CRIME AND CHRISTIANITY
(Investigator 168, 2016 May)
In Investigator #167 Mr
Straughen suggests that church attendance and
belief in the Bible causes crime. Not all crime, just more crime on
average than non-believers commit.
He begins by arguing that crime in Australia measured nationwide has
decreased in the past century.
Then he cites data to show that religious belief and church attendance
have also decreased:
In 1911 there were 10,000 people (0.4%) who chose the option 'No
religion' on their Census form; in 2011 there were just under 4.8
million (22% of Australians).
Between 1950 to 2007 frequent church attendance [i.e. people who attend
at least monthly] has declined from 44% to 17%.
Psychologists have made discoveries from which it ought to follow that
Christians are outstandingly law-abiding.
Firstly, Cognitive Dissonance theory states that people tend to match
their behaviour to their beliefs. Inconsistency between belief and
behavior produces a tension that psychologists call "cognitive
dissonance". To dispel the unpleasant feeling people will alter either
what they believe or how they act.
Psychologist Kendra Cherry explains:
Festinger proposed a theory of cognitive dissonance
centered on how people try to reach internal consistency. He suggested
that people have an inner need to ensure that their beliefs and
behaviors are consistent. Inconsistent or conflicting beliefs leads to
disharmony, which people strive to avoid.
In his book A Theory of
Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger explained,
"Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which
leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger
leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction…"
cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort
experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory
beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is
contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or is
confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs,
ideas, or values. Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance
focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency.
Since people strive for internal consistency including consistency of
belief with conduct, the beliefs and values of different groups of
people should indicate which groups commit less crime.
The New Testament teaches honesty, truthfulness, generosity, courage,
virtue, morality, charity, hospitality, self control, care for others,
fairness, compassion, sobriety, tolerance, peace, conformity to secular
laws, and much more and sums it all up with "Love does no wrong to a
Believers in the New Testament should therefore by Cognitive Dissonance
theory be outstandingly law-abiding. Indeed, millions of ministries by
ordinary Christians for the good of others confirm that the Bible's
positive influence is effective.
The second discovery is that being observed or merely believing one is
being observed reduces bad behaviour.
Baraniuk (2013) writes: "If we are being watched, we are a lot less
likely to transgress social norms, cheat, litter or steal."
The Journal of Experimental Child
Psychology reports an investigation
in which 67 children played a game the rules of which were so tough
that success required cheating. Each child played either in the
presence of an adult, or alone, or in the presence of "Princess Alice"
an invisible person who, the researchers assured the child, would be
watching. Prior to the game each child was asked whether he believed in
Princess Alice. Of 11 believers only one child cheated. Of seven
disbelievers five cheated.
The Bible teaches that everyone is under ultimate surveillance: "And
before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare
to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account." (Hebrews
Bible believers, therefore, feel restraints against doing evil and
encouragements to do good that unbelievers lack.
Since psychological discovery suggests that Straughen's argument for
disproportional crime by Christians is mistaken, where did he go wrong?
One error is that he argues mainly in terms of "religion", "religious
belief" and "religiosity". This allows him to combine Bible believers
with all sorts of riff-raff. To illustrate, consider ancient times when
idol worship was the norm. If an ancient researcher did research in
terms of "religiosity" instead of distinguishing "idol worshippers" and
"almighty-God worshippers", he would have wrongly lumped Christians
with idol worshippers. Straughen likewise failed to define his
categories or groups with sufficient detail.
His second error is that correlation is not causation.
Runyon and Haber (1967) explain:
... when two variables
are related it is possible to predict one from
your knowledge of the other. The relationship between correlation and
prediction often leads to a serious error in reasoning, i.e. the
relationship between two variables carries with it the implication that
one has caused the other... What is often overlooked is the fact that
the variables may not be causally connected in any way, but that they
may vary together by virtue of a common link with a third variable....
However, there are many occasions, particularly in the behavioral
sciences, when it is not so easy to identify the third factor.
