Religion and Crime

This research paper provides a review of the literature on religion and crime from three distinctive topic areas: (1) the effects of religion on the commission of criminal and deviant acts, (2) the effects of religion on prison misconduct and recidivism, and (3) the effects of religion on attitudes toward crime control. Studies in all three areas suggest a nuanced and inconsistent relationship between religion and crime. It is fair to say that religion, to varying degrees, is related to several crime-related factors.


I. Introduction

II. Religion and Criminal or Deviant Behaviors

III. Religion and Prison

IV. Limitations of Studies

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

An impressive research literature that identifies linkages between religion and a wide range of attitudes, behaviors, and life events has emerged. This research suggests that religiosity—a cognitive and behavioral commitment to organized religion—is associated with factors such as interpersonal friendliness; psychological and physical well-being; comfort for those who face difficult life situations, such as family problems, divorce, and unemployment; marital happiness; participation in politics and political movements; and volunteering in community organizations. A recurrent theme in this literature is that religion may operate as a social force for reducing negative behaviors and for increasing positive behaviors.

The relationship between religion and crime, however, is not as straightforward. Research on this topic since the 1960s has yielded widely varying results. Whereas many studies have found that religion is significantly related to a host of crime-related factors, others have found no relationship. This research paper is designed to introduce readers to the extensive literature on religion and crime. It is organized along three dimensions. First, research on the relationship between religion and the commission of criminal and deviant acts is discussed. Second, research on religion in the prison context is reviewed. Third, research on the relationship between religion and crime control attitudes is presented.

II. Religion and Criminal or Deviant Behaviors

Researchers have long sought to understand the relationship between religion and the commission of criminal or deviant behaviors. French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1897) was one of the first to consider this topic. Durkheim believed that religion operated as a social force such that greater levels of religious commitment should lead to reduced negative behaviors. Before the empirical research on this topic is discussed, the important question to address is how religion may reduce criminal or deviant behaviors. The answer lies in insights drawn from social capital theory (Coleman, 1988) and social control theory (Hirschi, 1969). Many researchers contend that religious involvement may create social networks and emotional support that will constrain criminal behavior. Religious individuals tend to be bonded to religious institutions that provide informal social control over their behaviors. The behavior of individuals with higher levels of religiosity is thought to be guided by the sanctions derived from religion. According to this logic, religiosity may operate as a shield against negative behaviors such as crime and deviance by creating and reinforcing social networks and social bonds.

Closely related to the avoidance of criminal and deviant behaviors is the promotion of prosocial behaviors. Christopher Ellison (1992) contended that religiosity may be linked with prosocial behaviors for two key reasons. First, individuals with higher levels of religious commitment are more likely to engage in religious role-taking such that they interact with others according to their perceptions of what a “divine other” would expect. Religious individuals may view life from “the vantage point of the ‘God-role,’ by attempting to understand how a divine other would expect them to behave toward their fellows” (Ellison, 1992, p. 413). Second, religious individuals may internalize religious norms concerning kindness, empathy, and civility. Scriptural stories such as the Good Samaritan and scriptural precepts such as the Golden Rule provide structure and a model for relationships with others.

A. Review of Empirical Studies

The first major empirical study of religion and crime was conducted by Travis Hirschi and Rodney Stark (1969). They used survey data on youth from California to test the hellfire hypothesis, which predicted that religion could deter crime on the individual level through the fear of supernatural sanctions and at the same time encourage prosocial behaviors through the hope and promise of supernatural rewards. The authors investigated whether individuals who attended church were less likely than individuals who do not attend church to engage in a variety of delinquent behaviors. They also investigated whether belief in supernatural sanctions for bad behavior deterred the same delinquent behaviors. Hirschi and Stark found no relationship between religious attendance or belief in supernatural sanctions and self-reported delinquent acts. They concluded that respondents’ decisions to commit crimes were linked with perceptions of pleasure and pain on earth, instead of on perceived heavenly rewards for good behavior or the punishment of hellfire for sinful acts. Since Hirschi and Stark’s landmark study, investigators have produced approximately two studies per year on this topic. The relationship between religion and crime has also been the subject of a metaanalysis (Baier & Wright, 2001) and a systematic review (Johnson, De Li, Larsen, & McCullough, 2000).

In a subsequent study, Stark, Kent, and Doyle (1982) suggested that the findings from Hirschi and Stark’s (1969) study were largely due to the moral makeup of the area in which it was conducted (Richmond, California). In what has become known as the moral communities hypothesis, Stark et al. contended that religion is best understood as a structural property of communities rather than as an individual attribute of persons. In other words, religion is most likely to reduce crime and deviance in more religious areas of the United States (e.g., Southeast, Midwest), and is less likely to do so in less religious areas (e.g., Northeast, Pacific Northwest). In terms of church membership and church attendance, Richmond, California, had very low rates of religious commitment relative to the rest of the country. Stark et al. characterized this area as a “secular community” rather than as a “moral community.” The moral makeup of the community thus helped to explain why religiosity did not reduce crime in the original study (see also Stark, 1996).

Similar to Stark et al. (1982), Higgins and Albrecht (1977) suggested that the absence of a significant relationship between religiosity and delinquency in Hirschi and Stark’s (1969) landmark study stemmed from the use of a sample from a primarily nonreligious Western population. Higgins and Albrecht analyzed a sample drawn from the more religious-oriented South and found that religiosity led to reductions in the amount of self-reported crime and deviance. They also found that, in addition to religiosity, peer expectations and relationship with parents were predictors of crime and deviance. Thus, Higgins and Albrecht concluded that Hirschi and Stark’s research may have yielded accurate results for the western area they studied, but the results of studies conducted in other areas of the country, characterized by strong religious communities, are likely to be the opposite.

