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Thursday, August 4, 2011

More God, Less Crime

More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More"Imagine," social scientist Byron Johson begins in his recent article "The Religious Antidote" (First Things, August/September 2011, pp. 23-24), "that a systematic review of the sociology literature found that, in 247 of 273 relevant studies, increasing religiosity was connected with increasing crime or delinquency. It is hard to imagine that findings like this would go unnoticed... Commissions would no doubt be established, Congress might convene hearings, and there would be a general scramble to determine how and why religion causes crime. Perhaps significant new funding would be made available in order to investigate why faith is linked to increasing criminal activity and delinquency and what might be done to compat the deleterious impact on religion."

Johnson's thought experiment is, of course, just that. In fact, in a recent review of 273 studies on religion and crime published between 1944 and 2010, he found just the opposite ("More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More"): 90% of the studies (243) found that increased religiosity is connected with significant decreases in crime and delinquency, while 9% (24 studies) found no relation between religion and crime, and only 1% (2 studies) found that religiosity is connected with increased crime and delinquency. Why does religion exert such a powerful effect? Johnson identifies at least four reasons:
  1. Youth raised in congregations benefit from multiple social support networks. Faith communities can provide positive peers as well as adult role models who help them act more responsibly.
  2. Many youth raised in churches internalize their faith communities' teachings and beliefs.
  3. Consistent church attendance provides a venue for youth to be nurtured in their faith, and spiritual development may be the factor that helps youth, especially those from disadvantaged communities, to be resilient in the midst of the crime and poverty that is prevalent in many communities.
  4. Religion not only protects youth from crime and delinquency, but it also promotes pro-social behavior. Religiously committed youth are more likely to earn better grades and make better decisions, such as staying in school.
According to Johnson, however, the positive effects of religion in reducing crime are seldom, if ever, mentioned in criminal-justice and criminology text books. One can only wonder why.

If you want to learn more, you can pick up Johnson's book, or you can listen to a "Research on Religion" podcast on the topic ("Byron Johnson on More God, Less Crime").  Research on Religion is a weekly podcast sponsored by Baylor University and hosted by University of Washington Political Scientist Anthony Gill.

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