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.

  • Antinomian

    Further proof that the idea of absolution and forgiveness by a higher deity is an abomination.

  • Charles Raymond Miller

    The evil of substitutionary atonement.

  • OverlappingMaigsteria

    The lead author of the study seems to still have a bit of a blind spot. From the article:

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

    This reminds me of Russel Glassier’s joke from the Atheist Experience: “I took an aspirin and said a prayer and then my headache went away. Gee, prayer works great!”

  • Wild Rumpus

    Christians “may just be latching on to certain aspects of Christianity, the parts that suit their own needs, and ignoring the rest of it.”


  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    So, wait… filling their heads with an often immoral and generally distorted view of reality is then associated with the prisoners having a distorted and immoral view of reality.

    Predictable. But it will be shocking to the mainstream christians (if they would be open to even hearing this).

  • Rev. Red Mage

    Steve Weinberg once said “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This is the perfect example of that.

    “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.”

    …I don’t think that’s just criminals. I think that’s pretty much the vast majority of Christians.

  • Susana

    in fact is simply giving excuses to horrible behaviours. there’s no penalty, no owning up, just begging for forgiveness to a man in the name of a deity, it makes me remember the indulgences, the lovely little things that the monarchies would get from the pope to justify all the horrors they did. it’s a “Pray, pay and it will go away” thing, greetings from portugal :)

  • named

    I don’t know why any of this could possibly be surprising given the conclusions of the study. They sound like regular, everyday people who claim to be Christian. The idea that they aren’t paying attention to everything it says in the Bible makes sense because the contradictions make that impossible. The concept of giving the church money and they will be forgiven is exactly what most churches teach their members.

    I think they serve as perfect examples of life run by religious doctrine, and for that, they should be praised by the religious community.

  • Claude

    Que: I believe in God and the Bible and stuff. I believe in Christmas, and uh, you know the commitments and what not.

    That made me laugh and laugh.

  • J_M_Green

    As I wrote in my take on this, the Bible amply demonstrates how people used God to justify genocide, murder, slavery, land theft & etc. It’s no surprise to atheists that people continue to do so.

  • Lagerbaer

    I think it also displays the double standard with regard to knowledge about a religion when it comes to believing or not believing: If you say you don’t believe in god, people demand that you have read the Bible and all the works by “sophisticated” theologians in order to make an informed decision. If you say you do believe in god, nobody cares whether or not you have the slightest clue what it is you supposedly believe in.

  • Brian Westley

    I like to think of religion as the stone in stone soup.

  • Brian Westley

    Hey, that robber “believes” in the ten commandments, and knows that one of them is “don’t steal”. I guess “believe” is different from “obey”.

  • Jason

    I find this study ridiculous. What should we conclude from this study? Nothing at all. It just shows that criminals treat religion exactly like every other religious person does. They keep what they want and trash the rest. I would say more but I hate typing on phones .

  • named

    To be fair, they BELIEVED in them without actually KNOWING what they were…

    There’s a distinct difference between belief and knowledge.

  • Merl Allen

    What makes them so different from most right wing Bizarro-World christians? You just described them to a tee, without the crime.

  • really

    …and clearly Que wasn’t really paying attention to his Bible classes.

    You people are jumping on board saying that Que is a Christian because he believes in the “commitments”. Uhm…maybe you should check out the definition of Christian. One cannot follow what one does not know about.

    Que has no clue as to what Christianity is about. I’m sad that people on this board somehow are believing that Que is a Christian.

    If that’s the case….I’m a giraffe. Yup, that’s it. I’m a giraffe who is typing on a very large keyboard. If you believe Que, then you must believe me too. You have the same amount of evidence for both claims!

  • Edmond

    I’m not so sure that “we” are the ones who NEED to conclude anything from this. “We” already knew that this was how religion functioned. But there are plenty of OTHER people who need to have their eyes opened to this.

  • really

    Not to mention what you say isn’t accurate. There are some who do exactly what you claim Jason. There are others who let their scriptures teach them and then they apply the lessons and change their lifestyles.

    Why is everyone on this board so naive today?

  • really

    WHAT?!?! Most churches do NOT teach that about giving and repentance. I’m sure I’ve been in more churches than you on Sunday morning and I have only heard that taught once. I left mid-way through the message too.

    What kind of churches do you go to?!?!

  • MrsDaveG

    I have the full text pdf – if you want it you can email me at

  • named

    Christianity is a world view, not a species like giraffe. If you said you were a Republican, then it would be easily asserted that you are a Republican. There is no criteria for admittance, nor is there any method of disproving a personal belief.

    If they claim that they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior, they are Christians. Simple as that.

  • really

    Not true. I ALWAYS ask follow up questions when someone says they are a Christian. I DO care because Christianity is being misrepresented and people like many on this board today actually believe it. Wow!

