New study raises questions about religion as deterrent against criminal behaviour


A provocative new study is challenging assumptions about the deterrent effect of religion on criminal behaviour.

The U.S. study found that through “purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance,” hardcore criminals often co-opt religious doctrine to justify or further their crimes.

The findings could have important implications, the researchers say, for how faith-based services are administered within the corrections system.

Prison ministries shouldn’t just be about presenting religious doctrine because some inmates might take religious teachings to excuse their behaviour, lead author Volkan Topalli, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University, said in an interview Monday.

“People have to understand that presenting religious doctrine to people isn’t enough to change their behaviour,” he said. “(Faith-based services) have to be systematic and about behaviour change — religion has to be a vehicle, rather than the goal.”

The research of Topalli and his colleagues was published this month in the journal Theoretical Criminology in an article titled With God on My Side: The Paradoxical Relationship Between Religious Belief and Criminality Among Hardcore Street Offenders.

They interviewed 48 people who 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, the study found.

One 33-year-old criminal, 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,” he told the researchers. “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.”

Written By: Douglas Quan
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  1. The interviews show that criminals will often employ “elaborate and creative rationalizations” to reconcile their belief in God and their serial offending, the researchers concluded.

    [vatican joke pending]

  2. “many of the criminals had an incomplete understanding of the rules and expectations of their faith”

    Sound like normal theists to me.

    “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.””

    Sensible logic: let God lead by example.

    “criminals will often employ “elaborate and creative rationalizations” to reconcile their belief in God”

    =Normal religious behaviour.

    “subjects tended to manipulate religious doctrine or were selective in which principles they adhered to”

    That goes for ALL Christians.

  3. As a young lad brought up in an anglican family (my dad was a vicar) I remember asking “If I’m good does that mean I’ll be let off having to go to church?” So in my case, yes religion could have been a deterrent against criminal behaviour.

  4. Thing is when the perp comes up for parole or appeal against sentence in front of a judge and pleads that he is now a jeebus sunbeam…some judges get all soft and squidgy inside and rush to get the handcuffs off this fine example of a reformed character..

    I am minded of the Manson murders…which ironically enough not carried out by him at all…but members of his ‘family’.

    If I remember correctly it was his second in command that appeared to be the leading psychopath on the jaunt to Hollywood.
    He was convicted on seven murders including the stabbing of Sharon Tate who was heavily pregnant at the time.
    Watson now claims to be a born again Christian and is founder of

    Seems he gets significant privileges for his ‘work’ in jail.
    Although not released seems he has fathered kids been married, had conjugal visits etc etc…
    And his ‘foundation’ does good business…and he runs it from inside.

    He believes that God has forgiven him.

    Well you would I guess.

  5. “religion as deterrent against criminal behaviour”

    And this is news how?

    Virtues condoned by Christianity: Misogyny, xenophobia, slavery & genocide

    Virtues condoned by Islam: Misogyny, xenophobia, slavery & genocide

    Virtues condoned by Hinduism: Misogyny, xenophobia, slavery & genocide

    That is about 5 billion (potential)criminals just waiting for their divine command!

  6. Religios don’t think some categories of behaviour are criminal unlike the rest of us who know they are. This includes a number which are common law, slavery,child rape, paedophilia, torture, murder, warmongering, perverting the course of justice and witch burning. On top of which there are the philosophical breaches such as thinking that lying for their faith, jeebus or mo is a virtue, and resorting to hermeneutics, syllogistic fallacy and special pleading and other academic high treasons as a substitute for rational thinking.

    Religion is an anodyne and a deterrent against thinking properly.

  7. @ OP

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

    Wot! a shocker?
    Guaranteed to be the exact same result on any random church congregation in the USA.

    Every cult a different bigotry, every cult a different hatred, every cult a different intolerance and every cult displaying a different ignorance, and all of them backed up by apparently a different god, that they all claim happens to be xtian…go figure!

  8. I worked for 5 hours a day 4 days a week in a prison for 12 1/2 years. Before anyone asks, it was a part time job after I taught a full day at my high school. I taught science to the inmates and tried to get them their diplomas or their GED’s. I taught thousands and thousands of people. I have lots of great stories and some not so great stories. However, I never, ever met a fellow atheist. Not one.

  9. Double post…weird glitch, it has happened a few times on this forum now?

    Might be a dodgy mouse, but it happens nowhere else!

