New Study: Religion Helps Criminals Justify Their Crimes

A new study by Georgia State University criminal justice professor Volkan Topalli says that — wait for it — religion may not actually help criminals.

In fact, they just use Jesus to justify the shit they already do… Making them no different, really, from all other Christians.

(The paper is behind a paywall, just begging for someone to pray to Jesus and then release it to the world.)

So imagine this: Bob commits a crime. Bob goes to prison. A prison minister brings him to Jesus. But instead of making him a “better” person, Bob just realizes Jesus will forgive his crimes… so he just commits another when he’s released.

That’s obviously a distortion of what the ministers are trying to preach, but it suggests that we ought to reconsider the benefits of all those prison ministries:

Other interview subjects tended to manipulate religious doctrine or were selective in which principles they adhered to, the study found. One 23-year-old criminal, nicknamed “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 told researchers. “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 criminal 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.

And, of course, if you murder a bad guy — a child molester or drug dealer, for example — you’re just doing what Jesus would have wanted you to do…

Part of the problem is that criminals may just be latching on to certain aspects of Christianity, the parts that suit their own needs, and ignoring the rest of it. Case in point: This conversation between Que, an 18-year-old male robber, and his interviewer:

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.

So what can we take from this? (Assuming, of course, future studies reveal the same conclusions?)

If a prisoner who’s up for parole, saying you’re now a religious person shouldn’t earn you any goodwill. It doesn’t mean you’re a better person.

We need to shine a spotlight on prison ministries because they’re not all they’re cracked up to be:

However, to the extent that some offenders misinterpret or distort religious teachings to justify and excuse crime, the full potential of faith-based programming may have yet to be realized. Program facilitators may benefit from knowledge of the particular distortions and misunderstandings that some offenders apply to their behavior, and may work to challenge or correct these errors.

That’s a polite way of saying prison ministries don’t work if they’re only offering Jesus.

Ultimately, the authors argue that religious belief may prevent prisoners from committing another crime — hell, a passion for *anything* could do that — but for a certain subgroup, that belief “facilitates criminal conduct.”

(image via Shutterstock — Thanks to Hayley for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.