Can religion help reduce violent crime?
Two studies suggest the answer is yes, both by creating a moral climate that fosters respect among neighbors and by helping to form individual consciences of young adults.
Communities with high levels of active participation in congregations may be particularly effective in reducing assaults, rapes and murders in some poor areas that are most likely to suffer from violent crimes, the research indicates.
Just don’t expect young men and women who are among the growing numbers of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” to have the same moral inhibitions.
A Baylor University study of more than 15,000 people ages 18 to 28 found that while young adults who considered themselves religious were less likely than others to commit violent or property crimes, those who claimed to be spiritual but set apart from organized religion were more likely to engage in both types of criminal activity.
A separate study analyzing crime and religion data from 182 counties in three states found violent crime decreased as greater numbers of people were religiously active in a community. The effect was particularly pronounced in black violence in disadvantaged communities that are most likely to have the highest number of victims.
“In the big picture, religious presence seems to matter to the amount of violence and crime in a community,” says Jeffery Ulmer, a professor of sociology and crime, law and justice at Pennsylvania State University who led the county-level study. “It matters to blacks, whites and Latinos.”
Building social capital
Faith may be one of the most personal areas in the lives of individuals, but it can also collectively exert moral influence over a community, scholars say.
As a crime stopper, faith may be particularly effective in setting moral norms, building social ties and investing communities with a sense of meaning and purpose, counteracting the “moral cynicism” and individualism that can foster criminal behavior, researchers Ulmer and Casey Harris of the University of Arkansas note in the latest issue of The Sociological Quarterly.
Ulmer and Harris explored “Race and the Religious Contexts of Violence” in their study. They analyzed data from the U.S. Census, the Religious Congregations and Membership Study and crime reports from nearly 200 counties in New York California and Texas. All of the counties had substantial numbers of black, white and Latino residents.
What they found was not only evidence that religion may exert a protective influence discouraging violent crime, but that there are also racial-ethnic differences in the role of faith communities.
Consider these findings:
• Black and white violence decreased significantly as the percentage rose of county residents who belonged to congregations or were regular attenders.
• Black and Latino violence was lower in communities where residents belonged to similar types of religious institutions, indicating faith groups from similar traditions were able to exert greater influence on community values when they had a significant presence.
• Religious homogeneity was not associated with overall rates of white violence, but further breakdowns showed communities with larger percentages of evangelicals had lower rates of white violence. Latino violence was significantly reduced in communities with large numbers of active Catholics.
• Black violence dipped dramatically in counties with high levels of poverty, unemployment and low levels of education where large percentages of residents were active in congregations. This is a key finding, as communities with severe social and economic disadvantages are more likely to have high violent crime rates.
The findings suggest that religious groups have the ability to cultivate moral attitudes “that counteract the code of the streets,” Ulmer says.
Building moral codes
But what about the impact of faith on the individual level?
Baylor researchers Sung Joon Jang and Aaron Franzen analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to examine differences in crime rates among young adults in four categories:
• Religious and spiritual.
• Spiritual but not religious.
• Religious but not spiritual
• Neither religious nor spiritual.
Individuals who identified themselves as “religious” were less likely to be offenders.
However, individuals who were “spiritual but not religious” were more prone to commit violent crime than their “religious and spiritual” counterparts and more likely to commit property crime than emerging adults who were “religious” or “neither religious nor spiritual.”
“Is being ‘spiritual’ enough to reduce criminal propensity without also being religious? Our study suggests the answer is no – at least during emerging adulthood,” Jang and Franzen write in a recent issue of the journal Criminology.
What both studies also suggest is that the role of religion should be considered as communities address issues of violent crime.
Communities lose out when they marginalize or trivialize the potential pro-social influences of religion, Jang says.
“And one of the areas where society suffers is in crime,” he says.