Street offenders often exploit religion to justify -- even encourage -- criminal activity, a university study shows.
Titled “With God on my side: The paradoxical relationship between religious belief and criminality among hardcore street offenders,” the Georgia State University study shows that while many inmates have established religious ideals from childhood, those beliefs are often incomplete and selective in order to accommodate and promote the criminal lifestyle they live. Tweet study: Tweet
“Offenders in our study overwhelmingly professed a belief in God and identified themselves with a particular religion, but they also regularly engaged in serious crimes,” said Volkan Topalli, an associate professor in Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “Our data suggest that religious belief may even produce or tend to produce crime or criminality among our sample of hardcore street offenders who actively reference religious doctrine to justify past and future offenses.”
Topalli and associate professor Timothy Brezin, along with Graduate student Mindy Bernhardt, conducted interviews with forty-eight African-American hardcore offenders in the Atlanta, GA area. Hardcore offenders are identified as criminals who have committed one of four crimes including carjacking, burglary, robbery, or drug dealing.
Their research showed that the sense of imminent death, due to the nature of the criminal’s lifestyle coupled with a fear of what the afterlife may bring, creates a strange relationship with faith that often leads the person to use religious doctrine to excuse or encourage their criminal behavior.
More importantly, these street offenders seek and lean on the notion of a “forgiving God” as justification for their actions.
“Religion is a very pervasive thing,” Topalli said. "People are not just afraid of dying, but afraid of where they will go. It’s something they think of quite a bit.”
The offenders interviewed were well aware of the threat of death as a result of their criminal activity, which forces them to rationalize their lifestyle with their belief system. “Detroit,” a 47-year-old male car thief and robber, said :
Well, you know, what I think about a lot is, I shoulda’ been dead a long time ago. God has kept me around for a certain reason you know, I worry about it because I can’t say that I’m not afraid to die, you know, ’cause I am. Either I’m gonna die to the streets, die to the drugs, or somebody gonna kill me, you know. One of these.
Topalli noted that the inherent forgiving nature of religion, the “soft-side” of Judeo-Christian beliefs for example, creates justifications for committing crime. In many ways, this goes against the goal of rehabilitating and reforming a street offender. Tweet it: Tweet
The spiritual pardon that street offenders seek from their Creator further promotes a sense of victimhood -- both real and perceived -- that they assume. If sins can be forgiven, Topalli says, then there are no repercussions to behavior.
The study also found that street offenders deal with the complexity of faith and religious doctrine in a way similar to what mainstream populations do in regards to handling the conflicts and contradictions of biblical scripture. Like many Americans, these criminals were raised within religious institutions and among families that professed and promoted faith.
Yet, as adults, they skew prevailing mainstream religious doctrine, often misinterpreting scripture or lacking a complete understanding of biblical text. One young offender, for example, knew about the commandments -- which he referred to as “commitments" -- but could not concretely list them.
He also made references to Christmas, heaven and hell, and Jesus fighting the Devil. He made some connections with various Christian traditions, but these connections were, at times, inaccurate.
However, Topalli dismisses the notion that having a complete understanding of doctrine correlates with better behavior. Because the Bible is a complicated text with contradictory passages and overarching themes, these offenders are merely inferring an understanding of the Bible that is as subjective as another person’s perspective on scripture.
“They’re treating religion like a buffet picking out what works for them,” he said.
Topalli cited the recent presidential election, and the fact that while both vice-presidential candidates, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, are Catholic, they each hold vastly different views about policies that they believe fall in line with their religion.
Ultimately, the researchers believe that if policy regarding recidivism and reforming street offenders is to be improved, it must reflect an awareness of the culture and lifestyle of criminals and shape programs that do not merely regurgitate cookie-cutter religious principles. These programs should, instead, delve further into the psyche of the person to connect faith with tangible strategies that will affirmatively transform behavior.
“The pull of the street is incredibly strong. They have a stark reality of everyday life that hits them…they live in a very competitive, dog-eat-dog world,” said Topalli. “It can’t just be religious doctrine as in you learn these verses and you’ll do better. Use religion as a vehicle, as well as knowledge and services to change people’s behavior.”