  • really

    Yes, but you can’t actually believe something without some knowledge. I can’t say I believe in string theory or WIMPS without knowing what they are?

    Often times when people say they “believe” they mean they like the idea of moral teaching, but don’t even know what those are.

  • Mario Strada

    I never liked the “you people” appellation, but I’ll try to weave it in my response.

    Unlike Islam, a proclamation is not enough for Christians to be one. A baptism is necessary. If Que is baptized and professes himself a Christian , then he is a Christian. Otherwise there would be many fewer Christians around and when “you people” proclaim that America is a “Christian Nation” I would be more than justified to call it a lie based purely on how many of you people are around (beside the actual historical facts).

    Namely only those that know their bible enough to pass “Edmond” christian test. Since when asked most Christians display an appalling ignorance of their own religion and the Bible, that would be very few indeed.

    Que is a Christian. You may call him a “misguided Christian” but denying him his own religion doesn’t seem a very charitable or Christian thing to do on your part.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    If you think you believe you are a giraffe and that this JUSTIFIES your crimes against humanity somehow, then your giraffe-based belief system would be just as worthy of criticism as the Christianity-belief-system that some criminals are using to justify their wrongdoings.

  • chicago dyke

    there are many variants of xtianity and not all require baptism.

    speaking of islam, i’d like to see this study done on islamic prison converts. are they more or less criminal as a result?

  • Mario Strada

    How do you think the great Cathedrals of Europe, the monasteries and the great wealth of the various denomination came to be? The sale of indulgences. If you think that has changed you are dreaming. They may no longer be that open, but the message is the same, just adapted to or times. For that matter, many television preachers make no qualms of their intentions.

    But I know what you are going to say. They are not Real Christians™.

  • chicago dyke

    how is Christianity being “misrepresented” on this blog? specific example with link, please.

  • Question Everything

    Not the OP, but I mostly went to Methodist churches in my recent years, before I stopped going completely, also attended Baptist and a few other flavors over the years. They often talked about giving, though they weren’t as solid on the repentance part. More pray because all people sin, and don’t forget to tithe – tithing was a big thing, brought up multiple times per year in general. Covered that a lot more than the little details about genocide, murder, rape, and so on in the bible, really. Most sermons aimed for the warm and fuzzy messages, I have to say.

  • Edmond

    Say what now? What test is that? My ears were burning.

  • Guesty Guest

    How much do you need to know before you can be said to have a belief, then?

  • Hanan

    I don’t understand something here. The article in question is saying that prisoners are manipulating what they are being taught. Then when he admits that the author of article says belief may actually prevent crime, he doesn’t give ANY due credit at all, but simply sweeps it under the rug and says “anything” can help with that. But, does give direct credit to the belief when it supposedly leads to criminal conduct. Seems a bit dishonest.

  • Bob Becker

    Back on the block in Brooklyn 60 years ago, the word among us good little Catholic boys was that if you were going to think sinful thoughts… or act on them… the best time to do it was Friday night because confessions were heard Saturday mornings. Slate wiped clean after only one night of risking burning in hell forever for Friday night’s fun.

  • Mario Strada

    You must be a riot at parties, interrogating people about their knowledge of theology, quizzing them on Bible passages.

    I don’t believe it for a minute that you question every Christian you encounter about their faith, but I do believe that you would set an impossible standard of knowledge on any atheist you argue with.

  • coyotenose

    Try reading the blog post. Your comment was addressed before you made it.

  • coyotenose

    Try reading the blog post. Your comment was addressed before you made it.

    Also, quite a few people here have most definitely spent more time as Real Christians than you have. You’re speaking from ignorance of the commentariat here and of churches in general.

  • coyotenose

    You, like everyone else who believes in Jesus, does exactly what Jason says. It is impossible NOT to, because the Bible is self-contradictory. If you keep the good and trash the bad, you are still doing what he describes.

  • MD

    During Peru’s civil war, guerrilla soldiers would go to confession right before carrying out an attack. Just in case they died while trying to blow up an office or while carrying out an assassination. That way they could still go to heaven.

  • Witchgawd

    You need look no further than any man of gawd preaching hate against – LGBT’s, women, atheists, other religions, minorities of all colors and creeds, etc.- because the Bible says so. But as long as they ask for forgiveness from their imaginary friend, it’s all good. Religion is a plague and needs to be eradicated as such.

  • CottonBlimp

    Is the original article implying that “Jesus will forgive all your sins” is a misinterpretation of Christian philosophy?

    This is why CS Lewis said that if Jesus wasn’t actually God, he would be the most evil man who ever lived; he’s inserting himself as replacement for seeking forgiveness from those we’ve actually wronged.

  • Emma

    “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.”

    Yeah… Just like every other Christian.

