Religion: Deterrent of crime and criminal activities or not?

  1. Introduction

The issue that I will be examining is whether religion is the cause of violence or is it used as a deterrence of crime and criminal activities. In other words, does religion really reduce crime? This topic is of great interest to many, especially ever since 9/11 and other attacks that have been done in the name of religion. There is much confusion, misunderstanding and the general perception of religion and violence is that religion is the author of violence. I will be exploring not only whether there is a link between religion and crime but also with terrorism, something that is used in political platforms, the media and so forth.

  1. Background/Review of the Literature

The greatest and most cited work is Hellfire and Delinquency written by Travis Hirschi and Rodney Stark. It was published by Oxford University on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. The main notion in this article is that religion should prevent delinquency, and those who do attend church most often are the ones not doing criminal activities or not doing it as much as those who do not attend church as often as them. Thus, as the article highlights, “there is a lack of a relation between church attendance and delinquency…” (Hirschi and Stark 202). Furthermore, another great argument used is called the “hellfire” hypothesis and that is that religion acts as a deterrent on crime and criminal behaviour through the promise of punishment in the afterlife. The whole notion being that those who do adhere to a faith, will not commit crimes for fear of eternal punishment. Another great source which cites Hellfire and Delinquency is Does Religion Really Reduce Crime? Written by Paul Heaton. In this article, Paul Heaton does not see a correlation between religion causing or preventing violence. As he says, “I find a negligible effect of religion on crime and a negative effect of crime on religion” (Heaton 147). In conclusion, Paul Heaton states that there is a “negative and significant relationship between religious adherents and crime” (167). At the same time, it is difficult to create a link between religion and crime because the context can be biased and inconsistent because of measurement error used to measure religious participation, or how many adhere and follow a religion. In this article, the main answer to the research question was found through a study which was seeing crime rates before and after Easter. The results have shown that murders and rapes were the highest between the day of Easter, up until the tenth day after Easter. When it came to robbery and aggravated assault, robbery was highest ten days before Easter and aggravated assault ten days before Easter. Therefore, the conclusion was that there is “no statistically significant relationship between religious adherence and property crime or violent crime” (Heaton 167). The variable he used in his study was using the occurrence of the Easter holiday to find evidence whether there is a relationship between religion and crime. Thus, following 4 weeks after Easter, crime rates seem to be higher. As a source, it is important to note that this source builds from the main source which lays out the foundation for other sources that I will be using. Last, another prominent source that is widely used is If you love me, keep my commandments: a meta-analysis of the effect of religion on crime written by Colin Baier and Bradley Wright. This article tries to answer two questions for us. First, what is the direction and magnitude of the effect of religion on crime? And why have previous studies varied in their estimation of this effect? It is important to note that while it tries to answer these questions, “the existing evidence surrounding the effect of religion on crime is varied, contested, and inconclusive…” (Baier and Wright 3). Its main arguments used all have a theoretical approach. First, it is the Hellfire and Beyond: Theory approach, which simply holds the view that religion does deter individuals from committing criminal activity by promising eternal sanctions for any wrong committed and promising supernatural reward for all the good committed. Second, another theory used is called social control theory which believes that religion, as a social institution are to “instill normative beliefs and foster individual attachment, commitment, and involvement with the larger society” (qtd. in Baier and Wright 4). Third, there is the rational choice theory which views the individual’s actions to their degree of religious commitment. In other words, depending on their self-imposed sanctions, one can find how strong there are committed to their religion. Per Grasmick, an individual who is deeply religious would feel shame and embarrassment rather than one who is less committed (Baier, Wright 4). Fourth, from a sociological perspective, another argument is that those individuals that commit a crime do it because they need neurological stimulation and per Eysenck, those individuals need more neural arousal than those that do not commit crime (Baier, Wright 5). In conclusion of all these arguments, “empirical studies have found inconsistent support for the deterrent effect of religion” (Baier and Wright 5). Moving away from the arguments, this article offers some explanation why there is so much disparate findings regarding the impact of religion on crime. First, the moral-community hypothesis which states that religion is only deterrent is the greatest when there is a high rate of multiple variables of religiosity. Second, the explanation use is based on Burkett and other colleagues which state that “religion is a more effective deterrent of nonvictim crimes (e.g., gambling and drug use) than personal and property crimes (e.g., murder and theft)” (Baier and Wright 6). Last, the model they use to explain the variation in empirical findings has to do with methodological differences across studies being used in this whole research question. Overall, it is interesting to find that in this study, with all the studies put together, including the ones from Hirschi and Stark, it gave confidence that religion does in fact have some deterrent effect on crime and criminal behaviour. The strongest reasons for these findings is because evidence was found which stemmed from their arguments. Last, moving forward, there are several issues for future research and that is “why do studies with more White subjects observe lower-levels of religious deterrence?” and as well the ways we can conduct research to conduct research not only at the local level but at the larger regional level. As stated, “future studies should test the moral-community hypothesis at multiple levels of community size, ranging from the neighborhoods to the national region…” (Baier and Wright 17).

