Going to church can keep you on the straight and narrow, criminology study suggests

Going to church or another place of worship regularly can actively help keep people on the path of righteousness, a criminological study has found.

Researchers questioned more than 1,200 young people anonymously about whether they had secretly committed sins ranging from faking a sick day from work or failing to pay for a short journey on public transport to serious crimes such as assault or vandalism.

As part of a wider poll which asked the participants about their views on a range of other issues they were also asked whether they attend a place of religious worship such as a church, mosque, synagogue or temple and, if so, how often.

The participants, who were all aged between 18 and 34, were asked whether in the last 12 months they had been involved in any of the following activities: littering; skipping school or work; using illegal drugs; fare dodging; shoplifting; music piracy; property damage or violence against the person.

The results were weighted to take account of social factors such but overall showed a clear relationship between regular attendance at a place of worship and having a lower likelihood of committing the offences listed.

The trend was most marked in relation to shoplifting, drug taking and illegal music downloading.

Mark Littler, a criminologist, who carried out the study as part of doctoral research at in social sciences Manchester University, also carried out detailed interviews with a sample of people to explore the links.

He concluded that it was not necessarily the acts of worship themselves were making people good, but contact with people who espouse “pro-social” – altruistic or socially beneficial – ideas.

“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 behaviour,” he said.

“In line with existing American research, my results suggest that it is the act of mixing with fellow believers that is important, regardless of whether this is via formal worship, involvement in faith-based social activities or simply through spending time with family and friends who share your faith.

“The important thing is exposure to people who encourage pro-social behaviours, and can provide sanctions for their breach.”

But he emphasised that the research did not rule suggest that atheists are less likely to act in an altruistic or moral way.

“I don’t think the findings suggest that there is something uniquely special about religion,” he said.

“There is something special about meeting people and hanging around with people who are pro-social and religious groups tend to have pro-social views.

“It could possibly be found just as much in sports team.”

The study was funded by the Bill Hill Charitable Trust, which makes grants to research projects concentrating on social issues.