    I hate saying that because it sounds like a generalization, but if we had Christians who really followed every word of the Bible it would NOT be a good thing.

  • m6wg4bxw

    I wonder how Young Stunna, Cool, and Que would respond to a convincing case for atheism. Suppose they are convinced that no god exists. I obviously have no idea, but I expect they would adjust to include the same criminal behavior. I expect we would hear from them what we hear from atheism-criticizing Christians — that no god means no morals and no judgement.

  • Barefoot Bree

    Really, kindly step back and understand that YOU are not the exemplar of Christianity in the US. There are as many different types of Christianity as there are Christians – and as many different kinds of teachings as there are preachers and individual congregations. (Nearly) every one of us here has had experiences in churches that do not match your narrow definitions, comfortable as they may be to you. Sadly, those definitions simply do not stretch to cover even a significant minority of the vast and varied sea that is Christianity in America, let alone a majority, let alone ALL of “True” Christianity.

    I had this same argument years ago trying to convince some fellow forumites that not all Christian churches emphasized hell. They don’t. Some don’t even really teach it at all.

  • pascalecake

    I thinky you make a good point. But I don’t think the alternative to religious rehabilitation is making the case for atheism (no one would suggest that!). I think the point here is that they’d be better served by a non-religious ethics class that demonstrates WHY crimes are detrimental to society, back it up with evidence and real-world facts, rather than “because, bible”.

    I expect there would still be rationalization for their behaviour (something we all do), but it’s much harder to do when working from a non-supernatural perspective where you alone bear the consequences of your actions. No talk of so-called “repentance” through admission to God, but repentance through living right and doing right by humanity.

  • KeithCollyer

    … and then cry and cry

  • m6wg4bxw

    I agree that aligning people with reality is the best approach. I certainly didn’t intend to suggest spreading atheism as an alternative to prison ministry. But clearly there are what we might call allowances in both theistic and atheistic worldviews for antisocial, criminal, and similar behavior that is free of certain negative consequences.

  • Rusty Gunn

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster told me to jump in here and announce that I am a Pastafarian. Would someone please pass the Jesus biscuits?

  • pascalecake

    Agreed – I recognize now that your comment was more a thought experiment than a suggestion, apologies!

  • newavocation

    It’s unfortunate that the author failed to mention that religion in the past could discount the atrocities they committed and reason that it must have been OK with their God since he didn’t stop them.

  • Tor

    Some good old-fashioned job-skills training might be helpful….

  • Tor

    Many years ago my mother had a conversation with her pastor regarding an ill person’s getting better. “God heard our prayers,” my mother said. The pastor responded, “The medicine didn’t hurt, either.”

  • Octoberfurst

    As someone who worked in the prison system for 25 yrs I have to say that inmates use religion as a way of making themselves look like they have been rehabilitated. I can’t tell you how many times I had an inmate say to me, “I’m a changed man! I’ve found the Lord!” But if you watch how they act they are no different from when they came in. They lie, they steal from one another, they fight a the drop of a hat. But yet many of them say they “love Jesus”. I have also seen numerous inmates go to Parole hearing with a huge Bible tucked under their arms—as if that will impress the Parole Board.
    Believe it or not sex offenders are the most religious inmates. They sing in the prison chapel choir, carry their Bibles around everywhere and say “Praise the Lord” a lot. It’s almost nauseating. And of course they are all innocent of their crimes but they have “forgiven” their accusers.
    Now I am not saying that all inmates are faking it. I have met some I felt were sincere and truly changed because of religion. But the vast majority of them are just posers. At least that is my take on it.

  • NickDB

    With the amount of Christians saying that someone else is not a true Christian I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing. You all call yourselves Christians yet none of you can explain what it takes to be one.

  • Rich Wilson

    I’m sure I’ve been in more churches than you on Sunday morning

    I’d advise care against assumptions of religious ignorance on this blog. Dunno about named, but many of us have extensive religious backgrounds.
    Mine is limited to independent study and reading to try to figure out what my family got out of it, but Hemant got started in the ‘atheist business’ by visiting 15 different major churches and writing a book about it.

    More than a few of the regulars are ex pastors, or children of pastors, or former deeply religious. At least one has an advance divinity degree. I know, none of them were “True Christians”…

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    I used to work at a big box computer store, a woman (in a business suit, with a blond bob cut and driving a Lexus) came in one day and started shoplifting, we followed her around and got her on the camera tape, we stopped her just before she left the store took her into the stop-loss office and called the cops, the whole time in the office she was praying out loud and carrying on how she was “A Good Christian” and good christians like her don’t steal, when the cops got there, of course she was innocent and couldn’t recall how all the iPod accessories somehow made it into her purse.
    It’s my honest belief that American Christianity is a form of social subterfuge, that by exclaiming that they are christians we are supposed to be compelled to automatically excuse them from their wrong doing. I’ve met hundreds of christians like this and now I don’t trust the lot of them. Of course it’s proven science that when sociopaths are asked to be self critical they say, “my life is great and can’t get any better.” where as normal people generally say, “My life is pretty good and could be better.” So a christian sociopath would probably say, “My life is great now that I have found Jesus and it can’t get any better.”