  1. Method and Methodology

In the sources, the methods used are a mix of qualitative and quantitative. Furthermore, this research is explained using theory and from the sociological perspective. In the first source, Hellfire and Delinquency, the sample and data used was drawn from students entering public junior grades and high schools of Western Contra Costa County, California. It was stratified by race, sex, school and grade and then random samples would be drawn from that. The data were then collected from a lengthy questionnaire. In terms of measuring delinquency, it was measured using self-reports and by police records. In the self-report, questions such as ‘have you ever taken little things that did not belong to you’ were asked to the students. All the measures were measured over the period of three years. Regarding the measure of religiosity, church attendance and participation are recorded and analyzed. The notion goes like this: the stronger attendance and involved you are at a religious community, the less likely you are to commit a crime.

In my other sources, meta-analysis is used, which is simply a mixture of studies combined. In one source, the search used 60 studies that were written from a sociological or psychological perspective which were produced between 1969 to 1998. Most of the studies stemmed from books or journals which gave insight to the measure between religion and criminal behaviour. From the 60 studies, two variants of measures were used: the effect of religion on crime and various study characteristics (Baier and Wright 12). As well, all studies used some type of behavioural measures which would include church attendance, prayer, family discussions, the amount of people listening to religious radio broadcasts and so forth and aside from the behavioural measure, an attitudinal measure was also used in the study which would include the actual beliefs of that religion. The challenge of this study was combining the two together and understanding whether there was a link or correlation between religion and crime.

In another source, it uses an innovative review strategy to collect its data. In the article A Systematic Review of the Religiosity and Delinquency Literature written by Byron Johnson, Spencer Li, David Larson, and Michael McCullough, it aims to systematically review all the recent and current research, including Hirschi & Stark, and assess the state concerning the relationship between religiosity and crime. It does this using an innovative method of research called systematic review (SR), which uses a quantitative method. As per the authors, “the SR minimizes the opportunity for bias” (Johnson et al, 35), something they believe leaks into other forms of studies and meta-analyses. The advantage of using a systematic research is that it needs no work from a statistical or methodological point of view. In terms of methodology, a specific target or study population was chosen, and in this case, a group of study publications were chosen rather than individuals. It consisted of articles that examined the correlation of religion on crime; chosen from January 1985 to December 1997. It then use an online database with the keywords religion, spirituality, church, delinquency, deviant behavior and once identifying articles with those key terms, it had to meet another set of criteria which are the following: (1) must analyze the relationship between religiosity and delinquency (2) a quantified variable must be present in the articles (3) the sample drawn must have only teens and adults, under the age of 18 (4) must have been published between 1985 to 1997 (5) and all samples must be drawn from the United States.

Once that criteria were met, it then was read by other reviewers to decide which of those studies contained any measures of religion or religious variables. Once that has been established, the research was done and conclusion was drawn from those studies. Like the other articles, it is important to note that religious measures were used. Such measures included attendance, salience, denomination, prayer, bible study and religious activities. This is something that was common throughout the articles, and one worthy noting. I personally agree with this use of measure towards religiosity. In terms of religious measures, as said, “the majority of the studies conclude that religion had an inverse or beneficial effect on delinquency” (Johnson et al, 42). Furthermore, “salience and attendance were the two most frequently used variables to measure religion (85% and 65%)” (Johnson et al, 43). Once all the studies have been examined, the main argument or conclusion this source came was that religion does have a role in explaining and understanding juvenile criminal behavior or crime in general. Surprisingly, “most studies in our target population of articles did not include a measure of religious commitment or religiosity” (Johnson et al, 45) and the reason being for that is because most researchers do not have a genuine interest in the research on religion.

