A study coming out of Georgia State University found that religion might, in fact, help criminals justify their crimes rather than actually deter them from committing the act. The study analyzed 48 serious criminal offenders (robbers, con-artists, drug dealers etc…) from Atlanta. There have been many studies regarding the issue of religion and crime. The results have been pretty inconsistent. In some cases the level of religiosity can actually help deter an individual from committing a crime( victimless crimes) and in other studies there doesn’t really seem to be an effect.
A great way to help gather more insight into this topic was to clarify the various kinds of offenders. In this study, victimless crimes and other petty crimes aren’t analyzed.
The results of the study are quite astonishing. An overwhelming majority of the criminals interviewed self-identified with a religion. 44 of them considered themselves to be Christian, one was a Muslim and three were atheists.
The main results of the study showed that offenders used a myriad of cognitive self-deceptions to justify and excuse their criminal behaviors. In some cases they actually believed God wanted them to do the crime or God understood why they were committing a specific crime. The manipulation of religious doctrines and in some cases out right ignorance allowed offenders to reconcile their actions with themselves, thus to them justifying the behavior. What is shocking is the fact that the criminals didn’t appear to be remorseful or sorry for their crimes due to the fact that their actions would be understood or forgiven by God.
The study outlined three ways in which offenders utilized their religion in order to help cope with their actions.
1. The offenders beliefs where usually incomplete and lacked a clear understanding of what their faith actually entailed regarding rules and expectations. In some cases, the offenders were aware that their knowledge was incomplete. This lack of knowledge led them to make several erroneous statements regarding their religion.
Que: I believe in God and the Bible and stuff. I believe in Christmas, and uh, you know the commitments and what not.
Int: You mean the Commandments?
Que: Yeah that. I believe in that.
Int: Can you name any of them?
Que: Ahhh … well, I don’t know … like don’t steal, and uh, don’t cheat and shit like that. Uhmm … I can’t remember the rest.
Int: How about the Bible?
Que: Yeah I know some of that. You know. Heaven and Hell, and Jesus fighting with the Devil, but for real, I didn’t really go to church enough to know like all the details, just the important shit, like Jesus forgives you for all your bad shit if you donate some money to the church, or pray and say you’re sorry.
In one case the interviewer pointed out to an offender that murder could condemn him to hell. The offender, nicknamed Triggerman, responded like this:
“No, no, no, I don’t think that is right. I mean, anything can be forgiven. We live in Hell now and you can do anything [transgression] in Hell. When it all end … we go up there [to Heaven] and the Devil comes down here. Only the Devil lives in Hell forever man all by his self. God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him.”
2. Some offenders actually displayed some basic knowledge regarding their religion, but selectively picked principles that help them continue their life of crime.
Young Stunna explained why God won’t punish him for his behavior:
“Well, you do get punished for doing wrong, but not if you don’t have no choice. It’s like this here. See, if I go and rob a motherfucker then I’m still going to Heaven because … uhm … 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. But you now, if you [poking interviewer in the chest] rob somebody, then you might get punished because you going to the Pearly Gates and Jesus going to be like, why you robbing motherfuckers when I gave you a job and a nice life already? What’s up with that?”
Another offender by the name of Cool gives an account of how religion can serve his interests:
“The way it work is this. You go out and do some bad and then you ask for forgiveness and Jesus have to give it to you, and you know wipe the slate clean. So, I always do a quick little prayer right before and then I’m cool with Jesus. Also another thing is this; if you doing some wrong to another bad person, like if I go rob a dope dealer or a molester or something, then it don’t count against me because it’s like I’m giving punishment to them for Jesus. That’s God’s will. Oh you molested some kids? Well now I’m [God] sending Cool over your house to get your ass.”
3. Some offenders appeared to know much about their religion. However, they would use their knowledge in an attempt to convince themselves that their crimes would be allowed and in some cases enabled by God. Their criminal actions would be viewed as “part of a plan” by God.
“Before I do anything, I pray, right, and to me, it keeps me out there longer, until it gets to a point where it seems like God says, ‘Well, I can’t let you get along, I can’t let you do this no more.’ See, I do believe that people can change, but that has to come from the most high. When you get that calling, that is it. You know, I have a cliché that I say … I’m getting high to the day I die. I’m doing this to the day I die, unless the most high intercedes, that is.”
The most intriguing use of religious justification occurred when an offender tried to “game the system.”
“I think [God] is forgiving ’cause you know, what I learned from going to church, you know, sometimes is that like the guys that was on the cross with Jesus, both of ’em did wrong, and that at the last minute one of them ask God to forgive him … and I figured as long as I be able to ask for forgiveness before I die I’m going to Heaven, but if somebody shoot me and I don’t get no chance to pray, you know, I’m going to Hell. So, I came up with this great idea, that hey, I ask God in advance if I don’t get a chance to pray, to forgive me you know for what I’ve done and then I feel like God know in my heart that I don’t like what I’m doing but that’s the only thing I know to do.”
Ultimately, there are several justifications used by religious people to condone their actions, violent or not. A major policy question that should be addressed here revolves around faith based ministries in prisons. Do they really serve to rehabilitate some of the most hardened criminals? Or does religion give them a mechanism to suppress the real problem by justifying it with an irrational belief in God?
The actual journal is behind a paywall. However, if you are a student you might be able to find the article in your university’s library. If you subscribe to Jstor, Sage, or any other journal provider you might be able to access the full journal article.