Overview

Is a lack of religion the cause of the unparalleled levels of gun violence in our country? Let's take a look at the facts.

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In the wake of yet another and another and another mass shooting by a young man armed with an AR-15, it is natural for people to seek someone or something to blame.

The left blames their usual suspects: too-easy access to increasingly lethal firearms, the NRA, and their Republican enablers. The right also has their usual suspects: not enough armed teachers, too many crazed individuals, and of course, godlessness.

This last scapegoat—that mass shootings can be blamed on a lack of religious faith and the evil predilections of secular people—is trotted out consistently. It was relied upon after Sandy Hook, it was proclaimed after Vegas, it was asserted after Santa Fe. Most recently, in the wake of last’s weeks rampage in Texas, Arizona state senator Rick Gray argued that the “real core issue” underlying school shootings is “Human Secularism, a.k.a atheism;” Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson blamed the Uvalde shooting on the “secularization of society” and the general “loss of faith” in America; Lara Trump blamed school shootings on the “loss of religion;” Representative Marjorie Taylor Green said that such shootings can only be stopped if we all “return to God.”

So say the conservative Christians among us.

But what do the facts say? Is a lack of religion really to blame? Are atheists the cause of the unparalleled levels of gun violence in our country? No and no.

Let’s start with the “lack of religion” hypothesis.

If a lack of teacher-led prayer in public schools, an absence of Christian faith in society, or high rates of atheism were the cause of mass shootings, then we should expect those societies without any school prayer, without much Christian faith, and with high levels of atheism, to have the most mass shootings.

We find just the opposite.

For example, Japan—which has never had a strong Christian faith among its citizens, has no prayers in public schools, and has relatively high rates of atheism—has not had a mass shooting in nearly a century, and currently has less than five individual shooting deaths per year. That’s in a country of over 125 million.

If an absence of Christian faith in a society were the cause of mass shootings, then we should expect those societies without much Christian faith to have the most mass shootings.

We find just the opposite.

Or consider Estonia, perhaps the most atheistic democracy on Earth, with among the highest percentage of non-believers. There has only been one school shooting in this country, ever. The death toll of that occurrence: one adult. Uruguay is Latin America’s most secularized country, but there have been no mass shootings there.

Globally, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, those countries with the overall lowest rates of gun-caused deaths tend to be highly secular nations likes Norway, Iceland, the United Kingdom, and South Korea, while those countries with the highest rates of gun-caused deaths tend to be strongly Christian nations, such as El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil.

To be sure: none of these correlations prove that strong Christianity causes gun violence or that strong secularity reduces gun violence—but they do soundly debunk the fallacious assertion that a lack of Christian faith is what causes a nation to have the kind of extreme gun violence that we willingly endure in the USA.

Furthermore, at an individual level, if there was a significant causal connection between Christianity—a religion of nonviolence—and lower gun usage, or a significant causal connection between atheism and higher gun usage, then we would naturally expect to find guns aplenty in the homes of non-believers, and fewer guns in the homes of those who worship Jesus. But again, we find just the opposite. According to nationally representative data, 45% of non-denominational Christians, 45% of Methodists, 43% of Baptists, 41% of Lutherans, and 31% of Catholics currently have a gun in their home—but only 29% of atheists and agnostics have a gun at home, and only 25% of secular Americans (those who have no religious affiliation) do. Jewish rates of having a gun in the home are even lower—at 19%—which is significant because not only do Jews not believe in Jesus, but many of them are strongly secular in orientation.


CHART: Gun ownership by religious affiliation


Additionally, if atheists were the violent moral monsters that many make them out to be, then we might expect them to be overrepresented in our nation’s prisons. And yet again, we find just the opposite: in 2021, atheists made up only 0.1% of our federal prison population—an extreme under-representation.

But what about the actual shooters themselves? Are they more likely to lack religious faith? No reliable data exists on this front. However, even if it were shown to be the case that most mass shooters have been secular, this in no way proves that their lack of religiosity was the underlying cause of their violence. The experts who profile such killers have found that other causal factors are much more significant, such as early childhood trauma, the experiencing of neglect, the experiencing of bullying, exposure to violence at a young age, as well as suffering from a host of mental illnesses. And of course, the most obvious factor aiding and abetting their killing: the extreme and legal ease in acquiring the means to carry out their atrocities— something that, yet again, the more religious among us seem to have less of a problem with, compared to the more secular among us: approximately 94% of atheists and agnostics favor stricter gun control laws—a percentage that is higher than for Christians, be they Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, or Evangelical.

Some 2,000 years ago, Jesus—who many believe to be the literal incarnation of God—explicitly taught that those who live by violent weapons will die by violent weapons. How strange, if not tragic, that those Americans among who most claim to believe in Jesus, and who insist that this is a Christian nation, under God, are among the least likely to adhere to that ethical insight. And how notable, if not compelling, that the most secular among us, especially those who lack even a belief in a god, are among the most likely to do so. 

Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...