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Religion and Crime - Theoretical Perspectives

suicide institutions social theory

All three of the "grand master" theorists in sociology—Marx, Weber, and Durkheim—predicted that religion would have significant effects on human behavior in general and on conformity and deviance in particular (Jensen and Rojek). Marx's famous dictum that religion is the "opium of the masses" meant that he regarded religious beliefs in a hereafter as a suppressor of discontent and revolt among the proletariat. The property of capitalists is protected, according to Marxists, by diverting the attention of the working class to the hereafter rather than to their exploitation on earth (Liska and Messner, 1999).

Weber argued that there are more subtle effects of religion and religious doctrine on human behavior and institutions. The Protestant ethic, most importantly perhaps, served to legitimate social changes that preceded the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Besides innovations in banking practices, which allowed for the necessary accumulation of capital for investment, the Protestant ethic encouraged individuals to engage in a lifestyle of hard work, sobriety, and saving.

Durkheim's classic monograph on suicide, however, probably details most clearly the normative and integrative role of religious institutions. Egoistic suicide would be prevented, Durkheim argued, when individuals participated in social institutions and rituals such as those sponsored by religion. Durkheim's theory of social integration might be simplified or reduced to the basic idea that we are moral beings to the extent we are social beings. The more that individuals become involved in community life, particularly though the family and religious institutions, the less likely that they will become self-centered and inclined to commit criminal or deviant acts.

Most of the traditional or causal criminological theories have yielded predictions that religion should deter crime. The three traditional, causal criminological theories—control, strain, and subcultural theories—may be derived from Durkheim's classic typology of suicide. Control theory, for example, has many parallels in Durkheim's concept of "egoistic" suicide, wherein individuals lacking social ties (to family and religion, for example) are predicted to be more self-centered and prone to commit suicide than individuals who have strong social ties. A more recent version of control theory, the "self-control" theory, predicts that crime is likely to result from poor socialization by institutions such as the family that fail to control impulsivity and inclinations to risk-taking. Individuals who lack self-control also are characterized by poor cognitive skills, inability or unwillingness to plan for the future, and a lack of compassion for others.

"Anomic" suicide referred to suicide caused by disruptions in the normative order (or "anomie") that are exemplified by extreme changes in the business cycle (Liska and Messner). Suicide rates were predicted to rise during both times of economic depression and economic expansion or growth.

Subcultural criminological theory parallels Durkheim's concept of "altruistic" suicide, in that both conformity and deviance are conceived of as adherence to the particular norms and values of various subgroups. Thus, the disgraced military officer may feel obligated to commit suicide, just as a gang member may feel compelled to join in acts of theft and violence with fellow gang members. Conventional social groups such as the family and the church, in contrast, can promote obedience to the law by advocating conventional norms and values.

Although strain theorists have not emphasized the role of religious institutions in promoting conformity, the logic of the theory is compatible with predictions that religion should inhibit crime and delinquency. Merton argued that cultures which became so focused on economic goals and values to the exclusion of non-economic institutions and values (e.g., linked to child rearing and the family) were more likely to have higher crime rates (Liska and Messner). Religious institutions that might foster greater emphasis on the acceptable or legitimate means to become financially successful should help reduce crime. So-called malintegrated cultures that legitimate an ethical standard of the "ends justify the means" have long been predicted by strain theorists to have high rates of crime.

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Religion and Crime - Theoretical Perspectives