I'll illustrate the point with some examples:
Nankervis (2016) reports: "Tougher licence restrictions for new drivers
have helped more than halve the number of teenage motorists killed and
injured on the state's roads."
Nankervis says that fewer teenagers are killed or injured because the
government introduced new laws that keep teenage drivers out of
high-risk situations. If we did not know about the new laws, but we
knew that religion is declining, we might blame "religiosity" for
having caused more traffic accidents.
If church-attendance promotes crime and church-attendance has declined
then the crime of retail theft should have shrunk. Instead it has
Ever since the 17th
Century commercial revolution, which had a dramatic
impact on urban retailing, people have been aware of the susceptibility
of retailers to shoplifting. Its incidence appears to have skyrocketed
since the 1950s, accompanying the movement from service to self-service
stores necessitated by rapidly rising labour costs (Durston 1996).
Although the increase in shop theft may be explained largely by the
increased opportunities, it has perhaps been exacerbated by the growth
of consumerism and “shopping" as pastime...
In the United Kingdom
“known shoplifting incidents" were found to total
an average of 4,164,000 incidents with a loss of £656 million per
year over the five-year period 1992-97... (Nelson & Perrone
Straughen claims atheism is increasing. Therefore by "correlation" we
might blame increased retail theft on thieving atheists! However, the
preceding quotation, suggests that increased self-service created
increased opportunity. Three variables — retail theft, atheists, and
self-service — increased together but did not necessarily cause each
Another problem is that Straughen did not calculate the extent of the
correlation. Mathematicians have formulae to calculate the degree of
correlation between two variables where zero means no correlation, and
+1 means 100% positive correlation. Suppose we compare the weights of
ten people with their bank accounts and using the mathematical test
known as "Pearson r" calculate a correlation of 0.9. This would be a
significant result, but although significant it would not prove that
weight-gain causes increased savings or vice-versa. Straughen, however,
did not give us even this much.
What's behind the change in some crime statistics in Australia at the
same time church attendance went down? I offer some suggestions:
The networks of charity and social work conducted by many churches have
been copied and largely superseded in people's lives by government
services. The result is that many who attended church for the material
benefits and counted themselves as "Christians" in censuses,
progressively stayed away. My parents were of that sort, they got help
from churches (in their case they did not even attend church) but on
census forms professed church membership.
Furthermore, the Bible's teaching on tolerance (see #167) includes
being non-judgmental, giving people the benefit of the doubt, being
"ready to forgive", and treating people as innocent until guilt is
proved. Such tolerance makes it easy for imitation Christians to mingle
with genuine ones, which Jesus foretold would happen — "let both of
them grow together..." (Matthew 13:30). The many people who were
"hangers on" with little knowledge of the Bible would not have been
much concerned about ethics or be especially law-abiding, hence giving
an elevated "Christian" crime rate. Had churches gone against what
Jesus said and excluded people on suspicion, critics would shout
"Intolerance!" The choice is between welcoming many and be "tarred with
the same brush" or exclude and be called "intolerant".
As people progressively left the churches, the following factors, I
suggest, coincidentally reduced some crime statistics:
1. Technology and increased free trade have made
almost everything cheap. A pensioner today who avoids illegal drugs,
gambling, smoking and drunkenness can afford to purchase almost
everything the rich of fifty years ago could afford — and a lot more
that previous generations never thought of. Possessing almost
everything money can buy probably inhibits crime because criminal
conduct won't gain much more yet risks losing everything by
2. Beginning with finger-printing in the 1890s crime
investigation became progressively more sophisticated. Reports of
perpetrators who were uncovered with new technology decades after they
committed their crime have multiplied. Lately society has installed
cameras everywhere. A person who covers his face, and wears plastic
suits to avoid shedding DNA, might still be recognized by his "gait"
for which data bases have already been started. It may be that many
potential criminals are inhibited by increased risk of detection.
3. People are now more likely than before to report
certain crimes such as child abuse and domestic violence; and some
"crimes" have been decriminalized and are no longer counted as crimes.
