December 20th, 2010
11:27 AM ET

My Take: Religious Cities are Among the Most Violent

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

In one of the more jarring passages in God is Not Great, the celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens writes of being asked a “straight yes/no question” by the conservative Jewish broadcaster Dennis Prager. Hitchens was to imagine seeing a large group of men approaching him in a strange city at dusk: “Now - would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting?”

Hitchens' answer, of course, is that he would feel less safe. And the rest of his polemic, which is subtitled “How Religion Poisons Everything,” is an extended attempt to explain why.

Whether religious people are more prone to criminality than unreligious people is, of course, an empirical question. So in some sense it doesn’t make all that much sense to argue about it. Just go instead and look at the data.

In a 1996 study, called “Crime and Religion: An International Comparison among Thirteen Industrial Nations,” Lee Ellis and James Peterson found that “more religious countries have lower crime rates than less religious countries, at least regarding property crimes.” Apparently, "thou shalt not steal" has some persuasive power. But what about "thou shalt not murder"?

A study released in late November by CQ Press, based on FBI crime data, lists 400 U.S. cities in terms of violent crimes per 100,000 residents. St. Louis was the most dangerous cities, and Colonie, New York, was the safest.

Another study,  released in November by Men’s Health magazine, lists the most religious cities in America, according to a variety of criteria, including places of worship per capita and levels of donations to religious organizations.

In an effort to see how these two lists correlated, I took the 10 most religious cities, as listed by Men’s Health and located them on the FBI crime data list, as follows:

CITY          RANKING (out of 400)

Little Rock 15
Charlotte 118
Birmingham 10
Portland 174
Jacksonville 80
Indianapolis 29
Wichita 94
Oklahoma City 50
Greensboro 85
Colorado Springs 175

As these numbers indicate, every one of America's “holy hometowns" had a crime rate above the national average, and each was ranked among the most dangerous half of American cities.

There are problems with all studies, of course, and problems aplenty with each of these. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, critics of the CQ Press study abound. And I can't for the life of me figure out why Grand Rapids, which seems to have a church on every street corner, didn't make even the top 25 of America's "most religious cities." Moreover, as any social scientist can tell you, correlations of this sort do not "prove" a causal connection.

Nonetheless, there is at least some data here to support Hitchens’ skepticism about godliness always being for the good.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Atheism • Opinion • United States • Violence

soundoff (136 Responses)
  1. Derek

    "How Religion Poisons Everything"

    lol, a rich commentary that is, I'm sure. Hitchens is an anti-religious crusading fool misguided by his extreme biases.

    January 3, 2011 at 3:37 am |
  2. Derek

    "How Religion Poisons Everything"

    lol, a rich commentary that is, I'm sure. Hitchens is an anti-religious cursading fool misguided by his extreme biases.

    January 3, 2011 at 3:36 am |
  3. Nonagon47

    Naaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwww – youse guys got it all wrong! There needs to be a distinction drawn between 'religion' and 'church-ianity'. Notice too, the most violent people within each religious group are POLITICAL – many of them – even al-Qaeda and the Taliban [there's a good one for ya – the very name of the group carries the connotation 'students of Islam'] actually exist for political purposes. Statistics, in this case, don't lie – but our interpretations of them are misleading.

    December 27, 2010 at 11:43 am |
  4. Floyd

    "I have yet to see an Atheist General Hospital in my travels."

    There are many secular hospitals. My wife was recently released from a county hospital after a fall that required hospitalization. No church was involved in her treatment. 'Nuff said.

    The difference between secular and religious hospitals is that secular hospitals don't trumpet any religious message, and have no reason to do so.

    December 26, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  5. cbolton

    To those who falsely claim that religion kills more people...Inquisition, Crusades, etc...Let's look at the facts. The biggest murders in the past 100 years have been atheists –
    Stalin – 20 million (rejected Christianity for Marx)
    Mao – 40 million
    Hitler – 11 million (rejected Christianity as a teen)
    Pol Pot – ?
    and the list goes on...
    Any of the above, individually, killed FAR FAR more than the Inquisitions and Crusades (a 500+ year stretch) combined.

    Religions have been responsible for Harvard, Yale, etc...not to mention all of the religiously affiliated non-profit hospitals. I have yet to see an Atheist General Hospital in my travels.

    Religions overwhelmingly encourage good behavior so that the individual can receive a better reward in the next life. Atheism has no such incentive. Since there is no afterlife, it's eat-drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Life is simply an accident with no objective purpose. There is no objective difference between 6 million Jews in Germany or 6 million germs on a dog turd in the back yard. All are accidents of nature and have no objective value. This is why the religious give more to charity (beyond their churches) as a % of their income than the irreligious. Religious people are also happier and live longer per studies. Even if there is no God, the religious lived better, happier, more generous lives.

