Ireland has been victim to a succession of increasingly violent gang related thuggery in the past 20 years. The crimes committed by these characters, from Martin Cahill, to the Westies, to Marlo Hyland, have been abominable in the extreme. What comes across is a kind of fecklessness: people who simply don’t care about anyone, so long as they can they can load themselves up on drugs and money. This pattern of nihilism is not exclusive to Ireland. The blood baths currently taking place in Mexico put Ireland into the minor leagues.

Religious leaders commonly portray such excesses as being caused by godlessness. These people, they say, have rejected God. They imply that widespread rejection of God will make such anarchy commonplace. It’s a frighteningly effective message, perhaps serving to bolster religious faith despite all the past and ongoing revelations of religious indiscretion.

Let’s put to bed the most glaring and idiotic canard straight away: that godlessness equals immorality, and even criminality. Millions of people around the world live good, honest, normal lives without requiring the services of any god whatsoever. Atheists and agnostics have contributed to the betterment of life, campaigned for the poor and sick, railed against injustice and have pushed forwards the frontiers of knowledge – just like many religious people, in fact. The children of non-religious parents grow up in similar environments to kids in religious families and go on to lead lives with just as much promise. There is no evidence that relatively godless and secular societies, such as Norway, the Netherlands or the UK, are on the brink of collapse or have any interest in throwing out common decency or the rule of law.

A second generalisation is that religious people are more ethical than atheists. The facts suggest that this is far from the case. You only need to look at the work of priests, pastors and bishops in the numerous child-abuse scandals around the world to realise that many religious people, whose theological credentials are impeccable, have a lot to answer for. Religious differences have sparked many a war, and many prominent, god-fearing religious people have been found wanting when the details of their lives are uncovered.

Neither does religion provide people with a “get out of jail free” card. The religion of prison occupants tends to match the wider society where they come from (US – predominantly Christian, Middle East – predominantly Muslim), so if religion is stopping people from committing crimes, it does not appear to be working very well.

Now, some more difficult questions. Are gangs predominantly atheistic, and does this contribute to their criminality? Without knowing the true stats, it is unlikely that many notorious criminals are regular mass-goers, or that they care much for any of the trappings of religion. There may well be a correlation between gang criminality and godlessness. But that is not what is being asserted by many pastors and priests. What they are saying is that their godlessness causes their criminality, a very different question. Is the motivation for criminal acts a defiance against God? Or could it be due to more worldly factors, such as their upbringing, education, access to opportunities, peer pressure and personality? It seems that the right people to answer this questions are trained sociologists, not those who are willing to provide pat answers that simply reinforce their prejudices.

Another question is whether criminals who have found God are better people. There are many cases of violent criminals repenting while in prison. One could readily accept that “finding God” in such circumstances has made a positive improvement in these people’s lives. So too, however, does believing in Allah help Muslim prisoners, while Chinese prisoners become better people by studying the words of Confucius. The circumstances of redemption seem to strongly associated with the culture and location of the redeemed person. Maybe, it’s not so much the nature of the god-figure that’s important at all. What may be far more significant is finding a focus, educating oneself, having a chance to reflect on one’s life, becoming part of a community and the assistance of an authority figure or friend who is willing to go the distance with you. The reasons people turn their lives around may be far more attributable to common human approaches than to a deity whom we wish to attribute the turnaround to.

Religious preachers frighten their congregations into believing that godlessness equates to nihilism and the corruption of society, when the reality is totally different. Religious people and non-religious people alike share the same concerns and worries about criminality. The solutions to crime are grounded in common sense, not divine intervention. It’s time this “godlessness” excuse was thrown out, once and for all.