There is renewed interest among academics in understanding how religious beliefs shape and are shaped by other social forces. Spurred on by the increasing availability of high-quality survey and administrative data, researchers are increasingly using quantitative and statistical methods from the social sciences to try to measure and characterize the impacts of religion on broader society. For example, numerous academic studies have demonstrated that communities with high numbers of religious adherents have lower crime rates. Other studies also find that more religious individuals are less likely to be involved in criminal behavior.
However, if we observe that high crime and low levels of religious belief or high levels of belief and low crime go hand in hand, how should we interpret that correlation?
One obvious possibility is that religion provides believers with a set of moral values, and because of those values, believers are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. This is the traditional conclusion drawn by studies focusing on the links between religion and crime. Alternatively, it may be the case that once an individual decides to engage in crime, he or she is less likely to want to participate in religious activities. In this case, rather than religion reducing crime, crime leads people away from religion. Furthermore, some third factor, such as age (older people tend to be more religious, and older people commit less crime), might explain both religion and crime. In any of these cases, we would observe a negative relationship between measures of religious belief and measures of crime.
My research points out some of the difficulties in using quantitative approaches to cleanly disentangle the effect of religion on criminal behavior from other social factors that might impact both religion and crime. Similar difficulties plague almost every quantitative study that purports to measure the “effects” of religion on outcomes such as health, parenting, and happiness. Does this mean that religious belief has no impact on attitudes and behaviors?
Not at all. It does mean that scientists should be suitably humble when claiming to measure complex relationships such as those between religion and other outcomes of social processes. Such relationships usually defy the simple characterizations of the popular press that religion "increases" this or "lowers" that. Given the nuanced way in which religious attitudes can interact with individual traits and experiences, community environments, and societal norms, measuring how religion affects and is affected by other behaviors remains a formidable challenge.
Paul Heaton is an associate economist at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on ScienceandReligionToday.com on March 1, 2010. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.