Confirmed: People everywhere believe serial killers are more likely to be atheists than religious believers

Meh. I’d say “to hell with all of you,” except there is no hell.

The cruelest cut: Even atheists are more likely to assume that a hypothetical serial killer is atheist. Anti-atheist bias has produced self-hating atheists!

The study measured the attitudes of more than 3,000 people in 13 countries on five continents…

Participants were given a description of a fictional evildoer who tortured animals as a child, then grows up to become a teacher who murders and mutilates five homeless people.

Half of the group were asked how likely it was that the perpetrator was a religious believer, and the other half how likely that he was an atheist.

The team found that people were about twice as likely to assume that the serial killer was an atheist.

Of the 13 countries tested, only in Finland and New Zealand were people not materially more likely to assume that the killer was atheist. In the other 11, from religious countries like the U.S. and UAE to secular states like China, murderous depravity was assumed to mean a greater likelihood of nonbelief. Which, I’ll grudgingly admit, makes some sense, not so much as a matter of morals as a matter of economics. A religious believer has an incentive to behave that a nonbeliever lacks — the fear of divine retribution for sin, whether in the form of damnation, bad karma, what have you. An atheist might commit murder convinced that he’ll never face any form of justice for his crime. A religious believer will never be in that position.

But how well do serial killers respond to rational incentives? They have a strong, strong, strong incentive not to murder for fear of the earthly penalty they’ll receive if they’re caught, and that’s not enough to deter them. If the very real likelihood of capital punishment or life in prison isn’t enough to make them think twice, the less certain threat of divine punishment may not add much extra deterrence. Many serial killers might not be thinking about the consequences of their actions at all when they indulge their urge to kill:

The urge to impute beliefs, motives and mental states to mass murderers, moreover, is often misplaced, experts said. Some mass killers clearly commit atrocities because of their professed religious beliefs, like terrorists. But modern history’s register of assorted serial killers, spree shooters and other mortal predators is a rogue’s gallery of mostly male, aggrieved actors who are sometimes believers, sometimes not, and who half the time do not qualify for any specific psychiatric diagnosis, as disturbed as they are, according an analysis of more than 200 such killers by Dr. Michael Stone, a New York forensic psychiatrist.

Yeah, what about terrorists? A jihadi who kills will be dismissed by most Muslims as having perverted the faith. A Christian murderer will be rejected by other Christians as having obviously ignored the teachings of Christ. The killer can claim to be a religious believer but he’s not really a religious believer, the argument goes, since he’s misunderstood the doctrines. There’s no corresponding out in atheism. If you don’t believe in God, you’re a nonbeliever by definition. It doesn’t matter how strong your personal moral code might be or the extent to which your behavior contradicts it. Every atheist is a “real” atheist.

Killers are bad examples for this experiment, though — especially serial killers, since their psychology is so abnormal. Religious incentives may not do much to restrain a crazed sex killer but what about a garden-variety criminal who, say, has a few convictions for burglary? We’ve all heard stories (or have personal knowledge) of people who’ve behaved immorally but then straightened out after “finding God.” Religion may help deter petty offenders from reoffending. But if that’s true, that religion really is a brake on immorality in “normal” people, you’d expect nonbelievers in the population to be more likely to commit crimes than believers are. Are they?

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David Strom 8:31 AM on October 05, 2022