"Spiritual" Young People Are More Likely to Commit Crimes than "Religious" Ones, Baylor Study Finds

  • Spiritual and crime
    (iStockphoto)
  • Spiritual crime 2
    Researcher Sung Joon Jang, Ph.D.
  • Spiritual crime 2
    Researcher Aaron Franzen
June 12, 2013

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WACO, Texas (June 12, 2013) -- Young adults who deem themselves "spiritual but not religious" are more likely to commit property crimes -- and to a lesser extent, violent ones -- than those who identify themselves as either "religious and spiritual" or "religious but not spiritual," according to Baylor University researchers.

The sociologists' study, published in the journal Criminology, also showed that those in a fourth category -- who say they are neither spiritual nor religious --are less likely to commit property crimes than the "spiritual but not religious" individuals. But no difference was found between the two groups when it came to violent crimes.

"The notion of being spiritual but not associated with any organized religion has become increasingly popular, and our question is how that is different from being religious, whether you call yourself 'spiritual' or not," said Sung Joon Jang, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences. He is lead author of the study, "Is Being 'Spiritual' Enough Without Being Religious? A Study of Violent and Property Crimes Among Emerging Adults."

He noted that until the 20th century, the terms "religious" and "spiritual" were treated as interchangeable.

Previous research indicated that people who say they are religious show lower levels of crime and deviance, which refers to norm-violating behavior.

The researchers analyzed data from a sample of 14,322 individuals from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They ranged in age from 18 to 28, with an average age of 21.8.

In the confidential survey, participants were asked how often they had committed crimes in the previous 12 months -- including violent crimes such as physical fights or armed robbery -- while property crimes included vandalism, theft and burglary.

Past research shows that people who report themselves as spiritual make up about 10 percent of the general population, Jang said.

"Calling oneself 'spiritual but not religious' turned out to more of an antisocial characteristic, unlike identifying oneself as religious," said Baylor researcher Aaron Franzen, a doctoral candidate and study co-author.

In their study, the Baylor researchers hypothesized that those who are spiritual but not religious would be less conventional than the religious group -- but could be either more or less conventional than the "neither" group.

"We were thinking that religious people would have an institutional and communal attachment and investment, while the spiritual people would have more of an independent identity," Franzen said.

Jang said that theories abound for why religious people might be less like to commit crimes.

Significantly, people who are spiritual but not religious tend to have lower self-control than those who are religious. They also are more likely to experience such strains as criminal victimization and such negative emotions as depression and anxiety. Those factors are predictors of criminal behavior.

For researchers, "It's a challenge to know it actually means to be spiritual, because the individuals self-identify," Franzen said. "But they are different in some way, as our study shows."

In their research, sociologists included four categories based on how the young adults reported themselves. Those categories and percentages were:

• Spiritual but not religious, 11.5 percent

• Religious but not spiritual, 6.8 percent

• Both spiritual and religious, 37.9 percent

• Neither spiritual nor religious, 43.8 percent

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Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University's oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 26 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines.

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