Both changes affect the overall statistics.
Mr Straughen suggests education would reduce crime and he lists factors
such as alcohol, immaturity of youth, poverty, and parental neglect
which education and community support can combat.
Here he agrees with the Bible which advocated education in ethics and
right conduct for both children and adults thousands of years ago! From
Moses' time onwards parents taught their children the Law of Moses.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7, 25) After Solomon's time, instruction at home and
in synagogues included the Book of Proverbs, and after Jesus the New
Testament. (Ephesians 6:4)
The proverbs, if obeyed, give "length of days and years of life and
abundant welfare". (3:1-2) In particular, Proverbs includes information
on alcohol, youth, poverty and parenting such as to reduce crime.
Baraniuk, C. End of anonymity, New
Scientist, 26 October, 2013, 34-37
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
Nankervis, D. Changes Preserving lives, Sunday Mail, February 28, 2016,
Nelson, D. & Perrone, S. Understanding
and Controlling Retail
Theft, Australian Institute of Criminology No. 152, 2000
Runyon, R.P. & Haber, A. 1977 Fundamentals
Statistics, Third Edition, Addison-Wesley, p. 160
Crime & Christianity - A Clarification
(Investigator 169, 2016 July)
In his comments on my article Religious Belief and Moral Behaviour - A
Reply (No. 167, pg 40), anonymous says "Mr Straughen suggests that
church attendance and belief in the Bible causes crime." (pg 46)
This is a misapprehension of the aim of my article.
The article's primary aim was to examine if a decline in religious
belief was associated with or has led to an increase in crime,
particularly violent crime, and I tried to make this clear when I asked
the following rhetorical question on page 42: "Violence exists and the
level fluctuates, but is a decline in religious belief responsible for
periods when violence increases?"
And in my conclusion I stated that "there does not appear to be any
conclusive evidence that fluctuations in the level of violence in
Australia are linked to the degree of religiosity of our society" (pg
My research led me to the conclusion that there is no causal link
between the prevalence of religious belief and the level of crime, and
I thought I made this clear in my concluding remarks as shown above.
A section of my article on page 44 was titled "Religious Belief and
Criminality" which shows how criminals can misuse religion to justify
their crimes, and I can only assume Anonymous misunderstood the intent
of the comments contained therein.
My intention was to show that a person's religious beliefs were
distinct from their ethical behaviour, not to show or imply that church
attendance and belief in the Bible causes crime as Anonymous suggests.
Again, I made this clear when I said on page 45: "The evidence
presented so far indicates that the presence or absence of religious
belief is not a factor in criminality or violence."
Anonymous' criticism of my article appears to be largely based on his
misapprehension that I was attempting to establish a causal link
between religion and crime when in fact this was not at all the case.
In hindsight perhaps I should have stated this in
greater detail at the outset.
Christianity and Crime - Clarification
(Investigator 170, 2016 September)
In #168 I represented Mr Straughen's argument in #167 as follows:
In Investigator #167 Mr Straughen
suggests that church attendance and
belief in the Bible causes crime. Not all crime, just more crime on
average than non-believers commit.
Straughen in #169, p.10 says this "is a misapprehension" of his aim.
The misapprehension was easy to make.
Under his subheading "The Prevalence of Historical Violence" in #167
Straughen argues: "If there was a causal link between high levels of
religious belief and low levels of violence we would expect to see
centuries of high religious belief and church attendance having lower
rates of violence than today."
He then shows that the opposite to "what we would expect" has occurred
in Australia. He cites statistics that show religious attendance has
declined or remained static but crime and violence have decreased. Of
other societies he says:
Societies of the past
with their higher level of religiosity and church
attendance should have been societies where violence was lower than it
is today. History, however, shows that was not the case.
He adds that: "Most criminals have religious beliefs..."
I apologize to Mr Straughen for not seeing his real intention which was
to show that:
... a person's
religious beliefs are distinct from their ethical
behaviour. Being religious or non-religious is not a predictor of
criminality... the presence or absence of religion is not a
factor in criminality and violence ... the causes of crime are not
attributable to a single factor such as religiosity.