  • Rich Wilson

    Peter Bohhossian does essentially that.

    Peter’s primary research areas are critical thinking and moral reasoning. His doctoral research studies, funded by the State of Oregon and supported by the Oregon Department of Corrections, consisted of using the Socratic method to help prison inmates to increase their critical thinking and moral reasoning abilities and to increase their desistance to criminal behavior.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Like a blind man walking into a mine field

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Yea, now those are just “better” criminals.

  • wmdkitty

    …no, really?!

  • Rev. Red Mage

    That actually makes sense, though. For the longest time, the word “Christian” has been (egregiously) synonymous with “moral”, “good”, and “righteous”. These posers you talk about are clearly capitalizing on that simply to make themselves feel justified about anything they do, hence the subject of this article.

    It just seems to me the entire reason inmates become religious is that if they can’t find forgiveness from the people they wronged, they don’t have to worry because they’ll find forgiveness from a god who so easily gives it out if you put your hands in the air.

    …and wave them like you just don’t care.

  • Nick Schoeneberger

    Just FYI from a guy who considers himself to be an Evangelical Christian: a right understanding of doctrine would not lead a person to the conclusion being described. The sad thing is that solid doctrine is the exception, not the rule, in American Christendom especially. A correct understanding of the nature of conversion would show that the bible teaches that we are sinners by nature and by choice and that apart from being regenerated and given a new heart with a desire to love and please God, our desires will always be from self-gratification rather than a desire to be obedient and serving God. When those desires change (seen as the fruit of the spirit), sin becomes more and more distasteful to the true convert who will struggle against it instead of embracing it until perfected after the resurrection of the dead to eternal life at the return of Christ. Misrepresentations and misinterpretations of these themes abound and result in all kinds of aberrant ideas about the nature of sin and the responsibility of the believer to obedience in response to the freedom gained by being saved from eternal judgment. And false conversions abound. Becoming a Christian is not mere intellectual assent to a few key ideas. Apart from regeneration (being born again) by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are prone to the errors of legalism (religiosity) or licentiousness.The Licentiousness is what this article is addressing, but both are equally wrong and fly in the face of the true Gospel. So, yes – if you see someone claiming easy grace with a deathbed conversion, it is highly suspect. I don’t believe in fire insurance, but I believe God saves those whom He wills and they will show the fruit of the spirit. Jesus speaks quite a bit about separating the wheat from the tares.

  • PhiloKGB

    Where, exactly, does Hemant say, imply, or insinuate that belief “leads to criminal conduct”?

  • PhiloKGB

    In other words, we know they had a true conversion because they end up behaving like we think they should.

    Do you not see a problem with that?

  • Steve Frank

    It doesn’t matter if the people on this board believe that Que is a Christian or not. The one that matters to Que is the parole board.

  • xblever

    I suppose it’s entirely possible that, what with all the translations and transcription errors over the years, the original commitment did actually say, “Thou shalt not steal… unless thou ain’t have no choice.”

  • Nelson Chung

    That’s a really small sample size for social research.

  • Thilina

    Everyone, religious or otherwise will selectively use the knowledge available to them to justify their actions. It takes far more work to question your own actions than to justify it. How religion is being used here is irrelevant, it could be any one of an infinite number of excuses used to justify their actions. But i agree that we need to stop assuming that a religious person is automatically a good person.

  • Sandy Kokch

    For examples in politics of the “Divine Get Out Of Jail Free Card” look no further than the US GOP. Newt Gingritch is a BIIIIIIIIIG fan of the absolution washing away his sins. Mark Sandford is currently waving his Ted Haggard patent DGOOJF card all over the media.


  • N

    In the same vein, Jesus does not help people get sober. “I got clean for Jesus” is generally followed with, “Jesus forgives me of getting drunk while on parole for drunk driving.”

  • rumitoid

    I have worked with criminals for about ten years. Most have “criminal minds”: an inability to take responsibility for their actions and low impulse control. Ask them why they are in prison and the answers are usually a slow getaway car, someone snitched, or the DA had it out for them. I feel it is irresponsible to work with this form of insanity without understanding its character, and that extends not just to the preachers but to the prison system as well. Ah, but religious freedom would make the decision to correct this abuse very difficult. We all know that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. What works best with the “criminal mind” is a spirit of action rather than a system of belief, for all offered worldviews are subjugated to their defense mechanisms.