Hellfire Does Not Deter Crime – Prisoner Survey on Religion (2021)

Victorian prison chapel
Victorial-era prison chapel

Foundation surveys prisoners
on religious beliefs

In spring and summer 2021, the Percy Foundation distributed questionnaires on religious beliefs and practice to the prisoners enrolled in its prison book program. A total of 526 questionnaires were returned to us. Our inquiry aimed to ascertain whether strong religious conviction either in childhood upbringing or in adulthood prior to incarceration acts as a deterrent or as risk factor in criminal propensity.    Although previous scholarship generally shows that the religiously observant are more law-abiding than those with no or weak religious commitment, few studies have examined this question with specific regard to those convicted for crimes of a sexual nature, which carry particularly strong moral stigma in many world religions. The well-publicized scandals involving sex crimes by members of Catholic religious orders, as well as less well-known reports of widespread sexual abuse within ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, Mennonite communities, and some evangelical churches raise the question whether conservative belief traditions with strong sexual taboos may create a form of perverse implantation in some individuals. A small number of studies have suggested that compulsive sexual behavior, patriarchal attitudes, and feelings of male inadequacy are more common among the highly religious.

Our data collection effort was unique in involving a larger sample of sex offenders (325), whose parameters can be compared with a non-sex offender control group of male prisoners (201), as well as readily available demographic data about religious practice and affiliation in the U.S. male population as a whole. Following best practices in this area of research, our survey instrument evaluated religious devotion through multiple measures: (1) religious activity, i.e. attendance of worship services, study of scripture, (2) religious belief, i.e. self-evaluated importance of religion in one’s life and theological beliefs, (3) prayer, and (4) belief tradition or denomination.
On the whole, our results found that sex offenders were slightly more religious than the criminal population as a whole, but less religious than men in the general U.S. population. However, the differences were less than one might assume: religious upbringing, belief, and practice were common among all criminal groups and did not appear to act as effective deterrents. The general picture that emerges from the data is that male criminals are not irreligious in belief, but are less disciplined and devoted in their religious practice.

Some saw their criminality as part of God’s plan, like the 25-year-old Cool: “If you doing some wrong to another bad person, like if I go to 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 to your house to get your ass.”

One area where criminals are notably stronger in religious belief than the general adult male population is that they are more likely to believe in Hell. According to the Pew Forum (2014), 56% of adult male Americans believe in Hell, whereas 73% of non-sex-offending criminals said they believed in Hell prior to their incarceration; at 59%, the figure for sex offenders was much closer to the norm. Moreover, criminals report having internalized that belief as children: 78% of non-sex criminals and 72% of sex offenders affirmed that as children, they believed in “Hell as a place of torment for unrepentant sinners.” It is striking that such a strong belief in eternal punishment did not deter these individuals from committing serious criminal acts; this in turn raises questions about the whole doctrine of rational deterrence upon which the carceral system has been erected. It is interesting to note that although they mostly believe in Hell, only 31% of non-sex criminals and 19% of sex criminals believe that they personally are “at serious risk of going to Hell.” This may be related to the finding that two-thirds of both groups believed in “a loving God who forgives most sinners, even if they sometimes do very bad things.” This more liberal Christian doctrine provides them an out. Other studies have suggested that many criminals are willing “to exploit the absolvitory tenets of religious doctrine” to justify continuing their criminal lifestyle without serious fear of negative consequences in the afterlife. They often see Hell as a place only for criminals worse than themselves; some even view themselves as God’s agent in punishing other bad people.

Another interesting result is that prisoners are less inclined to accept the theory of evolution than the general population. The Baylor Religion Survey Wave 2 (2007) involved a nationwide sample of 756 males, of whom 46.1% agreed with the theory of evolution (39.6% disagreed, 14.2% were unsure). In our survey, only 23% of the non-sex-offender group and 33% of the sex offender group supported evolutionary theory (vs. 50% and 44% respectively adopting a creationist view, the rest unsure). One might attribute this result to differences in educational level between incarcerated and non-incarcerated populations, but the prisoners enrolled in the Percy Foundation’s book program (which includes many books of an advanced academic nature) are more literate and better educated than most incarcerated persons, and probably approach or exceed the general population in these terms. How are we therefore to understand this result? It cannot necessarily be attributed to prisoners accepting scriptural authority to a greater degree than men generally: if anything, criminals are less likely to accept Scripture as the direct inspiration of God (49% of believing non-sex offenders, 39% of believing sex offenders, compared to 52% of adult males generally according to the Pew Forum) and more likely to view it as men’s interpretation of God’s word. What this simultaneous suspicion of both Scripture and scientific theory suggests is a greater distrust of all forms of social and intellectual authority.

One of this study’s goals was to determine whether certain types of religious faith traditions were more or less likely to generate criminality. For the most part, our sample corresponded closely with the overall distribution of religious affiliations in the U.S. population, except that fewer of our sample reported no family religious affiliation (12.2%) than do adults in the U.S. population overall (22.8% according to the Pew Forum survey). In other words, growing up with no nominal religion in the family does not seem to produce more criminality, but the opposite. There was little difference in denominational background between non-sex offenders and sex offenders, with two modest exceptions: sex offenders were more likely to grow up in Catholic families (23.1%) than non-sex criminals (14.4%), compared to 20.8% of the U.S. population overall. Among Protestants, sex offenders were slightly more likely to have grown up in major mainline denominations (Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Church of Christ) than non-sex criminals, but both types of criminals were most likely to have grown up in more dogmatic faith traditions (Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witness). Whether this difference is due to class-based or racial differences in the composition of the two groups remains to be explored. Another fruitful area for future study would be the extent to which theological traditions positing divine predestination and being “elect” from birth provide an excuse for the criminally inclined to believe they will not face eternal damnation regardless of their behavior.

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