    Here's a thought experiment...you are walking in the proverbial dark alley. It ends and you must turn either right or left. Both directions have groups of young men approaching you. The group on the right just got out of a Bible study or Youth Night service. Nothing is known about the otrher group. Which way do you turn? The choice is clear.

    We are better off as a society because of religion...even if it's not our own brand and even if God doesn't exist..

    December 23, 2010 at 12:00 am |
  6. Keith

    Yes, Baghdad, Islamabad, Karachi are violent. Paris, I think, had some rioting by the muslims, too. London?

    December 22, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  7. Keith

    Hey Prothero, how come no articles on the "don't ask don't tell" legislation?????????

    December 22, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  8. GSA

    @JPopNC – you mentioned many ppl from around the world that converted from Islam to Christianity and you had your facts straight.
    Were there any occurences of ppl switching from Christianity to Islam or from Christianity to any other religion or say from Hinduism to Sikhism or Muslim to Bhuddist? Just wondering. If those ppl in turn tell 2 ppl and so on is there any inbalance? Will one religion have the vast majority eventually or will you just say Christianity because that is your religion of choice?
    Also on this note of telling 2 ppl and so on. Seems to me that the only religions that try to convert ppl aggressively are Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This could be looked at in 2 ways:
    1-They just want to convert ppl and have the majority to feel as though they are the "right" religion and the "one true faith".
    2-They actually believe they have the "one true faith" and just want others to rejoice in what they believe.

    December 22, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
  9. tray117

    Man, my post is almost as 'tarded as the one I'm complaining about. The lesson here is don't post before coffee.

    December 22, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  10. tray117

    Doesn't that first comment/commenter just make you sad? I do not suffer fools gladly and his stupidity just proves there is NO hope for this country.

    December 22, 2010 at 10:03 am |
  11. kenny

    NL you decided your belief system before you were 20, if you "pretended" to believe after that you did it due to societal pressure, you were never a real believer where people past their 20's keep believing in fairy tales and reject all rational opposition to them. It's not physically possible for a believer who has fused their mind to believe in fairy tales to accept reality without going through a psychotic break.... after a persons brain has fused before their 20s it can no longer change and adapt to new forms of thought. that's one reason the most brilliant insights occur in people when they hit 20, every billionaire can trace their success to something occuring in their 20s plus or minus a few years...

    December 22, 2010 at 1:37 am |
    • NL

      I don't agree. I was a believer, a real one, well past my 20s. Even though I always had an interest in religion, it wasn't until my 40s that I had the 'insight' that faith just doesn't make any sense.

      December 22, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
  12. kenny

    i'd like to help out all the non believers on here that haven't come to the realization i have. If you are a believer you will want to stop reading. ARGUING WITH BELIEVERS IS FUTILE. It is essentially Einstein arguing with a mentally challenged person. Having faith requires a person to stunt their intellect in order not to contradict the fairy tales that are forced upon them as children. During their last stages of mental development as children they have to choose to accept the bs which fuses their neural pathways to reject anything that contradicts the fairy tales including fact, science, etc. It's difficult for a person to choose to be rational and accept the truth when their social surroundings apply so much pressure to conform. They know that if they ever falter and allow rationality into their lives they would have a psychotic break so anything that challenges their beliefs has to be shot down vehemently. Sadly some christians and some muslims will bring humanity to an end, hopefully not in my lifetime.

    December 21, 2010 at 11:58 pm |
    • NL

      Some of us were once believers, so I know that reason can get through to a few. It's totally worth the effort to talk to 99 brick walls just to have that one rational person get it.

      December 22, 2010 at 1:00 am |
    • David Johnson


      I agree that you are not going to change the fundies. That shouldn't be your goal. There are onlookers, who have not yet been brainwashed. By pointing out how farcical the believer's beliefs are, you may save that onlooker from a life of silly. Hopefully, he may go on to dissuade another person. You are giving a gift that will keep on giving! Don't despair!


      December 22, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  13. thorrsman

    Ah, but are those who COMMIT crime religious–before they are caught and imprisoned, I mean. Most all criminals know how a "jailhouse conversion" moves the parole board to tears. And the rest of us know how lasting such conversions usually are.

    December 21, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
    • NL

      Are you saying that you don't think that any prison Christians are 'real', sincere Christians? What, Jesus can't enter prison walls? Nobody claiming to be a Christian ever admitted to a crime to your knowledge? What do you have to back up that claim except for the fact that it conveniently suggests that religious folks are less criminal than ordinary people?

