Imagine 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; more likely they would appear on the front page of many major newspapers. 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 combat the deleterious impact of religion.
We should not expect any similar clamor to greet the recent release of findings that suggest the exact opposite: that today in America faith has an important and overwhelmingly positive influence on rates of crime and delinquency. Many scholars have long insisted that the research on religion and crime is inconclusive, but a number of important studies over the last two decades, along with several systematic reviews of these studies, have made it clear that this is not so. From relatively minor offenses (stealing, cheating, drinking, and vandalism, for example) to more serious acts of crime and deviance (like drug use and dealing, robbery, and acts of violence), the research literature confirms that religiosity is a significant and consistent antidote to delinquent and criminal behavior.
One of the first studies that shed light on the relationship between religion and crime was conducted in 1986 by Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University. Freeman focused on housing projects and impoverished communities in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia in order to identify factors that helped young people become “resilient youth”—kids who stay out of trouble despite living in bad neighborhoods. For, while delinquency and crime tend to be most heavily concentrated in poverty-stricken areas—what social scientists like to call “socially disorganized communities”—the majority of poor urban youth do not turn to crime and deviance. What, then, makes the difference? At least one of the answers, Freeman’s study suggested, was faith.
More than a decade later, several colleagues and I replicated Freeman’s study and found strong empirical support for his conclusions. Our results indicated that the frequency of attending religious services significantly lowered the likelihood that young black males living in poverty would use or sell illegal drugs or otherwise break the law.
For youth who attended church more than once a week, the probability of committing a non-drug crime was reduced by 39 percent when compared to youth who did not attend church. Similarly, when at-risk youth who frequently attended church were compared to otherwise comparable youth who did not attend church, the probability of drug use decreased by 46 percent. Finally, the probability of youth selling drugs was reduced by 57 percent when regular churchgoers were compared to non-attendees. In short, active participation in a church appears to play a critical protective role in fostering social control as well as in making youth resilient to the negative influences of living in economically impoverished environments. Indeed, even youth from single-parent households, who are often at particular risk, seemed to benefit from frequent church attendance.
Reviews of studies of religion and crime have confirmed the consistent and mounting evidence suggesting that increasing religious commitment helps individuals avoid crime and delinquency. In a systematic review of forty studies focusing on the relationship between religion and delinquency published in 2000, I found that in most cases increasing religiosity is significantly related to decreasing delinquency. In a review of sixty studies published the next year, sociologists Colin Baier and Bradley Wright found that studies using larger and more representative data sets are more likely to find significant inverse effects (i.e., increasing religiosity and decreasing delinquency) than will studies that utilize smaller, regional, or convenient samples (e.g., samples taken from college students at a local college, or residents from a particular city not representative of the country at large).
Recently I completed the most exhaustive systematic review conducted to date of the relevant research literature on religion and crime, analyzing 273 studies published between 1944 and 2010 in a variety of disciplines. Ninety percent of the studies (247 of 273) report an inverse or beneficial relationship between religion and some measure of crime or delinquency. Only 9 percent (24) found no association or reported mixed findings, whereas only two studies reported that religion was associated with a harmful outcome.
Why is religion so meaningful in crime reduction? First, youth raised in congregations benefit from multiple social-support networks. Houses of worship can provide positive peers as well as adult role models who help them act more responsibly. Mentoring matters, and religious communities are resource-rich in providing mentors. In this way churches can be a powerful source of what social scientists call social control.
Second, many youth raised in churches will internalize their faith communities’ teachings and beliefs. Third, consistent church attendance has a cumulative effect on youth, which may well be a proxy for spiritual growth. Houses of worship can provide a strategic venue for one to be nurtured in his or her faith, and this spiritual development may be the factor that helps youth, and especially youth from disadvantaged communities, to be resilient amid the crime and poverty that is so prevalent in so many environments. Finally, religion not only protects youth from crime and delinquency but also promotes pro-social behavior. Religiously committed youth are more likely to earn better grades and to make good decisions, like staying in school.
But what about more difficult populations, like prisoners? Can religion play a role in rehabilitating offenders? The preliminary evidence suggests it can. This is particularly relevant in light of the 700,000 prisoners leaving prison each year.
Talk of faith-based programs has faded from the news, but most American communities have a wide range of faith-based programs offering a variety of services—mentoring at-risk youth, treating drug addictions, pursuing restorative justice, spiritually transforming prisoners—all of which, the research proves, contribute to the reduction of crime. Because faith-based interventions tend be staffed by volunteers, they represent an approach that may be extremely cost-effective.
But despite the clear evidence for the effects of religion in reducing crime, criminal-justice and criminology textbooks exclude references to this research and the effective faith-based approaches to social problems. In an age of evidence-based government policies and unprecedented economic struggles, researchers and policy makers need to recognize that religion protects youth from delinquency and crime—not just to help with the budget, but to save the lives and futures of young people.
Byron Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and author of More God, Less Crime (Templeton Press).