This op-ed first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 11 and is reprinted with permission of the author.
By Phil Zuckerman
n the wake of yet another and another and another mass shooting in America — with at least 34 dead in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton — Mike Huckabee, the former governor turned pundit, repeated his go-to response: Gun violence in our country is all about waning belief in God.
As he piously proclaimed in a recent televised interview: “The common denominator in all of this is . . . disconnecting from God. A lot of our country [is] utterly disconnected from any sense of identity with their creator.” Huckabee was even more explicit after the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012 that killed 26, including many young children. Such violence occurs, he said, because “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”
Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, is far from alone in holding this view. After the latest mass shootings, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said on “Fox and Friends” that if Americans don’t adequately praise God, the result will be continued carnage.
So, there you have it: Mass shootings in America are the direct result of people not having enough active faith in God.
The interesting thing about this hypothesis is that it is easy to test. You’ve got an independent variable (faith in God) and a dependent variable (gun violence). The hypothesis put forth by Huckabee and other Christian moralizers comes down to this: When a given society has a higher amount of faith in God, the rate of gun violence should be correspondingly lower. Conversely, the lower the amount of faith in God, the higher the rate of gun violence.
But social science finds the exact opposite correlation.
The facts show that strong faith in God does not diminish gun violence, nor does a lack of such faith increase gun violence.
Here’s one crystal-clear example: Faith in God is extremely high in the Philippines. One study found that the country “leads the world” in terms of its strength of faith in God, with 94 percent of people there saying they have always believed in God. Comparatively, the Czech Republic is one of the most atheistic nations in the world, with only about 20 percent of Czechs believing in God. According to Huckabee’s hypothesis, violence and murder rates should be much worse in the Czech Republic and much better in the Philippines.
But the reality is different: The murder rate in the Philippines is nearly 10 times higher than it is in the Czech Republic, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
This same correlation holds true for nearly every country in the world: Those with the strongest rates of belief in God — such as El Salvador, Colombia, Honduras, Jamaica, and Yemen — tend to experience the most violence, while those with the lowest rates — such as Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, New Zealand and Australia — tend to experience the lowest levels of violence.
Are there exceptions? Yes. For example, New Zealand experienced a horrific mass shooting in March. Norway did as well, in 2011. But when looking at averages and correlations over time, the statistical relationship they reveal is unambiguous: Huckabee’s hypothesis doesn’t hold water.
By any standard measure, the safest countries in the world are highly secularized nations like Iceland, Denmark, Canada, Slovenia and South Korea — where faith in God is very low. And the most dangerous countries include fervently faithful places such as the Central African Republic, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela and Belize — places steeped in faith in God.
But the analysis can also be applied closer to home, to the 50 states. According to the Pew Religious Landscape survey, the states with the strongest levels of faith in God include Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Those with the lowest levels of belief in God are Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Alaska, Oregon and California. And, as expected, when it comes to homicide rates and violent crime rates in general, the least faithful states in America tend to experience far less than the most faithful.
Of course, there are many different reasons that some nations — or states — have higher rates of violence. For instance, higher rates of gun ownership have been tied to higher rates of domestic homicides. Factors like economics, politics, culture and a host of other aspects of social life also play their part.
But that’s the point. People’s relationship with the divine doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with it. Huckabee’s hypothesis needs to be rejected not only because it is statistically incorrect, but because it’s also inhumane: By blaming mass shootings on a lack of God worship, he is implicitly asserting that the many victims of gun violence, well, deserved it.
On average, about 13,000 Americans are killed by guns every year. And every day, approximately seven children are killed by guns. Such endless carnage and horror will only stop with sane laws and ethical policies.
Faith in God will do nothing to end the epidemic of mass shootings in America, save perhaps to serve as a balm for the souls of the many Americans forced to weep at funerals for victims of gun violence.
FFRF Member Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and author of the forthcoming book, What it Means to be Moral.