Concept of the Month -- March 2014

Pray at Ten O'Clock, Rob at Noon

Many criminals emphasize how religious they are. They worship at a church, synagogue, or mosque. They read from the Bible or Koran and can quote entire passages. They observe religious holidays. Some have religious objects in their homes and wear religious symbols. In the long-term study that I participated in long ago at St. Elizabeths Hospital, some offenders aspired to the ministry and felt a special calling to become clergymen.

One might wonder how people who profess to be religious can commit horrific crimes. For the most part, criminals are concrete, not abstract, thinkers. This has nothing to do with their intelligence. If you ask a criminal what it means to be religious, he is likely to reply by citing specific practices or rituals; you go to church, light candles, wear a cross, follow a special diet, give to the needy, and so forth. A criminal may voice a vague idea such as being a good person or doing what a holy book says. But criminals have no concept of religion as offering a set of moral principles that provide a guide as to how to live and treat their fellow human beings.

I recall a sixteen year old early showing me a religious pamphlet as I interviewed him at the detention center. He boasted that he had read it cover to cover as well as several other religious tracts. Sheepishly, he confessed that he had swiped them from another boy who was searching frantically for them. Until I pointed it out, he saw no inconsistency between declaring himself to be religious and stealing the religious writings without the owner's consent.

Members of the Mafia claim to be "religious." They have shrines in their homes and donate generously to legitimate charities. But such practices do not prevent them from murdering their adversaries.

Some criminals discover religion while incarcerated. Considering themselves to have changed, they hold themselves up to others as role models and proselytize, all the while experiencing an enormous sense of power. Some draw others into their web and later exploit them. (This is to be distinguished from offenders who change in authentic fashion prompted by studying and embracing religious teachings, then implementing them in daily life.)

To a criminal there is no inconsistency between praying and committing crimes. The fact that he is religiously observant supports his view of himself as a good human being. There is no inner dissonance between worshipping and committing an armed robbery later that very day.

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