Cherie Booth was in the news this week for giving a suspended prison sentence to a man who broke another guy’s jaw in an assault, apparently on the grounds that he was religious. Here’s the offending quote:
“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before,” she told him at Inner London Crown Court.
“You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”
Now, what a judge should say in these circumstances is that the defendant is a man of good character. By switching that for the term ‘religious’ she’s implying that the two are synonymous, and that, by implication, non-religious people are not.
So it was a verbal gaffe. But it got me thinking: perhaps she’s on to something. Is religion an indicator of good behaviour?
In other words, this seems like a classic case of the ‘U-shape’, where firm atheists and firm religious are unlikely to be offenders. The problem lies with the people in the middle.
So what about some proper social science then? Well, there’s a lot of it out there, but not a lot of it is very convincing.
There really isn’t anything to link religiosity in an individual to risk for crime. What there is tends to look at the population level, and try to figure out if areas with more religious people have fewer crimes (after adjusting for other factors).
Overall, religious attendance seems to be associated on a population level with less property crime. But the evidence is pretty mixed. What’s more the evidence is correlational, which leads to the question of causality.
In the only study to date that seems to have tackled this, Paul Heaton of the University of Chicago looked at US counties. He found that, sure enough, there was a small effect: more religious counties had fewer property crimes (although there was no difference in violent crimes).
So then he looked to see what the relationship was between crime today and religiosity back in 1916. What he found was that the counties with more crime today had seen a relatively larger drop in numbers of religious people.
What this suggests is that high crime rates actually cause a decrease in religiosity. Why this should be is an open question.
It doesn’t seem to be that pro-social people move away from areas of high criminality. When he looked only at counties where the population is relatively static, he found something similar.
He also looked at the effect of Easter, a point in the calendar when Church attendance goes up. There was no effect of this on crime rates, which supports the idea that suffusing the population with religious messages doesn’t help to reduce crime.
This is by no means the end of the story. But it does give a flavour of just how uncertain the social effects of religion still are.
And of course none of it supports Booth’s apparent belief that religious people deserve lighter sentences!
Heaton, P. (2006). Does Religion Really Reduce Crime?* The Journal of Law and Economics, 49 (1), 147-172 DOI: 10.1086/501087