In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion and Crime

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Intellectual Backgrounds and Early Research
  • Methodological Issues
  • Emerging Research and Future Directions

Criminology Religion and Crime
Sung Joon Jang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0177


Scholarly discussion and empirical study of the religion-crime relationship goes back to the beginning of criminological thought, though at times such discussion and study has been limited in content and crude in approach. Nonetheless, religion has rarely been incorporated into major theories of crime and criminological research. However, scientific studies of the influence of religion on crime and drug use have been increasingly conducted, particularly since the publication of Hirschi and Stark’s landmark study “Hellfire and Delinquency” (Hirschi and Stark 1969, cited under the “Hellfire” Study and Controversy), which reported no relationship between adolescent religiosity and delinquency. This rather unexpected finding drew two opposite reactions in the form of empirical research. One line of research suggested that Hirschi and Stark failed to find a significant religiosity-delinquency relationship because they analyzed the type of delinquency and data that was less likely to have a significant relationship detected. The other offered a theory explaining how the null finding confirms the spuriousness (i.e., nonexistence) of the religiosity-delinquency relationship and an empirical test of the theory. However, according to reviews of existing research—whether based on a method of traditional literature review, systematic review, or meta-analysis—a majority of studies tend to confirm significant negative associations between religion and crime and drug use. The negative associations have been found in research conducted at both micro and macro levels. To explain the micro-level relationship, researchers have mostly applied control theories or learning and socialization theories (or both), though other theoretical perspectives have been employed as well, such as general strain theory, a social capital perspective, and developmental/life-course perspectives. In testing these theories, researchers have examined bidirectional or reciprocal relationships between religion and crime rather than assuming that the religion-crime relationship is unidirectional. Macro-level research on religion and crime, on the other hand, has been conducted to test Stark’s “moral communities” thesis and other contextual effects of religion. In addition, some researchers have raised and addressed methodological issues in research on religion and crime, such as selection bias and appropriate statistical and modeling approaches to properly estimate the religion-crime relationship. Although negative associations between religion and crime tend to have been empirically established by previous studies, the “criminology of religion” as a subfield is still in its infancy.

General Overviews

While critical reviews of literatures on religion and crime (e.g., Knudten and Knudten 1971, cited under Intellectual Backgrounds and Early Research) are published on a regular basis, two more advanced forms of literature review have been conducted since the dawn of the new millennium: systematic review and meta-analysis. Johnson, et al. 2000 was the first published systematic review of research on religiosity and crime, based on forty articles published in journals between 1985 and 1997. Chitwood, et al. 2008 extends the same method to review a total of 105 journal articles on religion and drug use published between 1997 and 2006. While not a systematic review, Dew, et al. 2008, a review of 115 studies on religion and “adolescent psychiatric symptoms” (a majority of which were drug use or delinquency), published in journals between 1969 and 2005, makes a good parallel reading of the systematic reviews Johnson, et al. 2000 and Chitwood, et al. 2008. More recently, Johnson and Jang 2010 presents what is perhaps the largest scale of systematic review ever, based on 270 studies on relationships between religion and crime and drug use. Baier and Wright 2001, a meta-analysis of sixty studies published between 1962 and 1998, provides an alternative look at the overall relationship between religion and crime based on quantitative analysis (see also Kelly, et al. 2015). On the other hand, while not intended to be comprehensive literature reviews, Koenig, et al. 2001; Regnerus 2006; and Stark and Bainbridge 1996 offer critical reviews of research on religion and crime from the perspectives of medical researchers and sociologists of religion.

  • Baier, Colin J., and Bradley R. E. Wright. 2001. “If you love me, keep my commandments”: A meta-analysis of the effect of religion on crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 38.1: 3–21.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427801038001001

    Authors analyzed seventy-nine relationships between religiosity and crime (67 percent delinquency), reported by sixty studies produced between 1962 and 1998. They summarize the relationships in terms of their direction and size, and look at the sources of their differences across the studies. Suitable for graduates; but if the analytical details are ignored, also suitable for undergraduates.

