In 1996, noted criminologist Jewel asked a question that has long haunted those hoodlums prone to pondering the existential consequences of their actions: “Who will save your souls after those lies that you told, boy?” For generations of American crooks, the answer has been “religious do-gooders.” As a 2006 Federal Bureau of Prisons report put it, “faith groups have become involved in offering formal programs within prison to bring about not only the spiritual salvation of the inmates but their rehabilitation in the profane world as well.” The idea is that spiritual rebirth may help tame the criminal impulse, and set wild hearts on the straight and narrow.
Maybe not. A new study in the academic journal Theoretical Criminology suggests that, far from causing offenders to repent of their sins, religious instruction might actually encourage crime. The authors surveyed 48 “hardcore street offenders” in and around Atlanta, in hopes of determining what effect, if any, religion has on their behavior. While the vast majority of those surveyed (45 out of 48 people) claimed to be religious, the authors found that the interviewees “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.”
In the end, the authors found, “there is reason to believe that these rationalizations and justifications may play a criminogenic role in their decision making.”
I think this is one of those things that most of us probably realize deep down, but not something which gets much discussion simply because it is an uncomfortable reality of life.
One of the topics always up for discussion when I was in my "searching for meaning" phase during my twenties was "How could religion possibly have an influence on criminal behaviors if all you have to do as a Catholic is go to confession, or accept Jesus as your personal savior, to be absolved of all of your past sins?" To me it always seemed that you could do just about anything without fear of eternal damnation, so long as you were willing to kiss God's ass with your dying breath.
That is why I was never impressed with the argument that religion is necessary to provide a moral framework for human beings. I actually thought quite the opposite and believed the "Get out of Hell Free" card encouraged anti-social and criminal behaviors by making these individuals feel they answered to a higher authority than our human laws, and it was an authority who could essentially be bribed at the last minute to forgo any punishment.
However those of us who are directed by internal, rather than external, controls make our choices based, not out of fear of punishment, but from a feeling of connection to those around us and a fundamental sense of right and wrong.
Which might help to explain why non-believers make up only 1% of the prison population in this country.