In terms of the actual research, “research on religiosity and delinquency has often been plagued with many methodological problems” (Johnson et al, 46). The problems were that many studies they have looked at did not use random sampling, indicators to control measurement errors, and did not test reliability, something that is vital to research. In regards to reliability, much studies that were done, always looked at religion from a negative aspect, and thus, studies would show that religion had a negative effect on crime and delinquency and indirectly, would support the notion that religion was related to crime and delinquency. Another flaw found was the strategies that were used within the criminal and sociological framework. Its mean of explaining the role of religion and its relationship with crime and delinquency. However, in the future, the more refining there is in respect to measurement and analytic methods, the more consistent results we will see (Johnson et al, 46).

In terms of what methods and methodology I would use, I would use a mix of it. I would sample students, adults, and people from every background, race, religious beliefs and ideology, women, men, religious institutions and so forth. The people I would exclude are those that deviate from the essential religious teachings, that would use religion to justify violent behavior, crime, or delinquency. As well, in terms of qualifying participants, children below a certain age would not be qualified, simply because of their understanding towards religion at that certain age. However, children at the age of reason and understanding would be qualified to partake in the research. In one of the studies used in Hellfire and Delinquency, it is noted that sampling was disproportionate by race and sex. Samples included 85% of black boys, 60% of black girls, 30% of white boys and 12% of white girls (Hirschi & Stark, 204). This is something that I disagree with, and would make it more equal and balanced, just so the data would be more consistent and spread throughout races and sexes. In terms of demographics, records, and data, I would consult with religious institutions, their records, church attendances, criminal records, and the perpetrators religious background to examine the correlation between religion and crime.

Another methodology I would use, aside from sampling students, adults, and individuals or assessing records and religious measures, would be the systematic reviews of both individuals and article selection. By this, you might be given insight between what the articles have to say and what the individual and other sample methods show. The reason I would choose SR is because of the quality of research that comes because of that methodology. To be considered quality of research, per Cook and Campbell’s 1979 article, eleven criteria’s must be met. In A Systematic Review of the Religiosity and Delinquency Literature, the eleven criterions were used to get the quality of research. As said in the article, “these eleven items were chosen because they represent criteria from which researchers are able to draw an acceptable casual inference and to achieve an optimal reduction of measurement errors…” (qtd. in Johnson et al, 37).

  1. Significance and Conclusion/ and or Policy Implications

Based on my readings and finding from both meta-analysis, a systematic review on 362 articles which met a strict criterion, I do believe this research should be kept to date and it would lead to a great improvement in the lives of many, and in society. Today, the media has misinformed many people regarding religion and crime, delinquency, violence, and terrorism. This proposed research would get great funding from religious institutions, of all types of faiths for the sole purpose to educate others, empower others and inform others that religion can be used as a deterrent towards crime and delinquency and that religion is not the cause of crime, delinquency, violence or even terrorism.

In terms of improving research and methodologies, include more variables, that way, you get the ‘whole big picture’. As mentioned earlier, many studies chose not to include few variables, and thus, empirical evidence was not consistent across the many studies. As well, when it comes to sampling, make it proportionate, especially race and sex, along with age, ethnicity, etc. Society should care for this kind of information, as it will bring closure to many close-minded individuals, and empower many when it comes to religion. In a world of much confusion, this proposed research will bring clarity, light amid darkness, hope in a world of hopelessness, and peace.

Works Cited

Baier, Colin J., and Bradley R.E. Wright. “”If You Love Me, Keep My Commandments”: A Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Religion on Crime.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 38.3 (2001): 3-21. Sage Publications. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Heaton, Paul. “Does Religion Really Reduce Crime?” The Journal of Law and Economics 49.1 (2006): 147-72. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Hirschi, Travis, and Rodney Stark. “Hellfire and Delinquency.” Social Problems 17.2 (1969): 202-13. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Johnson, Byron R., Spencer De Li, David B. Larson, and Michael McCullough. “Sign In: Registered Users.” SAGE Journals: Your Gateway to World-class Journal Research. Sage Publications, Inc., Feb. 2000. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Silberman, Israela. “Religion as a Meaning System: Implications for the New Millennium.” Journal of Social Issues 61.4 (2005): 641-63. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.


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