If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many ostensible Christians among the prison population, one answer is that Jesus Saves. If no one forgives you for the terrible things you’ve done, He will.
Even the most godless of criminals will often turn (quasi-)devout behind bars. It’s perfectly understandable. For starters, religion gives prisoners something to do. It also lets them become part of a righteous tribe. And no doubt, prayer and Bible study look good in the eyes of the warden and the parole board.
But most of all, religion can wash away evildoers’ guilt, if they feel any, and offer them a shot at salvation.
Christians think of redemption as a feature of their faith. But what if it’s a bug?
I ask because a new study in the academic journal Theoretical Criminology suggests that, instead of causing offenders to repent of their sins, religious programs might actually encourage crime. Slate reported on the interesting research the other day.
The authors of the study surveyed “hardcore street offenders” in and around Atlanta, and tried to gauge the effect that religion may have on the offenders’ behavior. Of the 48 subjects (admittedly a small sample), 45 claimed to be religious, and the researchers found that those followers
…seemed to go out of their way to reconcile their belief in God with their serious predatory offending. They frequently employed elaborate and creative rationalizations in the process and actively exploit religious doctrine to justify their crimes.
It should come as no surprise that street hoodlums who cloak themselves in religion don’t have much of a grasp of their professed faith’s basics. Take, for example, an 18-year-old robber whose nom de crime is Que:
Que: I believe in God and the Bible and stuff. I believe in Christmas, and uh, you know the commitments and what not.
Interviewer: You mean the Commandments?
Que: Yeah that. I believe in that.
Interviewer: Can you name any of them?
Que: Uhhh … well, I don’t know … like don’t steal, and uh, don’t cheat and shit like that. Uhmm … I can’t remember the rest.
This lack of knowledge is often a deliberate (if possibly subconscious) mental construct, a simple psychological crutch. Ignorance is bliss. As one enforcer for a drug gang asserted,
God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him.
He had committed several murders, and obviously felt better knowing that salvation was potentially just a few prayers away. In fact, he believed that he was due God’s forgiveness even without penance or prayer.
A 23-year-old robber called Young Stunna thought that the circumstances of his upbringing, coupled with an appeal to Jesus, would pretty much justify his crimes:
Jesus know I ain’t have no choice, you know? He know I got a decent heart. He know I’m stuck in the hood and just doing what I gotta do to survive.
Young Stunna was typical. The 45 religious interviewees tended to shape their interpretation of their faith to make their criminal behavior seem less odious, less condemnable. Slate quotes a 25-year-old drug dealer called Cool, who believes that God not only doesn’t mind when you do bad things to bad people; the Almighty actually dispatches avengers like Cool to do His bidding:
If you doing some wrong to another bad person, like if I go rob a dope dealer or a molester or something, then it don’t count against me because it’s like I’m giving punishment to them for Jesus. That’s God’s will. Oh you molested some kids? Well now I’m [God] sending Cool over your house to get your ass.
Maybe Cool is right. The Lord (we are always told) works in mysterious ways.
But seriously: Atheists may see the study as an endorsement of their view that believing in God doesn’t equip people with a superior set of morals — the notion that’s the exact point of this site. However, the stars don’t all line up in our favor.
If what I wrote in the first couple of paragraphs is correct, then convicted prisoners will disproportionately and post-factum slather themselves in religious sauce. That being the case, the number that many atheists gleefully love to cite — that less than one percent of the prison population consists of atheists — does become almost meaningless. After all, hoodlums who never gave a fig about religion probably have a tendency to “get right with God” once they’re locked up. They were perhaps — and may still be, appearances to the contrary — atheists, even if they never self-identified as such. That alone debunks the idea that there’s something more moral and law-abiding about atheists than about religionists. Fair’s fair.
There is reason to believe that these [criminals’ religion-based] rationalizations and justifications may play a criminogenic [crime-producing, TF] role in their decision-making.
Religion’s good intentions notwithstanding, that finding is another unpleasant reality that theists will have to come to terms with. The study doesn’t prove that, in Christopher Hitchens’ words, God is Not Great; but its conclusion does seem to support his maxim that “religion spoils everything.”
[image via memegenerator]