Far from deterring criminality, religion may actually be used to support it, says new US study.


COMMENTING on a recently published study, which found that through “purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance,” hardcore criminals often co-opt religious doctrine to justify or further their crimes, Justin Peter’s – writing for the Slate last Friday, pointed out that the sample size (just 48 people) was very small, and that as the authors themselves acknowledge, criminals certainly aren’t the only ones who tend to misunderstand religious teachings, or to contort them for their own benefit.

He added:

Granted, there aren’t usually violent consequences when your Aunt Sue misunderstands something in the Bible; the worst that happens is that she’s just a little more unbearable at Thanksgiving dinner. But, still, the Theoretical Criminology study shouldn’t be interpreted as conclusive evidence that faith-based outreach and rehabilitation programs are worthless.

But the point is, neither is there conclusive evidence that religion on its own actually helps rehabilitate criminals. This becomes a policy question when we’re talking about prisons. As that Bureau of Prisons report put it, while ‘religious programs in the correctional setting have been the single most common form of institutional programming for inmates’, nobody really knows whether those programs are effective.

There’s not much good data. People tend to use tautological arguments to support religion-based rehabilitation programs. That’s not good enough. If we’re going to talk about whether religion helps rehabilitate criminals, we need to insist on data. Don’t just take it on faith.

Lead author of the study is Volkan Topalli, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University. Research done by he and his colleagues was published in February in Theoretical Criminology in an article entitled With God on My Side: The Paradoxical Relationship Between Religious Belief and Criminality Among Hardcore Street Offenders.

According to this report, the 48 people they interviewed were actively involved in serious and violent street-level crimes, including drug dealing, robbery, car jacking and burglary.

Almost all of them professed a belief in God and identified with the Christian faith.  However, many of the criminals had an incomplete understanding of the rules and expectations of their faith.

One 33-year-old, identified in the study by the nickname “Triggerman”, refused to accept the suggestion that a consequence of murder was eternal damnation.

No, no, no, I don’t think that is right. Anything can be forgiven. We live in Hell now and you can do anything in Hell. … God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him.

Other interview subjects tended to manipulate religious doctrine or were selective in which principles they adhered to. A 23-year-old,“Young Stunna”, said those who came from disadvantaged backgrounds were excused from committing crimes.

See, if I go and rob a [expletive], then I’m still going to Heaven because, umm, it’s like Jesus knows I ain’t have no choice, you know? He know I got a decent heart. He know I’m stuck in the ‘hood and just doing what I gotta do to survive.

A 25-year-old nicknamed “Cool” said he always does a “quick little prayer” before committing a crime in order to “stay cool with Jesus.” As long as you ask for forgiveness, Jesus has to give it to you, he said.

He also suggested that if a crime is committed against another “bad person,” such as a dope dealer or child molester:

Then it don’t count against me because it’s like I’m giving punishment to them for Jesus.

The interviews show that criminals will often employ “elaborate and creative rationalizations” to reconcile their belief in God and their serial offending.

The researchers suggested that those who run faith-based programs in prisons could play a role in trying to correct some of the distortions or misunderstandings.

However, that’s not to suggest that these programs should be all about “hellfire and brimstone” because that would just turn inmates off, Topalli said. Instead, religion should be a “subtle, background, authoritative force” for making change, he said, adding that faith-based programs work best in reducing recidivism when done in conjunction with educational, vocational and life-skills training.

A 2007 report posted on the Correctional Service of Canada website noted that about 15 to 20 per cent of federal inmates regularly attend religious worship services and expressed a “high level” of satisfaction with services offered.

The study said while a key function of chaplains was to provide religious services, some were also providing more “holistic” services, including personal development and money management training, which complemented inmates’ overall correctional plans.