In Theory: Does going to church keep people honest?

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.

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?

Come to think of it, it seems like the more interesting study would be the one that tries to sort all that out — which religious practices have more influence on moral behavior? Christians say "love your neighbor" but there's no rote instruction on how to do that; we simply have regular times of confession of our failures to love, and recommitment to try to love others more. Buddhism lacks the practice of confession (I think), but gives regular instruction on "here's how to increase your compassion" — is that more effective? Do the evangelical versions of Christianity actually do a better job of teaching morals, by teaching and enforcing biblical norms; or the liberal versions, which empower the freedom and growth, and interplay with God, of one's personal conscience?

Now those studies would be interesting!

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


The act of simply visiting any place of worship does not necessarily mean that you will adhere to that worship community's beliefs, or that your behavior will conform to that community's moral guidelines. When I arrived in Los Angeles I was fresh from New York City. I had not begun to attend what would be eight years of seminary. I had been an actor, singer, and dancer on Broadway honored to call people of different sexual orientations my friends.

On the advice of some of my New York friends I decided to visit a large downtown Los Angeles church known worldwide for its amazing contemporary music program. I owned several of the choir's CDs and I was already predisposed to join. The live music was indeed amazing, provided by a choir that looked a lot like some of the East Coast musical casts in which I had been. The sermon, on the other hand, was so smug, exclusive and homophobic, that I wondered why some members of the choir stayed. There was nothing that would induce me to revisit, let alone be guided by such a church under such leadership. Apparently in spite of the minister, the music department found kinship with each other.

Nineteenth-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher argues that humans are religious beings in search of community. Religion is synonymous with belief, or creed, so street gangs can be just as religious as church and temple folk. Schleiermacher states that conversion is evidenced when the individual is attracted to something in the community that the individual lacks. So then, in our fast paced split-second culture, perhaps some relationship must develop with the faith community before conversion and therefore change in delinquent and even criminal behavior can occur, something more than a visit.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


I am not surprised that people who attend church are less likely to commit crime. If one doesn't know what God expects, what compelling reason do they have to obey him, let alone obey human laws which may interfere with their own self-interests? How moral should we expect them to be? The un-churched may say, "Hey, we have morals," but then we must ask what defines such morality that has no God to explicate the true parameters? They might say, "We do thus and such good," but only God declares what's truly good, not whatever might be thought moral by human subjectivity.

And so, if people behave well because they hear God and do according to his instruction, I am happy to wholeheartedly agree and say that this is only apropos. Stealing is always wrong, according to God, and so fare-dodging and shoplifting should be right out, no matter what; the same with harming people or their property. The fact is, most of these bad behaviors should be universally disavowed, even if only in a pragmatic societal way, but isn't it interesting that knowing God has spoken makes a difference with those who go to hear his words?

With the aforementioned in mind, may I suggest that peer pressure is also a big factor, and cultivating a moral peer group can help us better walk the straight-and-narrow. Going to church provides the peers (the peers are the church) and regular attendance provides opportunity to learn God's morals, to talk through them, and to hear how others have successfully applied them. Let me say as God's pastor, then, "Go to church." God commands it, telling us to "not neglect our meeting together" (Heb. 10:25 NLV). It's the moral thing to do, and you couldn't be in better company. Prove the study!

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


Our social life needs to be considered sacred ground.

The social sciences are confirming over and over that "We are who we hang out with" as Tom Peters, management guru, states. I love this quote from Buddha. "An insincere and evil friend is more to be feared than a wild beast; a wild beast may wound your body, but an evil friend will wound your mind." On the other hand, as George Eliot pointed out, "Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another." Our social circles, therefore, can be sources of both good and evil.

I wholeheartedly agree with the conclusions of the article about religion and crime. More broadly, it's about our social circles. When you hang out with good people, you are more likely to be good, and the opposite holds true as well. I would extend this to apply to any religious, spiritual and secular social group.

What is not so obvious is to be consciously selective in your social life. Many just hang out with people because of social circumstances and compatible personality types. Certain friendships need to just run their course and end before a regrettable negative influence runs one off course from what matters most. The Koran reminds us to take preventive action before a life of regret sets in.

"And on the Day of Accountability, an evildoer will bite his hands in despair, exclaiming: 'Oh, would that I had followed the path shown to me by the apostle! Oh, woe is me! Would that I had not taken so-and-so for a friend! Indeed, he led me astray from the remembrance of God after guidance had come unto me!'" Koran (25:27-29)

On the flip side, the Koran describes the characteristics of a positive social environment. "By the token of time and throughout the ages, verily humanity is at loss. Unless one is of those who attain to faith, and do good works, and enjoin upon one another the keeping to truth, and enjoin upon one another patience in adversity." Koran (103)

The conclusions of the article validate some basic laws of human nature. Most all religions like Islam and nonreligious settings teach us that part of the self-development cycle is to proactively nurture your social circles.

Levent Akbarut
Islamic Congregation of La Cañada Flintridge


"Why Most Published Research Findings Are Wrong" is the provocative title of a study which caught my eye in the New York Times science coverage recently. The author's point is that today's highly specialized research often cannot be replicated in another lab, calling the original findings into question.

I quote this title not because I think that the Manchester University study in today's question is wrong, but rather to suggest skepticism in drawing unproven conclusions from any single study.

