How will these resources help you?

Ever since Durkheim, sociologists have described religion as enabling social consciousness, which in turn is a conduit for collective morality and conscience. Modern commentators have become more interested in the extent to which religion can help with crime and recidivism prevention. In a secular school setting, I find that my older pupils often come to the classroom with preconceptions from other subjects about religion being a means of social control and reinforcing the patriarchy. They are often fascinated by the idea that it can also have a positive collective and individual function in an ordered social space. I use these texts when studying justice and morality with higher students in Scotland, but they would be equally applicable at GCSE or A-level.

Religion as creating a moral society

Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society

by Emile Durkheim, edited by Robert N. Bellah, published by University of Chicago Press, (1975), 9780226173368

This is a foundational text on this topic (especially the final essay on ‘Elementary forms of religious life’) and parts of it will be familiar to students studying sociology. While elements of this text are challenging for younger readers, I would encourage focused students who are planning to pursue social sciences at university to attempt at least passages from it. Durkheim’s thought develops through this collection and it is possible to watch the importance of religion grow in his eyes. Although the primary focus is the boundary between individual and collective thought, religion is both created by the community and creates the community. For Durkheim, the importance of religion in living a moral life as part of that community cannot be overestimated.

Different religions and cultures

Religion, Faith and Crime: Theories, Identities and Issues

by Kim Sadique and Perry Stanislas, published by Palgrave Macmillan, (2016), 9781137456199

This collection of essays includes an international, multi-faith perspective of the connection between religion and crime, focusing on religion as giving people shared values and the ways it can both cause and prevent crime. Essays in this collection include considerations of 'hellfire' preaching as a means of crime prevention, the link between mental health, faith and criminal deviance, essays on the changing nature of criminalisation in post-colonial contexts in Uganda and Nigeria, and even the connection between witchcraft and dehumanising criminal practices in Tanzania. I encourage my higher students to dip into these essays as further reading for their coursework assignments on criminal justice and to broaden their perspectives. 

Is religion helpful to everyone, or just the ‘in-crowd’?

Religion, Crime and Punishment: An Evolutionary Perspective

by Russil Durrant and Zoe Poppelwell, published by Palgrave Macmillan, (2017), 9783319644288

This academic monograph provides a balanced discussion of religion’s pro-social and more problematic aspects and argues that the impact of religion should be given more academic attention by criminologists. After an extensive literature review investigating the evolutionary origins of religion and crime, their section on religion as leading to pro-social behaviour is particularly relevant here. They explore studies linking religion to volunteerism, civic engagement and altruistic behaviour, and conflicting ideas about whether its influence is positive only on ‘in-group’ members or society as a whole. While some of Durrant and Poppelwell’s concepts are complex, my pupils enjoy the critical discussion that they provoke. 

Being transformed

More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More

by Byron R. Johnson, published by Templeton Foundation Press, (2012), 9781599473949

American Christian criminologist Byron Johnson unashamedly argues that religion can both prevent offences and rehabilitate offenders. Focusing especially on programmes for people from vulnerable subcultures such as ‘buddy’ systems, he argues that church communities and Christian values provide the ideal context for enabling young people to make better decisions in life, whether instead of or after becoming involved in the criminal justice system. He backs up his arguments with numerous case studies and data, and my students find some of his pro-religion statements particularly quotable. While he does acknowledge that other religions and community groups also have a positive social influence, he focuses on the idea of a ‘transformative’ Christian faith and conversion experience as enabling an individual to turn their life around. 

Audiovisual clip

Faith Behind Bars

published by BBC One, (2015)

An investigation into the role of religion in prison, the act of forgiveness granted by religion, and the efficacy of religion in preventing future crime.

Further materials

What Works in Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation by David Weisburd, David P. Farrington and Charlotte Gill, published by Springer, (2016), 9781493934775 Find this eBook
Scottish Violence Reduction Unit Visit this website
Understanding Justice: An introduction to ideas, perspectives and controversies in modern penal theory by Barbara Hudson, published by Open University Press, (2003), 9780335225811 Find this eBook
Susan Woodshore is a teacher in Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Ecclesiastical History and enjoys creating new educational resources across religion, ethics and philosophy.

Text © Susan Woodshore, 2023.