Burkett and White (1974) offered a rival explanation to Hirschi and Stark’s (1969) findings. They suggested that the effects of religion on crime will vary depending on the type of crime. Using survey data on high school students in Pennsylvania, they found that religion is most likely to reduce behaviors that have a strong moral or ascetic connotation in religious circles but are not universally looked down on in society (e.g., alcohol and drug use, gambling, premarital sex). The authors reported that higher levels of religious participation led to significant decreases in students’ use of alcohol and marijuana, but it did not influence involvement in property or violent offenses. Burkett and White’s work comprises what is called the anti-asceticism hypothesis.

Using data on middle and high school students in three Midwestern states, Cochran and Akers (1989) reached a conclusion similar to that of Burkett and White (1974). Cochran and Akers tested several competing theories of the relationship between crime and delinquency and found that the anti-asceticism hypothesis received the most support; specifically, the more religious students in the sample reported significantly lower levels of alcohol and marijuana use than less religious students and nonreligious students, but there was no significant effect of religion on other types of crimes.

Lee Ellis (1987) suggested that the relationship between religion and crime is spurious; that is, the relationship is contingent on another factor, which in this case is the arousal level of each individual. According to Ellis’s arousal theory, criminal behavior is related to innate variations in each individual’s demand for neurological stimulation. Ellis contended that criminals are naturally prone to boredom and that criminal actions are a means of finding arousal through risk-seeking behavior. If individuals have suboptimal arousal levels (a tendency to be bored), they will seek stimulation to meet their psychological and physiological needs. This need for stimulation is greater than for individuals with normal levels of arousal. This is not to say that all stimulation sought by suboptimal individuals will be criminal but that the risk-seeking behaviors may, in some cases, be criminal.

In terms of religiosity, Ellis (1987) predicted that individuals who have suboptimal arousal levels will have low levels of church attendance, because religious services often are routine and solemn events. In Ellis’s test of his theory, he measured religion on the basis of church membership, church attendance, belief in God, denominational measures, belief in immortality, and other beliefs. He then measured arousal in two ways: (1) neurological and (2) extraneurological. The neurological measure included basic brain wave readings from an EEG. Extraneurological measures were divided into two subcategories: (1) physiological measures and (2) self-reported measures. Physiological measures involved skin conductivity and other arousal indicators, such as heart and pulse rates, startle reflexes, and adrenaline secretions. The self-reported measures consisted of responses about the exciting and boring activities in which the participants took part.

On the basis of this research, Ellis (1987) reached three main conclusions: (1) Among church members, those who attended church more often exhibited lower crime rates than those whose attendance was infrequent; (2) those who believed in an afterlife where their sins would be punished had lower crime rates than those who lacked the same belief, and (3) Jewish crime rates were lower than for Christians, and Protestants had lower crime rates than Catholics. He concluded that religious participation was associated with lower levels of criminal conduct; however, he found that the observed relationship between religion and crime was no longer strong once the level of arousal was accounted for. Thus, Ellis concluded that arousal level was the best predictor of both religiosity and criminal behavior.

Cochran and colleagues (Cochran, Wood, & Arneklev, 1994) used data on high school students in Oklahoma to investigate whether religion could reduce the incidence of several different types of crimes. Along with measures of religiosity, the authors included measures based on arousal and social control theories. Similar to Ellis (1987), the authors found that the religion–crime relationship was spurious; more specifically, the relationship between religion and crime disappeared once the arousal levels and social controls of the individuals were accounted for.

Benda and Corwyn (1997) analyzed data on students in three Arkansas high schools to determine whether religion was related to several different types of delinquent and criminal behaviors. They found that greater levels of religiosity (in particular, church attendance) reduced the likelihood of status offenses (e.g., skipping school, fake excuses for missing school, running away) but did not reduce the likelihood of several crimes against persons or property. When measures of social control were accounted for, however, the relationship between religiosity and status offenses disappeared, and there was still no effect of religiosity on crime.

Byron Johnson and his colleagues (Johnson, Jang, Larson, & De Li, 2001) analyzed data from the National Youth Survey and came to a very different conclusion about the relationship between religiosity and delinquency. They attempted to explain involvement in 35 different types of delinquent behavior on the basis of religiosity, social controls, and social learning, and found that religiosity directly reduced delinquent behavior, even after controlling for youth’s social bonds to society and the extent of their delinquent associations.

Welch, Tittle, and Grasmick (2006) examined the relationships among religiosity, self-control, and crime. They analyzed survey data on adults in Oklahoma to determine the key predictors of five different types of crimes. The authors found that religiosity and self-control operate on significant, independent tracks for deterring crime. In other words, higher levels of religious commitment directly reduced the likelihood of criminal activities even after accounting for individuals’ level of self-control.

Finally, two sets of scholars compiled and reviewed a large number of empirical studies of religion and crime to determine the overall strength and nature of the relationship. Johnson and associates (Johnson, De Li, et al., 2000) reviewed 40 studies of the relationship between religion and delinquency conducted between January 1985 and December 1997. They used a method called systematic review, which involves a search of all peer-reviewed journals in the social and behavioral sciences. Of the 40 studies of religiosity and crime/delinquency they identified, 30 indicated that religion had a beneficial effect (i.e., led to reductions in) on many types of criminal and deviant behaviors. The 10 remaining studies showed either no effect (5 studies), mixed effects (3 studies), positive effects (1 study), or effects not specified (1 study). Thus, Johnson et al. concluded that the research literature consistently has shown that religion leads directly or indirectly to reductions in criminal and deviant behavior. Baier and Wright (2001) reviewed 60 studies of religion and crime that were conducted between 1969 and 1998. They concluded that, overall, religion had a “moderate” effect on reductions in criminal and deviant behaviors.

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