Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Buddhist, Christian, and non-religious attitudes towards crime

Praying prisonerEven as Western societies continue to secularize and become independent of their religious roots, the influence of religion persists. Especially in terms of the West’s criminal justice system, vestiges of Christianity abound. And when one turns to the less secularized nations of the East, the influence of religion appears all the more obvious (for Westerners at least). Religion’s influence acknowledged, what difference does it actually make? Wing Hong Chui and colleagues (at the University of Hong Kong) compared the attitudes of Buddhists, Christians, and the non-religious towards crime, and found that Christians and the non-religious are more supportive of rehabilitating criminals than Buddhists.

Theoretically, relying on the teachings of Christianity and Buddhism, one would expect Christians to approve of punishments based on love and the common good. That is, one would not expect a Christian to support punishment that merely promotes destruction. Fundamentalist Christians require a slight qualification to this general statement: they typically advocate for the harsh punishment of criminals but (a) this does not necessarily mean that the punishment still cannot be based on love and the common good, (b) most fundamentalists live in the American South, which generally supports violence for cultural rather than religious reasons, and (c) frequent participation in religious activities correlates with less advocacy for punitive punishment (even for fundamentalists). As for Buddhists, they teach that one should have compassion for all life (including the lives of criminals), and so one would expect Buddhists to oppose harsh punishments such as execution. To oversimplify the matter: Christians focus on forgiveness, while Buddhists emphasize compassion. Both these sets of teachings should lead to less punitive attitudes toward criminals.

To test the difference between the attitudes of Christians, Buddhists, and the non-religious towards criminal punishment, Chui and colleagues recruited students from one university in Hong Kong. They made announcements about the study, and provided the necessary information for interested volunteers. In all, they successfully recruited 143 Buddhists, 149 Christians, 92 non-religious, and 8 “other.” Since the “other” category was so small, they could not draw any significant findings from it.

All participants completed the Attitudes towards Crime Scale (ATC), which consisted of three subscales: the Attitudes towards the Causes of Crime Scale, the Attitudes towards the Prevention of Crimes Scale, and the Attitudes towards the Treatment of Crime Scale. Effectively, the ATC covered a variety of issues concerning why criminals commit crime (including hereditary, individual, social, environmental, economic, and educational factors) and the best way to treat criminals (including restorative treatment, non-corporeal punishment, and corporeal punishment).

They also completed the Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale (SIBS), which focused more on spirituality than religion. Specifically, the researchers wanted to measure the participants’ beliefs about the purpose of life, the transcendent, community, the mystery of existence, and personal transformation.

After running the data, the researchers found a variety of incidences in which Buddhists contrasted with Christians and the non-religious. Unlike Christians and the non-religious, spirituality correlated with seeing the main causes of crime in hereditary, individual, social, and environmental factors for Buddhists (in fact, Christians least frequently blamed crime on social and environmental factors). As for punishment, compared to Christians and the non-religious, Buddhists most strongly supported coercive prevention and social intervention. Conversely, compared to Buddhists, Christians and the non-religious more strongly favored assistance and rehabilitation. However, it should be noted that higher levels of spirituality in general correlated with higher levels of (a) support for assistance and rehabilitation of criminals, and (b) belief that hereditary factors cause crime.

The researchers explained these results by saying that “Buddhists believe that everyone is capable of good and bad, but only until we reach enlightenment will we be truly good.” In other words, for Buddhists, individual behavior affects that individual’s karma, and so in this way crime fundamentally comes from the individual. The Buddhist emphasis on compassion also shines through: Buddhists believe in social intervention. Obviously the researchers know of the limitations of trying to draw general conclusions from only university student volunteers, but relying on students is certainly no crime.

For more, see “Spirituality and punitiveness: An exploration of Christian, Buddhist, and non-religious attitudes towards crime” in the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice. 

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