The paradoxical relationship between religious belief and criminality

With God on my side: The paradoxical relationship between religious belief and criminality among hardcore street offenders

From Theoretical Criminology

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. In this study 48 active street offenders were interviewed to determine their expectation of an early demise, belief in the afterlife, and notions of redemption and punishment. Findings suggest that religious belief and criminality co-exist. Offenders in this study overwhelmingly professed a belief in God and identified themselves with a particular religion, but also regularly engaged in serious criminality. Even more interesting however, the data further suggest a possible criminogenic role for religious belief among the sample of hardcore street offenders; these offenders actively referenced religious doctrine to justify past offenses and to excuse the continuation of serious criminal conduct. The authors have argued, religious belief deters crime for most people, but facilitates criminal conduct for certain subgroups. They find that offenders have a propensity to co-opt religious doctrine to permit and even encourage their criminal activity, thereby preserving their identity as criminals and maintaining their ability to pursue illicit action.

 

Abstract

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.

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Article details
Topalli, V., Brezina, T., & Bernhardt, M. (2012). With God on my side: The paradoxical relationship between religious belief and criminality among hardcore street offenders Theoretical Criminology, 17 (1), 49-69 DOI: 10.1177/1362480612463114

     
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