it seems likely that the connection between supernatural agency and morality was more tenuous and conditional (and even then, the angry and jealous petulant Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible has plenty of glimmers of the amoral gods of yore).

That is why even with the diminishing of organized religion in the modern West there has not been a correlated rise in crimes such as murder. The connection between ethical monotheism and ethics is not nearly as necessary as the religious would have you believe. The chart at the top does not prove at all that irreligion leads to decrease in crime (on the contrary, there is modest evidence that religious involvement results in mild prosocial tendencies when you control for confounds). But, it does show starkly that over the last 25 years in the United States there has been a simultaneous decrease in violent crime, and, a massive wave of secularization. This contradicts a model which proposes that religion and ethical behavior are necessarily and deterministically associated.

So no, in the case of Josh Duggar it isn’t a matter of “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” I’ll let others psychoanalyze his behavior, but it isn’t a normal human impulse which has to be constrained by the teachings of religion. If religion has to teach you not to molest your sisters you’ve got a problem, son! And it has nothing to do with your soul. This may be a boundary condition which validates the “nurture assumption.”

Year Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate Forcible rape rate % No religion
1991 9.8 42.3 6.3
1992 9.3 42.8 9
1993 9.5 41.1
1994 9 39.3 9
1995 8.2 37.1
1996 7.4 36.3 11.9
1997 6.8 35.9
1998 6.3 34.5 13.7
1999 5.7 32.8
2000 5.5 32 14.1
2001 5.6 31.8
2002 5.6 33.1 13.8
2003 5.7 32.3
2004 5.5 32.4 14.1
2005 5.6 31.8
2006 5.8 31.6 15.9
2007 5.7 30.6
2008 5.4 29.8 16.8
2009 5 29.1
2010 4.8 27.5 18
2011 4.7 27
2012 4.7 27.1 19.7
2013 4.5 25.2
2014 20.7
• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: Ethics, Morality, Religion 
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Vox has a piece on genetic testing and what it may unravel. One portion is cautionary:

That’s when she discovered Schwartzman. And her life changed. Afraid to ask her mother about him, she went instead to her mother’s best friend for answers. The friend confirmed that Schwartzman was probably the son Pearl’s mom had given up years ago.

“You can’t know what you’re going to find. It isn’t all good stuff. It’s not all happy stuff. And maybe some secrets are better left secrets.”

At first, it was “fantasy land,” Pearl said. “I found a brother. On his part, he found his biological family.” She was happy for Schwartzman, for his relief. “I felt an immediate kinship and connection with him,” she said. “We look similar. We have similar movements.”

Now, three years after the reunion, her opinion about the experience has changed.

“I suddenly had to rewrite my own family history, which is a shock,” Pearl said. “It did not make sense in terms of all the stories I had grown up with, in terms of what my life was. It did not include [my mother] getting pregnant, having a kid, giving it up for adoption.”

“This was my mother’s secret,” she said.

“My mother used to say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ [With 23andMe,] you can’t know what you’re going to find. It isn’t all good stuff. It’s not all happy stuff. And maybe some secrets are better left secrets.”

51dsZnatlbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ My attitude about these issues about parental privacy in relation to adopted children is that the children weren’t asked to be born, they didn’t give consent. You give up a lot of rights when you make some decisions as an adult. Sometimes those rights you give up are precious. Sometimes it isn’t fair (consider a situation where a person who opposes abortion is raped, and so carries the baby to term). I agree that these are complex issues, and they need to aired out. But my moral stance is to first and foremost to look at the world through the eyes of future generations, who didn’t ask to be born into this world, and ask what would they want? Think about the children! It’s cliche, but it has a lot of truth to it. Some adopted children don’t want to know about their past. From what I have seen most do want to know more than they do, at least to an extent. Being a kid is hard enough.

More broadly, light is good. I’m not a Whig about progress, but both the norms and arc of Western history so far have been toward greater openness and candor. David Brin is a great science fiction author, but 50 years from now I suspect he’ll be remembered for writing The Transparent Society. It was interesting when it came out. Today it is incredibly relevant.

• Category: Science • Tags: Ethics 
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Over at Darwin Catholic a commenter asked whether a pro-choice commenter on this weblog also supported the death penalty. I presume that they were here pointing to the consistent life ethic issue. Many liberals who oppose capital punishment support abortion rights, and many conservatives who support capital punishment oppose abortion rights. These camps both have their viewpoints, which I’m not interested in re-litigating in the comments. But I was curious as to the overall societal support for the combinations of positions.

So I looked at the GSS, using the CAPPUN and ABANY variables (capital punishment, and abortion for any reason). In this post I will show you screenshots of the GSS output. It’s ugly, but it shows you deviation away from the expected proportions. Basically, if two variables are independent you can predict what you’d expect to be the crossed percentages over the four cells. If the results deviate from that you can ascertain particular associations. In the GSS output red means that the cell has a higher value than it should, and blue a lower value. Additionally, the intensity signals the magnitude of the deviation. I limited all results to the year 2000 and later.

