Does Religion Cause Rape?

One argument made for religion by its proponents is that it instills in its believers a sense of morality that atheists can’t possess. This argument suggests that without religion’s stick-and-carrot approach to morality (heaven if you obey, hell if you don’t), people will naturally revert to selfish, violent, animalistic behaviour.

If true, this raises a dilemma for Atheists: should we raise our children to fear a non-existent God if it makes them “better people”? Is lying to our kids acceptable in exchange for the benefits it may yield? But is religious morality the right morality anyway? After all, Deuteronomy 22:20-21 insists that women who aren’t virgins on their wedding night should be stoned to death. Which seems a little harsh, and in modern Britain wouldn’t leave society with many women suitable for marriage.

In order to prove their thesis that lack of belief leads to lack of morality, statistics are sometime used (or more accurately misused) by advocates for religion – take the following tweet for example, which came from @Eugene037:

Sweden, a country w/ most Atheist, has d most no. of rape cases n Europe accdg to UN Stats

Let’s break this down. First, is Sweden really the “country w/ most Atheist”? On the whole, Europe is less religious than any other continent, and religion is in rapid decline across the region. Wikipedia’s Demographics of atheism page breaks belief into three types: belief in a God, belief in a more general “spirit or life force”, and non-belief (Atheism). While belief in a specific God is low in Sweden, at 23%, there are countries with lower belief still: Estonia and the Czech Republic. However, Atheism in Sweden is only recorded at 23%, which is lower than Estonia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany. In other words, the statement is false: Sweden is not the country with the most Atheists.

Furthermore, Sweden doesn’t deserve its reputation for liberal attitudes: it is a socially conservative country by European standards. In recent years it set the standard for European sexual conservatism, making paying for sex illegal (conversely, here in “uptight” Britain, prostitution is legal, which gives protections and benefits to sex workers that their Swedish counterparts are now lacking. I’ve interviewed sex worker activists on this subject, and will air these discussions in an upcoming podcast).

And finally, Sweden has a far broader definition of rape than most countries, making the quoted statistics suspect – free information activist Julian Assange is accused of rape, and is fighting extradition from Britain to Sweden, because he is alleged to have penetrated a woman without a condom during consensual sex. By the standards of most places, this isn’t rape.

Having dispatched @Eugene037’s claims, let’s find some statistics that might more clearly reveal any correlation between religious belief and rape. Comparing stats between different countries is suspect, as varying laws, enforcement and cultural norms make accurate comparison difficult. Instead, I’ve chosen to compare US states with each other, as the legal and cultural differences between them are smaller than between nation states. For simplicity, I’m using voting behaviour as a proxy for religiosity – Republican “red” states have higher levels of religious belief and observance than Democrat “blue” states. I combined 2008 voting behaviour from 270towin.com and crime statistics from infoplease.com and the results are interesting:

Rapes per 100,000:

  • Average in Republican-voting states: 34.96
  • Average in Democrat-voting states: 28.33
  • Average in marginal states: 29.47

(I’ve uploaded my spreadsheet as a PDF if you want to examine the data for yourself: Crime stats by US state).

In other words, a woman living in a red state is around 23% more likely to get raped than one living in a blue state. (Murder rates are closer, but slightly higher in red states, while robbery is significantly higher in blue states, probably because they are more urbanised, and most robbery takes place in cities).

If you have trouble believing these numbers, think about this: the Bible doesn’t view rape as a serious crime. While a woman who isn’t a virgin on her wedding night must be stoned to death, a man who rapes a woman must simply pay a fine to her father (women are, after all, the property of their father or husband) and marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) – and in a number of other passages, the book explicitly allows the kidnap of women to take as sex slaves. Take for example, Numbers 31:14-18:

Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

The women themselves, of course, have no say in the matter. Women have little status in any of the ancient religious texts; which perhaps explains why they are more likely to be raped if they live in a more religious society, even today.

I’ll finish by trying to answer the question posed in the title: does religion cause rape? If I were to use the dishonest reasoning techniques of proponents of religion, I could say yes, based on the above evidence. But correlation doesn’t mean causality; it’s more honest to say that high incidence of rape and high religiosity have the same root causes: poverty, illiteracy, a lack of education, and a lack of trust in authority. Fix these things, and both rape and religion go into decline.