However, my refutation in #168 is not wasted since the same points also
refute Straughen's clarified case in which he implies:
Church attendance and belief in the Bible make no
difference to crime rates;
2. People's religious beliefs are
distinct from their
To come up with such conclusions Straughen combined all religions, and
all religious beliefs into one big mix as if there is nothing to
distinguish them. An ISIS murderer who murders in the name of his
religion has definitely not kept his "religious beliefs ... distinct
from his ethical behaviour" but has combined them. Similarly, a
Bible believer who heals the blind because Jesus set the example has
also not kept his "religious beliefs ... distinct from his ethical
behaviour" but has combined them.
If we collect statistics under the label "religion" that combine the
actions of murderers with the actions of healers, the conclusion will
misrepresent and defame the latter.
Beliefs, whether they are religious, secular, or biblical make a
difference to behaviour because people tend to act in agreement with
their beliefs. This is self evident, and confirmed by "Cognitive
Dissonance" theory as explained in #168.
Christianity and Crime — A Final Reply
Investigator 171, 2016 November)
I have read Anonymous' response to my previous article (No. 170, pg 38)
and must respectfully disagree with him.
If I have understood him correctly he appears to be suggesting that
going to church can reduce crime because of cognitive dissonance —
people will act in accordance with the teachings of Christianity
because to do otherwise will result in mental discomfort such as
feelings of guilt or sin which in turn will
cause them to do the right thing to reduce this discomfort.
The problem is that people often overcome cognitive dissonance not by
changing their behaviour for the better, but by a variety of
psychological defence mechanisms. For example:
Minimize or Avoid
A person may adopt a "who cares" attitude and avoid examining the
inconsistency, or divert their attention to something else.
A person can simply make excuses or justifications for the
Rather than avoiding the inconsistency or justifying it a person can
just consciously accept that it exists, and deal with the feelings that
it generates. (1)
Anonymous also argues that people act in accordance with their beliefs.
This is clearly not always the case, and this is probably because we
are not purely rational beings. For example, Christianity teaches that
infidelity is wrong, and yet when the data is examined we find the
As many as 65 percent
of men and 55 percent of women will have an
extramarital affair by the time they are 40, according to the Journal
of Psychology and Christianity. A Christianity Today survey
23 percent of the 300 pastors who responded admitted to sexually
inappropriate behaviour with someone other than their wives while in
In Dave Carder's and Duncan Jaenicke's book, Torn Asunder: Recovering
from Extramarital Affairs (Moody), Carder notes that adultery
divorce rates in the evangelical population are nearly the same as the
general population in the United States. Being a Christian does not
lessen our chances of having an affair. (2)
Although these Christians know that infidelity is wrong it doesn't stop
them from being unfaithful — they cope with or manage to avoid
cognitive dissonance and do what they want to do despite the church's
teachings, possibly through a process of tautological rationalisation,
which can be defined as follows:
Rationalisers are not hypocrites because their beliefs and
perceptions of reality conform to support their own desires and
imperfections. They cannot be hypocrites because their beliefs and
perceptions of reality are rationalizations for their actions and are
without objectivity. When a state of hypocrisy arises, tautological
rationalisers conform their beliefs around their actions to eliminate
contradiction, rather than conforming their actions around their
Anonymous claims his criticisms are still valid because I have not
distinguished between religious beliefs, and compares the actions of
murderous religious fanatics with healers in an attempt to illustrate
his point. Again, I must respectfully disagree with him.
Here, he seems to be implying that we can separate out true Christians
from pseudo-Christians (to use his terminology) and would no doubt
categorise those Christians who commit adultery as being in the latter
The definition of a Christian in very broad terms is one who professed
belief in Jesus — that he is the Son of God, that he was crucified for
the sins of humanity and rose from the dead, and that all who believe
in him shall be saved.