  • Chitwood, Dale D., Michael L. Weiss, and Carl G. Leukefeld. 2008. A systematic review of recent literature on religiosity and substance use. Journal of Drug Issues 38.3: 653–688.

    DOI: 10.1177/002204260803800302

    Applies the same method used in Johnson, et al. 2000, a review of research on the religiosity-delinquency (partly drug use) relationship, to further examine the relationship, focusing exclusively on drug use, based on 105 articles published in journals between 1997 and 2006; suitable for both undergraduate and graduates.

  • Dew, Rachel Elizabeth, Stephanie S. Daniel, Tonya D. Armstrong, David B. Goldston, Mary Frances Triplett, and Harold G. Koenig. 2008. Religion/spirituality and adolescent psychiatric symptoms: A review. Child Psychiatry & Human Development 39.4: 381–398.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10578-007-0093-2

    A review of 115 journal articles on religion and “adolescent psychiatric symptoms” published between 1969 and 2005, including ninety-six studies on substance use (sixty-one) and delinquency (thirty-five). Parallels Johnson, et al. 2000 and Chitwood, et al. 2008 in terms of publication years. Suitable for undergraduates and graduates.

  • Johnson, Byron R., Spencer De Li, David B. Larson, and Michael McCullough. 2000. A systematic review of the religiosity and delinquency literature: A research note. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 16.1: 32–52.

    DOI: 10.1177/1043986200016001003

    A first “systematic review” of studies on religiosity and delinquency, examining forty journal articles published between 1985 and 1997 that focus exclusively on juvenile delinquency, unlike Baier and Wright 2001 and Johnson and Jang 2010, which review studies on adult crime as well; suitable for undergraduates and graduates.

  • Johnson, Byron R., and Sung Joon Jang. 2010. Crime and religion: Assessing the role of the faith factor. In Contemporary issues in criminological theory and research: The role of social institutions; Papers from the American Society for Criminology 2010 Conference. Edited by Richard Rosenfeld, Kenna Quinet, and Crystal Garcia, 117–149. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Not only offers a systematic review of 270 studies on the religiosity-crime (66 percent religiosity-delinquency) relationship, published between 1944 and 2010, but also provides a brief history of religion within criminology, discusses issues in research on religion and crime, and suggests directions for criminology of religion. Suitable for undergraduates and graduates.

  • Kelly, P. Elizabeth, Joshua R. Polanin, Sung Joon Jang, and Byron R. Johnson. 2015. Religion, delinquency, and drug use: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice Review 40.4: 505–523.

    DOI: 10.1177/0734016815605151

    Analyzes sixty-two studies, published between 1967 and 2014, examining the consistency of religion-crime relationship across two measures of religious involvement (religious salience and service attendance) and three types of delinquent behaviors (alcohol use, drug use, and nondrug delinquency) among adolescents. Suitable for graduates; but if the analytical details are ignored, also suitable for undergraduates.

  • Koenig, Harold G., Michael E. McCullough, and David B. Larson. 2001. Handbook of religion and health. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195118667.001.0001

    Includes one chapter that provides a brief overview of research findings about relationships between different measures of religiosity (i.e., denomination, church attendance, and religious salience) and different types of delinquency, and discusses a potential inclusion of religion into delinquency prevention/intervention programs; suitable for both undergraduate and graduates.

  • Regnerus, Mark D. 2006. Adolescent delinquency. In Handbook of religion and social institutions. Edited by Helen Rose Ebaugh, 265–283. New York: Springer.

    A sociologist of religion reviews criminological theories and the scientific research of religious influence on delinquency and adolescent drug use, including a small number of studies based on non-American data, and discusses policy implications of research findings and directions for future research; suitable for undergraduates and graduates.

  • Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1996. Religion, deviance, and social control. New York: Routledge.

    Provides a critical, sociological discussion not only of religion as context and source of social control via integration and its negative association with deviance but also “religion as deviance” (i.e., religious cults) and a “cause of mental illness,” offering topics for promising research; suitable for undergraduate and graduates.

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