Fewer Crimes Due to Religious Fasting


Religion and Prosocial Behaviour

A ZEW study on behavioral changes during periods of intense religious prayer and fasting shows that practiced religiosity improves social behavior in a measurable way.

There is a recurring discussion about whether religious practice positively influences people’s actions. In a study on behavioural changes during periods of intensive religious prayer and fasting, ZEW researchers were able to demonstrate such a positive effect. Using the example of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, it is shown that the practice of religion measurably improves social behaviour.

The starting point of the study is that fasting periods in combination with increased prayer and self-reflection are a feature common to all world religions. Islam is particularly well suited for an empirical study of the effects of this religious practice, as Muslims tend to adhere more closely to Ramadan compared to, for example, Christians during the pre-Easter fasting period. In order to measure prosocial behaviour, empirical research depends on reliable indicators. Crime statistics, for instance, are suitable for this purpose as they capture a well measurable dimension of human behaviour.

The study, which ZEW Mannheim conducted together with the French Université Clermont Auvergne, therefore measures the development of crime during Ramadan. Swiss data is used for this purpose. The study, which has since been published in the renowned Journal of Comparative Economics, proves a strong effect: In Switzerland, the crime rate of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries drops by more than ten per cent during Ramadan. It is revealing that the number of crimes already decreases in the weeks before the start of Ramadan and remains at a lower level throughout the entire month of fasting.

The researchers are looking into several reasons for the significant drop in criminal offences during Ramadan. “As the main factor for this development, we identify a change in beliefs and values that can be attributed to the more intensive reflection on the norms conveyed by this religion,” says Carlo Birkholz, researcher in the ZEW’s “Corporate Taxation and Public Finance” Unit and one of the authors of the study. Other explanations, on the other hand, play only a minor role, such as the time spent on community events when breaking the fast after dusk, exhaustion due to fasting or a higher probability of travelling to visit relatives in their country of origin.

The fact that crime figures also fell during the Covid-related lockdown in 2020 suggests that personal engagement with religion was responsible for the falling number of crimes. “Ramadan lasted from late April to late May in 2020. During this time, people could not participate in regular Ramadan events, meetings with family and friends were severely restricted – so these factors can be ruled out as the main reason,” says Birkholz. Another proof of the positive effect of engaging with religion is that the number of crimes does not only decrease with the beginning of Ramadan, but already in the previous month of Sha’ban, which is considered the month of preparation and self-reflection.

The study thus shows that religious practice has a positive influence on people’s prosocial behaviour. For their analysis, the researchers use data from the police crime statistics of the Swiss Federal Statistical Office for the period 2009 to 2020.