Many studies have shown the benefits that faith and religion can have in one’s everyday life. But a recent report published in the academic journal Theoretical Criminology has come to some less-than-favorable conclusions about how some hardcore criminals may be exploiting faith to justify their crimes.
Last month, The Vancouver Sun reported that the study, led by Volkan Topalli, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University, found that through “purposeful distortion of genuine ignorance” select criminals use theological views to either justify of even further their crimes.
Topalli believes that the implications of the research could be profound, especially considering the plethora of faith-based services and missionary groups that do outreach in America’s prison systems. If substantiated, the findings could change the way that these communications are conducted.
“People have to understand that presenting religious doctrine to people isn’t enough to change their behavior,” the researcher said. “[Faith-based services] have to be systematic and about behaviour change — religion has to be a vehicle, rather than the goal.”
Through the article, entitled, “With God on My Side: The Paradoxical Relationship Between Religious Belief and Criminality Among Hardcore Street Offenders,” Topalli and his team delved deeply into the subject matter, exploring how hardcore criminals react to religions doctrine. Here’s how the abstract describes the study at hand:
Research has found that many street offenders anticipate an early death, making them less prone to delay gratification, more likely to discount the future costs of crime, and thus more likely to offend. Ironically, many such offenders also hold strong religious convictions, including those related to the punitive afterlife consequences of offending. To reconcile these findings, we interviewed 48 active street offenders to determine their expectation of an early demise, belief in the afterlife, and notions of redemption and punishment. Despite the deterrent effects of religion that have been highlighted in prior research, our results indicate that religion may have a counterintuitive criminogenic effect in certain contexts. Through purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance, the hardcore offenders we interviewed are able to exploit the absolvitory tenets of religious doctrine, neutralizing their fear of death to not only allow but encourage offending. This suggests a number of intriguing consequences for deterrence theory and policy.
As indicated in the above text, the research team interviewed 48 people who were involved in serious crimes ranging from drug dealing to burglary. According to the Sun, many of the criminals the team spoke with seemed to lack an understanding of the Christian faith — the system that the majority of them subscribed to.
For instance, one man seemed to justify murder, using faith and religion to do so. When faced with the notion that killing could lead to hell after death, he said, “No, no, no, I don’t think that is right. Anything can be forgiven. We live in Hell now and you can do anything in Hell. … God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him.”
The Sun also reports that other criminals in the study selectively chose the doctrines they wanted to abide by, while others manipulated Christian principles. For example, another individual said that he always prays before committing a crime to ensure that he stays in good with Jesus. Additionally, he stated his belief that, if he asks Christ for forgiveness, it must be granted.
The study’s main contention is that criminals often try to rectify their illegal activity with their faith. As far as addressing this issue goes, Topalli believes that missionaries should work to rectify some of these misconceptions. Simply relying upon a salvation message and the Bible isn’t necessarily going to prevent these distortions, but addressing them head-on would be helpful.
Read the full report over at the Sun. As Slate notes, there are some cautionary takeaways before making widespread determinations about the results. A sample size of 48 is extremely small and may not, in any real way, yield results that are indicative of criminal behavior at large.
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