Tristan Bronca

Faith an excuse for crime?

By  Tristan Bronca, Youth Speak News
  • April 12, 2013

In early March, the online magazine Slate posted a study on its crime blog about “religious” criminals. The study, originally published in an academic journal called Theoretical Criminology, found that religion might actually encourage crime. The sample consisted of 48 “hardcore” offenders from Atlanta. All of them identified themselves with the Christian faith.

It would be nice to dismiss this study on the basis of the sampl e size (which is woefully small) or chalk the results up to other factors that contribute to crime (political, economic, social, etc.), but it isn’t that easy.

Sadly, larger studies have also come to similar conclusions. An infograph from a blog entitled Total Criminal Defense compiled several studies and polls to demonstrate a disturbing correlation between the most religious American states and the highest rates of violent crime. While it is important to note religiousness did not necessarily cause this high rate of violent crime, the parallel is rather unsettling.

None of these findings are conclusive so I won’t make any effort to deny them outright. I don’t think religion itself is the problem, but I cannot confidently say the same about the use of religion. In these cases, the scientific method cannot account for the subtle difference between the thing (religion) and the use of that thing.

So, even if a study could affirm a causal link between religion and violence, common sense would suggest that we are not talking about religion proper, but a perverse use of it.

This is why I take issue with the closing comment from Slate’s blog that “we must insist on data when discussing whether religion helps rehabilitate criminals.” Scientific findings and data are extremely important, but the process of rehabilitation is multifaceted. It extends beyond the boundaries of observation into moral spheres of philosophy and spirituality. For this reason, any new policy would require these additional approaches once lawmakers got their hands on enough data.

This is not an argument against further study and observation. But it is an argument against the increasingly common stance (also evident in Canada after the federal funding cut to prison chaplains) that religion no longer deserves its prominent role in criminal rehabilitation. Some might argue that the issues raised by these studies would become less complicated — disappear, even — if religion were taken out of the equation. I believe this course forces us into ominous territory. Rather than upending the role of religion, I would suggest a more subtle shift, one in practice rather than policy.

When one 18-year-old told the study authors he believed in the “commitments” (read: commandments), it pointed to a false sense of religiosity brought on by poor understanding. This is not religion. It is an excuse, an imaginary bridge over an unbridgeable gap between true religion and violent crime. To remove religion entirely is not an answer to this problem — people will continue to use it as an excuse. The only way to eliminate the excuse is through proper discussion, to make it clear that violent crime is inexcusable.

(Bronca, 21, is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa.)

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