Can we really say that all those adulterous Christians denied the above
tenants and were therefore in some way not Christians? Belief and
action can be quite different things. Apart from the psychological
defence mechanisms against cognitive dissonance that I have already
mentioned there is also compartmentalisation — a state of mind that
enables conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit
acknowledgement of the fact:
a lesser form of dissociation, wherein parts of
oneself are separated from awareness of other parts and behaving as if
one had separate sets of values. An example might be an honest person
who cheats on their income tax return and keeps their two value systems
distinct and un-integrated while remaining unconscious of the cognitive
In Letters (No 170, pg 4) Anonymous wonders if the statistics I quoted
which show the overall trends in the incidences of crime are reducing
are in fact misleading. Anonymous can wonder all he likes, and I
respect his right to do so, but something far more substantial than
anecdotes is required to disprove the data.
Finally, if people engage in socially acceptable behaviour then I think
it is more likely because they have been socialised properly and lack
sociopathic tendencies. On the other hand if people want to do the
wrong thing they will find a way of justifying their actions, either
consciously or unconsciously.
(1) Resolving Cognitive Dissonance
(2) Why Affairs Happen
(4) 15 Common Defence Mechanisms
Christianity and Crime
(Investigator 172, 2017 January)
Mr Straughen misunderstands me to have argued:
...going to church can
reduce crime because of cognitive dissonance —
people will act in accordance with ... Christianity because to do
otherwise will result in mental discomfort such as feelings of guilt or
sin which will cause them to do the right thing to reduce this
discomfort. (#171, p. 35)
I've actually never met a Christian who reasoned, "I must do what is
right so as to reduce my cognitive dissonance."
The proper motivation for living a godly life is, as the Bible says,
the "love of God":
For the love of God is
this, that we obey his commandments. And his
commandments are not burdensome... (I John 5:3)
...clothe yourselves with the new self, created
according to the
likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:24)
Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children,
and live in love
as Christ loved us and gave himself for us... (Ephesians 5:1)
The feelings and motivations are positive, not negative or destructive.
From such motivation it follows that a Christian's behaviour should
closely match the ethical requirements taught in the New Testament.
Straughen, however, believes in science, or so he claims. For that
reason I cited "Cognitive Dissonance theory" as the scientific reason
to conclude Christians have a lower crime rate than non-Christians.
According to Cognitive Dissonance people strive for internal
consistency and this includes trying to match their behaviour to their
beliefs. If they don't they'll suffer an unpleasant tension or stress
which will move them to alter either what they believe or how they act.
The New Testament teaches many principles that are incompatible with
criminal conduct such as honesty, truthfulness, "good Samaritanism",
charity, obedience to lawful authorities, sexual morality, being
examples of good conduct, and many more. Individuals who take these
seriously would not add to the crime statistics.
Cognitive Dissonance theory does not predict 100% agreement of conduct
with belief since, as Straughen points out, people often adopt
"psychological defense mechanisms" to cope with the dissonance. The
opposite is true too — psychological defense mechanisms do not compel
people to act contrary to their beliefs all the time but can be
recognized for what they are and sidelined.
In Investigator #63 I
provided a biblical list of how people deceive
themselves, and some methods in the list are similar to the
"psychological defense mechanisms". The Bible tells people: "But be
doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."
So, why do official crime statistics sometimes show little difference
between Christians and non-Christians?
Christianity has a welcoming attitude besides being helpful, charitable
and generous. Prior to the rise of welfare states this attracted many
for the benefits they could get and resulted in many who call
themselves "Christian" without being serious about it.
Sometimes congregations and whole denominations go bad:
"It is actually
reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and
of a kind that is not found even among pagans..." (I Corinthians 5:1)
"For certain intruders have stolen in among you ... who
grace of God into licentiousness..." (Jude 4)
"For people will be ... holding to the outward form of
denying its power." (II Timothy 3:1-7)
In addition modern societies have incorporated many biblical principles
into modern law, resulting in overall conduct that is more benign and
biblical than a few centuries ago.
We thus have two converging trends that together obscure the statistics.