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September 20, 2016

Religion and Crime

Reuel S. Amdur

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Religion has a role to play in dealing with crime. That was the message at a presentation by Crime Prevention Ottawa on June 15. Dave Atkins of Redemption Grace Prison Ministries of Ottawa, which serves young men, and Dr. Zijad Delic, imam at the South Nepean Muslim Community were presenters.

From his Christian perspective, Atkins spoke of the need to send “the message of hope, love, mercy, and forgiveness.”  The message is not just for those who offend but also for religious congregations.  They need to welcome offenders back.  In working with the men, Atkins’ organization uses volunteers, who show the men they serve that unconditional love makes the difference.  This love focuses God’s love, which serves to “heal their hearts and begin to change their attitudes and behavior.” 

Atkins also talked about causes.  Many of the men his organization serves were abused as children.  “That is something society does not want to talk about.”  Yet, while such things may serve to explain, we always need to be clear that they are not an excuse.  Also, many of the men have had drug problems.  They use four to six times a day, and they use their criminal activities sustain the habit.

From his perspective, just locking up offenders is not enough.  We need “to address the underlying issues,” and their religion plays a role.

Because many of these men grew up in homes without a male role model, he sees the need to link these young men he works with a good role model. Otherwise the failure threatens to repeat itself when these men become fathers. 

Should we just lock criminals up?  He thinks not.  “Repeated incarceration does not work.”  The current approach, he argues, overloads the whole system.  He complained about the lessening of the importance of the chaplaincy in the federal prisons.

Imam Delic told those in attendance that religion has a huge role to play, because of what it means in “how we think, feel, and behave.”  He relies on social science sources on the role that faith can play in rehabilitation.  Expanding on a familiar aphorism, he said, “It takes a whole city to save a child.”  That city involves the family, the youth themselves, education, social agencies, and religious institutions. 

Citing the academic Ryan Johnson, he asserted, “When youth are exposed to faith and religious initiatives, they are given the tools to stay out of crime.”  He also said that religion can be part of the healing process in rehabilitation.

The work of these men and the organizations in which they work have a pro-social influence on those they serve.  However, the role of religion is more ambiguous, depending on how religion is implicated.  Delic addressed the matter tangentially with an example.

He attended a session for Muslim youth where the speaker told the group that they should not become citizens because Canada is not a Muslim nation.  He was using religion to alienate youth from the wider community and toward a lack of common concern.  Delic objected, citing texts to show a need to take civic responsibility and arguing that in fact Canada is in practice more Muslim than many Muslim countries. 

The point is that religion can be used in ways that promote alienation and lack of common concern.  Mississippi is a state with a high degree of religiosity.  Yet, the murder rate is very high.  The Catholic religious observance by the Mafiosi, especially at funerals, is clear.  Fanatic rabbis in Israel justify and advocate discrimination against and abuse of Palestinians.  Beside the Islamic State’s Islamic justification for their depredations, we also have Abu Sayyaf’s combining Islam with the practice of kidnapping, extortion, and murder.

Religion can play either a positive or a negative role in combating criminality.  It is up to conscientious believers to take control of the reins of influence in their communities to promote a positive role for faith, not a negative and exclusive one.

Some years ago the social psychologist Milton Rokeach studied tolerance in a church congregation in London, Ontario.  He found that in fact there were two very different tendencies.  One was highly tolerant and other highly intolerant.  A general averaging did not tell the story.  Similarly, the role of religion in crime will not lead to a single clear conclusion.  Religion can be positive in promoting pro-social behavior.  But it can also be part of a criminal culture or an excuse for criminal behavior. 

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