First, the general aggregate result:

What you see here is a moderate correlation between pro-termination positions (of murders and fetuses), and between anti-termination positions. I decided to break it down by demographic, and that’s where the strangeness jumped out at me (though not in hindsight).

First, non-Hispanic whites.

Now you see a striking reversal of the associations. The political stereotypes hold here; non-Hispanic whites who oppose abortion rights favor the death penalty. Those who favor abortion rights oppose the death penalty.

So let’s separate by ideology.


I was rather surprised by these results, and I don’t have anything succinct to say, so I’ll just leave them.

Now blacks & Hispanics.

As I said, in hindsight these patterns make sense. But interesting to see how they play out in any case….

• Category: Science • Tags: Data Analysis, Death Penalty, Ethics 
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I get a fair number of press releases and contacts from P.R. people. A “fair” number is probably understating it; other bloggers will understand what I’m talking about. Often they’ll be offers to contact researchers and other experts. Generally I ignore these or I demur in some fashion. Why? Because I just have a hard time trusting those who proactively contact me. I’m not impugning their character, as much being skeptical of their enthusiasm (and to be frank, some of them even come out and say they’ll write the blog post for me!). In fact I could easily splash and pepper many of my more policy oriented posts with contemporary relevance with quotes from these people. But I do not make much use of their services (though now and then I’ll become aware of a paper because of a press contact). What exactly would such quotes be adding? I’d just select the ones which fit my narrative or preconception. On occasion I will quote experts, but these are almost never (actually, probably never, but I don’t recall) cases where I sent out an email asking for a quote. Rather, it starts as a conversation, and it turns out that I think it might be useful for others to know. Additionally, these are not experts who are seeking me out, but people whose opinions I greatly weight beforehand. I know they’re experts, I don’t trust their claims to be experts.

In regards to the issue of being a journalist or not, I’m rather ambivalent as most of you know. I’m certainly not a reporter in a traditional fashion, though I do resemble a columnist I suppose. I’ve been reflecting on what I’m doing on this weblog more after the recent issues with plagiarism. Unlike some I’ve never been on a deadline or been desperate to generate new copy. Because I often don’t post or seek original quotes you won’t see me making quotes up (I’m usually taking quotes from other sites, and linking back to them). And as for reworking prose and passing it off as mine, the style on this website is seat-of-the-pants, and my focus is on getting information out there, and information back. I take trying to “understand stuff” seriously. Cutting corners would defeat the whole purpose.

• Category: Science • Tags: Ethics 
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Here’s an article from Canada on the debate about whether hybridization should be discouraged. I understand the impulse toward preserving nature as it is, but the drive for presumed purity seems almost fetishistic. Consider this sentence: ” Or could hybrids actually weaken genetically pure populations of disappearing wildlife?” What does “genetically pure” mean in a deep sense here? We know what it means instrumentally for the purposes of conservation genetics, but the way people talk about pristine lineages makes it seem an almost ethical concern.

When it comes to conservation and environmental policy you’re at the intersection of science, norms, and the messy world of human possibility. Perspective matters a lot in how you value or weight the parameters within your value system. To me the preservation of putatively pure lineages immemorial smacks a bit of pre-Darwinian biology, with its focus on systematic analysis of fixed and eternal kinds as well as a descriptive analysis of anatomy and physiology. At the other end is evolutionary biology which is a process, a phenomenon, understood as a flux of gene frequencies and morphs over time. It is by definition a refutation of a static conception of nature. Of course it takes time…but but not that much time. And then there’s the tendency to see humans as apart and beyond nature, exogenous to the system, destabilizing an eternal equilibrium. This is also arguably a false ideal, humans have been part of the ecosystem of every continent excepting Antarctica for at least 10,000 years, Australia for 50,000 years, Eurasia for a million years, and Africa somewhat longer. Modern H. sapiens sapiens has likely reshaped whole ecosystems through predation and fire even before agriculture and dense societies.

Let’s have a more nuanced and subtle conversion here, and put the focus on what our ultimate values are, or at least the ultimate values of the majority. As it is too often it seems to me that we’re not that far from “king’s wood” whereby we view nature as something to be isolated from the common man, who by his presence sullies and contaminates its purity. And now the fixation on distinct kinds and lineages seems to veer in a similar direction, albeit focusing on the purity of species and sub-species rather than nature as a whole.

• Category: Science • Tags: Environment, Environmentalism, Ethics, Nature 
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The title says it all, Should Obese, Smoking and Alcohol Consuming Women Receive Assisted Reproduction Treatment? The press release is based on a position statement from the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. The link is here (not live yet).

• Category: Science • Tags: Ethics 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"