How criminals use religion to excuse their acts

It has been well established that there is little correlation with being moral and law abiding and being religious. (Via reader Norm, I learned of an interesting post by Hemant Mehta on some recent data on the self-reports of religious affiliations of the prison population.) But how can religious people, who believe that there is a god who not only knows everything that they do but can actually read their minds and is able to mete out horrendous punishments for evildoers, commit really awful crimes? Why isn’t the wrath of god or hell a deterrent?

Of course, no one is perfect because the flesh is weak, etc. So some wrong doing by everyone can be taken as a given. To avoid the unpleasant consequence that everyone without exception would end up in hell because they are all sinners, religions have developed a theology of forgiveness and redemption that gives people hope that they are not irredeemably lost. Christianity, with its bizarre doctrine of Jesus dying for everyone’s sins, provides perhaps the most explicit and convoluted theological explanation of how works but all religions must have, out of necessity, some mechanism for enabling people to escape divine judgment.

But there is a downside to creating these escape mechanisms in that they can be used to rationalize criminal activity. Reader WH sent along an interesting article that is based on a paper titled With God on my side: The paradoxical relationship between religious belief and criminality among hardcore street offenders by Volkan Topalli, Timothy Brezina and Mindy Bernhardt of Georgia State University, USA

The authors of the study find that rather than religion being a nagging conscience that might discourage wrongdoing by making people feel guilty, some hardened criminals saw it as a way to get rid of guilt feelings and thus commit even more crimes. Here’s the abstract of their paper.

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.

The verbatim interviews in the paper make for interesting reading. Here is Cool, a drug dealer.

“The way it work is this. You go out and do some bad and then you ask for forgiveness and Jesus have to give it to you, and you know wipe the slate clean. So, I always do a quick little prayer right before and then I’m cool with Jesus. Also another thing is this; 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.”

The catch with asking for forgiveness after the crime is that you might get killed during it, and these criminals are well aware of that risk. So here’s Miami, a robber, thoughtfully coming up with way to get a kind of pre-emptive forgiveness just in case that happens.

“I think [God] is forgiving ’cause you know, what I learned from going to church, you know, sometimes is that like the guys that was on the cross with Jesus, both of ’em did wrong, and that at the last minute one of them ask God to forgive him … and I figured as long as I be able to ask for forgiveness before I die I’m going to Heaven, but if somebody shoot me and I don’t get no chance to pray, you know, I’m going to Hell. So, I came up with this great idea, that hey, I ask God in advance if I don’t get a chance to pray, to forgive me you know for what I’ve done and then I feel like God know in my heart that I don’t like what I’m doing but that’s the only thing I know to do.”

So though Jesus said “Go and sin no more” to the woman he forgave, these criminals seem to hear him saying “Go ahead and sin some more.”

I suspect that the Wall Street bankers who enriched themselves while destroying the lives of millions of people by their swindles rationalize their actions in pretty much the same way and are sure they are going to heaven too.


  1. sailor1031 says

    Mafia dons, RCC child rapists, ethnic cleansers, politicians, corporate executives – the list may be endless.

  2. left0ver1under says

    I’ve been quoting that study for a couple of months now. It makes for great ammunition to throw in the face of theists who claim to “need god to be good”.

    The results, however, are utterly unsurprising. Rationalization is what Stephen Weinberg was getting at in his famous quote from 1999, why you need religion to get good people to do bad things. Those who might think twice about committing a crimes because of consequences stop thinking and do the crime anyway.

  3. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    “Je suius une autocrate: c’est mon metier; Dieu me pardonnnera: c’est son metier.”

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Too bad we don’t have enough priests & CEOs behind bars to provide the researchers with statistically significant samples.

    Won’t someone please think of the sociologists?!?

  5. sigurd jorsalfar says

    I don’t see any of these people in the cited study using religion to excuse their acts. They are merely explaining why fear of divine punishment doesn’t deter them from criminal acts that they decide to commit for other, non-religious reasons. The Christian God is a sucker to these people.

  6. Chiroptera says

    Heh. On another internet forum, whenever the topic turned to whether religion was necessary to lead an moral and ethical life, there was one person there who would always point out that atheists were ethical; in fact, they had to be, since unlike Christians they didn’t have an excuse to act unethically.

  7. says

    I’ve always taken it to mean that, really, everyone is as atheist as I am, and knows what a load of bullshit religion is. Because if anyone actually believed in a god or any of that nonsense, they’d sit on their hands on the couch and never go outside unless it was to do good works. I mean, who’d crawl out from under the bed and risk divine wrath?

  8. says

    The catch with asking for forgiveness after the crime is that you might get killed during it

    I’d be praying to jesus the whole time I was cooking the baby.

  9. Stacy says

    Through purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance

    Sounds to me like they understand their religion pretty well.

  10. Matt G says

    Indeed, isn’t it more noble to do good without the expectation of reward than to do it with that expectation? My father talks about the importance of being good for nothing.

  11. Matt G says

    The Rolling Stones talk about this phenomenon with the mafia in their song Jigsaw Puzzle. He’s got a Luger in his hand, but goes home to his children and is a “family man”.

  12. MNb says

    Nah, in my eyes the reward for doing good is different – the appreciation of other people.

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