The 1st July speaker was the Rev. Roy Jenkins on the subject of reforming offenders in prison. The context that of Justice Minister, Ken Clarke’s proposed changes to sentencing
The bit that got me thinking was this
But rehabilitation, reform, working on the assumption that even the most crooked or the most inadequate can become different - for me, that has to be the ultimate goal; and it requires a great deal more faith and courage than building higher walls.So why, I wondered, do people on the point of desperation to change themselves become vulnerable to religion? Is it in fact that atheism is a luxury for those with healthy minds and successful lives?
I've been humbled to meet a number of men and women recently for whom prison has prompted exactly that response: with lengthy criminal records, often fuelled by their need for drugs or alcohol, they've come to a point where they've realised that unless they change, they'll soon be dead. Sometimes through the care of a particular warder, a teacher, or a regular visitor, they've begun the slow climb out of their pit.
For some it's been an encounter with Christian faith which has shown them for the first time that they're loved, valued, and that God has a purpose for them even when everyone else seems to have given up on them, and they've all but given up on themselves. They have trusted the promise that Christ can make people new, and they have literally changed.
I understand that for people grappling with addiction, joblessness, poverty and homelessness religion offers a simple panacea; be good for God and God will look after you, if not in this life at least in the next. But is this what we should be offering such people?
For one thing it’s a bum steer. Even if it motivates people to change it does so in a way that puts the responsibility for success on God not the individual and as God doesn’t actually exist there are many likely to be let down in their efforts. For another, a secular humanist approach to offenders would show them that it is people and society that cares about them, in the here and now, not in some vague hereafter. Teaching offenders that would make them more likely to care about the damage they are doing to society by their recidivism.
Perhaps atheism and humanism seem too abstract or intellectual a motivation for goodness and hell fire and brimstone is the necessary infinite stick they need. If so it is a failure of our approach to rehabilitation that we cannot educate our prison population without resorting to superstition of this kind.
Religion is a poor moral compass with which to equip individuals already challenged in this area. For one thing if they embrace their new faith too fully and descend into biblical literalism they will find plenty of moral justification for all sorts of behaviour which if not exactly criminal would be socially undesirable. The tools these people need are a sound education, social and practical skills, critical thinking and a secular ethical framework underpinning it all. These are the things that offer true stability, not the irrational foundations of religious faith.