An observational study based on survey data such as this one says nothing about cause. In this case, if people a) go to church and b) do less crime, it does not mean that "a" caused "b."

It could be just as likely that "b" caused "a," that people who do less crime are more likely to go to church. Another problem is that self-reporting is not always accurate — maybe church-goers hesitate to report bad behavior. Or a mixture of these and other factors could explain the findings.

Having said all that, my common sense agrees with the notion that church-goers would be less likely to commit minor crimes. I think that regular personal involvement in civic, political, cultural or other secular groups could have an equally beneficial impact on moral character and also that people of good character, churchgoers or not, are the ones who tend to participate in their community.

Study author Mark Littler agrees with me. He states that his study results "are not necessarily a blow to the proponents of atheism: religious practice is just one way of gaining exposure to the pro-social behavioral norms that are at the heart of this relationship; other, more secular, activities may equally serve a similar role."

Roberta Medford


It has been commonly understood throughout human history that people are influenced by the company they keep. There are numerous instances in Scripture where this principle is set forth. For example, Proverbs 13:20 states, "He who walks with a wise man will be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm."

Psalms 1:1–3 elaborates: "Blessed is the person who doesn't follow the advice of the ungodly, who does not submit to the ways of sinners, and doesn't keep company with the scornful and mockers. In contrast, this person's delight and desire is in the teaching and instruction of the Lord, and he studies it by day and by night. Such a person is like a tree planted firmly by streams of water. They have an abundantly fruitful life, and everything they do prospers and produces benefit."

The people we associate with will have a negative or positive impact on our life and our behavior. It hardly seems that we need any more research to demonstrate this all too self-evident fact!

However, as powerful as human influence can be in shaping our behavior, there is a far more powerful factor: the re-creation of the human spirit. Jesus died and was resurrected that we might become born again as a completely new creation in Christ

As the apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "If any person is in Christ Jesus, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away and all things have become new." When we are born again in Christ, we are not only influenced by his example, but we are literally given a new nature that is filled with the Spirit of God. This new nature permanently transforms our worldview, our values and our purpose and destiny in life.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


One purpose of religion is to help people shun actions that are hurtful to themselves or others. With that in mind, the results of the study aren't surprising.

Another point to consider is that most churchgoers attend not because we think we are good, but because we want to be. Affiliating with like-minded people helps, but the most important benefit is that we have a chance to feel the Lord's spirit and renew our covenants with him. This weekly experience reinforces the ability to resist bad behavior.

Some will try to undermine the researchers' findings by pointing to religious people who do wrong. This is the easiest criticism, but it also is the least relevant. Human beings err. All of us. Speaking from an LDS perspective, the point of Christ's atonement, his act of paying the price of our transgressions, is to give us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and get back on the path.

This may be why the scriptures tell us about people like Peter, who stumbled more than once. He had enough faith to walk on water but then let doubt overcome him. Christ lifted him back up. He denied knowing Christ during the night before the crucifixion. The resurrected Jesus forgave him and then charged Peter with bringing others to the faith.

Those who regularly attend services as a bit like the father, described in Mark, who asked Jesus to heal his son. The father had enough faith to ask, but not quite enough to believe it would happen. "Lord, I believe," the man said, adding, "Help thou mine unbelief." The act of religious worship takes us through a similar process. And yes, when done sincerely, it does influence the choices we make.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta


That is an interesting study and I would agree with the findings. The first thing that comes to mind is a quote from our Elder Brother and Way Shower, Jesus: "Whenever two or more are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst."

Jesus' logic is just as valid, today. People who gather together for an agreed upon purpose or intention, create a distinct energy. Some would describe it as the power of group dynamics.

When our agreed upon purpose is to pray, meditate, sing and worship God, our Source of all good, everyone in the group or the congregation feels uplifted.

Their personal problems are diminished by the act of group worship. Personal problems are replaced, literally, with a new spirit. The group relaxes mentally and physically and their individual sense of self now merges with the collective consciousness of the group (congregation) for a higher purpose.

Everyone becomes a "better self," feeling prepared by their faith and the encouragement of being part of a group (congregation) to meet life with love, strength and a renewed sense of purpose.

Rev Jeri Linn
Unity Church of the Valley

La Crescenta


We are wired to be in community with one another. When I was in seminary, another student said one time that Locke and Hume and all the great thinkers were wrong to say that individuals decide to come together and form a government, a club, a church, a whatever. What exists first and foremost is the community, and then the individual. The community is the given, and the individual finds himself or herself as he or she relates to that given community.

This idea goes against our "American rugged individualism" concept, but I agree with that former fellow student. Isn't it interesting that Jesus says, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20)? Jesus did not say wherever one is gathered, but two or three!

The first community of which we are a part, of course, is our family, and it's interesting that we don't get to choose our birth family. So, again, we are born in community; the community is the given, and then the individual works it out how he or she agrees or disagrees with that community.

Having said all that, I am not surprised that those who attend worship services regularly tend not to commit crimes. There may be peer pressure, certainly — the old community exerting its influence! And maybe there is nothing "magic" about its being a religious community, but it seems to make perfect sense to me that those worshiping together get something out of the worship experience, including Commandment No. 8: don't steal! That's from Exodus 20:15.

More exciting Bible talk at my church every Sunday morning at 10!

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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