      December 22, 2010 at 12:55 am |
    • thorrsman


      Ah, the typical response from the militant Atheist. As you can't deal with what I posted, you make up things. What I said is what I said. If you require a translation down to your level of understanding...tough.

      December 22, 2010 at 11:45 am |
    • David Johnson


      If you are looking at stats that say there is a lower % of atheists in prison than believers, you would need to be sure this information was recorded at the time of the crime.

      I agree with you that many criminals see advantages to accepting Christ or converting to Islam.


      December 22, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
    • NL

      You could survey people, like David said, but lawyers would catch on to this early and warn their clients not to claim any religion at sentencing so as to be able to use that ploy later on, right?

      December 22, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
    • NL

      Sure, there likely are plenty of people out there who faked belief in order to fool people into having sympathy for them, but they could also just as easily be the pastor or author who has a good 'conversion' story to tell, right? If they are looking for a job, or speaking engagements or have a book to sell, or just want acceptance within a faith community, then they also have something to benefit from claiming to be Christian. So, how can you be so sure that those people aren't just trying to play Christian exactly like a prisoner?

      Remember it was L. Ron Hubbard who said years before starting Scientology "You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion." and people still believe he was completely sincere, don't they?

      December 22, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
  14. NM


    December 21, 2010 at 8:07 pm |
  15. David Johnson

    Every once in a while Stephen Prothero just pleases me to no end! This article is one of them.

    I think this data is very damning to religion. Being more religious does not mean greater morality.

    Is there no respite for the fundies? Can no one find any evidence that their god exists?

    I weep at this, people! The smile on my face is not heart felt! This is terrible news at Christmas time! LOL!

    God is no more likely than Santa.


    December 21, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
    • Muneef

      Who has a certified prove that God does not exist? No one has right! But God has holy scriptures and books certifying his existence beside billions of believers worldwide ?
      The only who would not realize him or any thing else guess non but Zombies?

      December 21, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
    • David Johnson

      The so called holy books are no more sacred or true than is Harry Potter. Can you prove they are the word of any god?

      Having billions of believers, does not add any credence to the god's existence. The billions believe without proof. They base their belief on faith and the holy books they cannot prove are the word of their god.


      December 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
    • Art (Chicago)

      David: @ "I think this data is very damning to religion. Being more religious does not mean greater morality." I think you may be jumping to a further conclusion than the evidence allows. Could it not be the case that, in a city with much crime, non-criminals are turning in greater numbers to their god(s) for a sense of security from the criminals? I'm not defending the religious–there's plenty in their history with which to damn them–plenty of literal blood on their hands. I'm just not sure this "evidence" does the trick.

      December 22, 2010 at 3:40 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Art (Chicago)

      You asked: "Could it not be the case that, in a city with much crime, non-criminals are turning in greater numbers to their god(s) for a sense of security from the criminals? "

      A sense of security? A false sense, if that is so. Could anyone be that stupid? *sigh* Yes, Evangelicals could be that stupid.

      I think Criminals themselves embrace Christianity. I think Christianity breeds perverted thinking: Can't I murder on Friday and receive absolution on Sunday? So, why not ra_pe and plunder and kill? Jesus died for my sins. Right? LOL

      Turning to god does nothing to protect people. Buy a mean dog. Get a gun. The dog will bark and maybe bite! The gun will shoot the bad guys, and hopefully not your family. A god will just stand silent as the baddies mistreat you and yours.

      Children are killed by monsters all the time. Where is god?

      Floods, disease, earthquakes etc., kill thousands. Where is god? Can you show me that only non-Christians were killed in these disasters? Do you believe the bodies of the believers looked any different than the bodies of the non-believers? Did the Christians die smiling, or screaming like the rest?

      In Iraq, Christians are being killed. Where is god? Where is His mighty protective hand?

      6 million of god's chosen people were murdered. Did god work a miracle for them? Did the walls of the extermination camps come tumbling down?

      We enslaved a race of people for 400+ years. People used the words in god's holy book to give slavery the thumbs up! Did Jesus appear and explain that owning another human was wrong?

      How would life be different if there was no god? Ans.- There would be no difference.

      If you can't tell the difference between god and no god, then what good is god?

      Happy Holidays!


      December 22, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  16. James

    Correlation does not prove causation – first rule of logic. This superficial blathering of pseudo-statistics proves nothing beyond the author's shortcomings!

    December 21, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
    • Derek

      I agree about the (questionable) significance of these findings. For example, Mexico is both a rather violent and a religious place, but the two are unrelated.

      January 3, 2011 at 3:39 am |
  17. PAGANGRL69

    Take the Religion out of Man= *World Peace*

    December 21, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • thorrsman

      Such logic is to be expected of a teen-ager suffering from "modern education". Does that describe you?

      December 21, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
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