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In Theory: Does going to church keep people honest?

January 24, 2014

A study has found that those who attend church regularly are less likely to commit minor crimes.

Researchers from Manchester University believe that spending time with like-minded people makes individuals less likely to get mixed up with "the wrong crowd" and more likely to follow religion's moral teachings.

Study participants were asked about eight kinds of bad behavior including littering, skipping school or work, using illegal drugs, fare dodging, shoplifting, music piracy, property damage and violence against the person. Church attendance was linked to lesser instances in all counts, but the most significant correlations were against music piracy, using illegal drugs and shoplifting.

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PhD student Mark Littler, who led the project, said, "This research implies that the act of visiting a place of worship may trigger a significant reduction in the likelihood of involvement in certain types of criminal and delinquent behavior ... it is the act of mixing with fellow believers that is important."

Q: What is your take on his findings?

First of all, I find it fascinating that there are so many studies being done these days about the effect of religious practice, attendance and beliefs — showing, perhaps, that in some parts of the world it's been so many generations since religion was a social norm, that now-grown children are poking at it with a stick, saying, "What's this thing do, anyway?"

Second, there are chickens and eggs to be considered. Does worship attendance cause people to be more community-minded and socially responsible; or are the people who are already inclined to be communal and social the ones who attend worship to begin with?

Finally, I don't see how this or any study can prove that "it's the act of mixing with fellow believers that's important" — it could also be the receiving of ethical training, the habit of private or communal confession, the regular recitation of covenants and commitments to compassion and right action, the grounding influence of prayer and meditation — any number of factors, and probably a rich mix of many. Reducing religious influence to fellowship alone is a little Kumbayah, don't you think?

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