  10. Only religious idiots could assume that delusional violent criminals will somehow behave better.

  11. His being a hero makes my stomach turn. He is clearly involved in the murder of two people. Covered in their blood… fleeing the scene…the victim’s blood in his limo…. then he turned on his two accomplices in exchange for a lesser sentence (I thought that “snitching” was the lowest of the low)….

    He actually said the following:

    “What would you like to say to the families?” Sharpe asked. Lewis said: “God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see…. To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, He don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory.”

    This is someone who went to college!!! Holy shit.

    He invokes god and all is forgiven and forgotten.

    Well, NOT WITH ME.

    In reply to #10 by Daryl:

    This is the same BS that allows Ray Lewis to become a hero.

  12. The Paradoxical Relationship Between Religious Belief and Criminality Among Hardcore Street Offenders.

    There is nothing paradoxical about it if one recognises that religious belief is pathological.

  13. Religion can hardly be claimed to be a deterrent to crime. Considering that the Bible positively recommends, condones, and sanctions child abuse, rape, murder, genocide, slavery, human sacrifice, cannibalism, dismemberment, torture, racism, theft, and kidnapping, it’s pretty difficult to say that religion makes people behave better. Especially when you consider that, in modern times, religion is still used to justify all of the above, the case for religion being a deterrent to crime is just laughable. Throw in the fact that each religious denomination has their own interpretation of what God wants, and that even individual members within each faith have their own interpretation of religion, and that a lot of religious folks claim that anything commanded by God is good, it is safe to conclude that religion opens the floodgates to any number of crimes, and will always use the Bible (or Koran or whatever religious text is relevant) as vindication of their actions. We would be so much better off without religion.

  14. If religion is supposed to be a deterrent against criminal behaviour than it is clearly NOT WORKING.

  15. Religion quite obviously doesn’t stop priests, vicars, bishops, popes, etc. from committing crimes. Those that commit crimes probably believe that their god will forgive them, balancing their crimes against all the good works that they’ve done (if any).

    I’d love to hear a comment from a criminal priest regarding where he believes he’ll go after death.

  16. Fact: Roughly 85% of all drive by shootings in barrios across the country are fired from cars with crucifixes swinging from the rear view mirror. The amount of shooters with the Virgin Of Guadalupe tattooed all up and down the length of their backs is also staggering.

  17. “New study raises questions”
    Funny how studies that undermine religion only ‘raise questions’ where as those in favour of religion tend to ‘prove beyond doubt’.

  18. faith-based programs work best in reducing recidivism when done in conjunction with educational, vocational, and life skills training.

    Hard evidence, please.

    some chaplains provide “holistic” services…

    Ah, now you are beginning to see the light.

    I’ve read cautiously optimistic articles regarding programs pairing (eligible) inmates with dogs for training, cats for comfort, and wild mustangs for breaking/adoption.

    No religion needed. Period.

  19. I worked for a faith-based organization for seven years that contracted with the state to provide transitional housing for criminals, men and women, who needed housing upon release from jail/prison as a condition of their sentences. Religion was not explicitly a part of the program but it was implicitly impilied that all clients were encouraged to attend religious services,I did not participate in the proselytizing activity. All of them professed to be Christians
    and strong believers in jeebus and that their crimes would be forgiven in some afterlife.They all used the bible to justify this delusion and never once took responsibility for their criminal actions, I never encountered a nonbeliever in all the years I workd in that system. The church has inordinate access to state run penal institutions and are being paid at taxpayer expense for providing a service that is having a minimal effect, if any, on ameliorating crime and rates of recidivism among offenders.The study cited in this post does not surprise me at all.

  20. I see there are more complaints of abuses by those in power in the RCC.

    Cardinal Keith O’Brien ‘accused of inappropriate acts’

    Cardinal O’Brien is the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh

    Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric has been reported to the Vatican over claims of inappropriate behaviour going back 30 years, a newspaper says.

    The Observer said three priests and one former priest have made the complaint against Cardinal Keith O’Brien, 74, leader of the Scottish Catholic Church.

    They have demanded his immediate resignation, it said.

    A statement from the Scottish Catholic Church said Cardinal O’Brien contested the claims and was taking legal advice.


    Meanwhile, nearly 10,000 people in the United States have signed a petition calling on a senior Catholic clergyman to not participate in the election for the next Pope.

    Cardinal Roger Mahony has been accused of helping priests suspected of sexual abuse to escape detection.

    The Los Angeles archdiocese, of which he was formerly the head, has paid out millions of dollars in compensation to victims of child sex abuse.

    Does anyone seriously think these people have any contribution to make in reforming criminals?

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