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May 9, 2011

"In the Pew Instead of Prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this book review in the Wall Street Journal authored by James Q. Wilson, which reviews a new book by Byron R. Johnson, titled "More God, Less Crime."  Here is the start of the review:

This book has two messages. First, religion reduces crime. Second, look what happens to scholars who say this is true.

The first argument rests on the work of Byron R. Johnson, a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who compiled a survey of every study between 1944 and 2010 that measured the possible effect of religion on crime.  He found 273 such studies. As he reports in "More God, Less Crime," even though their authors used different methods and assessed different groups of people, 90% of these studies found that more religiosity resulted in less crime. Only 2% found that religion produced more crime.  (The remaining 8% found no relationship either way.)

Does this prove that religion reduces crime?  Not precisely, for these are all quasi-experimental studies.  If they were truly experimental and thus carried greater intellectual weight, the researchers would direct people, none of whom had any religion, either to acquire and practice one or to remain godless and thereby stay in the control group.  We would then compare the groups' crime rates.  Doing this would be immoral, illegal and impractical, and so we are left with studies that compare religious and nonreligious people and try to control statistically for other factors that might explain away the religion-and-crime link.

How much confidence, then, should we have in nonexperimental studies?  Not a lot, as none of the studies that Mr. Johnson cites show the statistical controls necessary to evaluate them.  But offsetting this weakness is the number of studies showing a religious effect.  And we can look at a few of the best ones, such as that by Richard Freeman.  A Harvard professor of economics, he arranged for 2,358 young black men living in downtown Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia to be interviewed.  He found that, other things (such as family and economic background) being equal, going to church is associated with substantial differences in how young men behave.  More churchgoing, less crime, less alcohol and fewer drugs.  As Mr. Freeman puts it: "The effect of churchgoing is not the result of churchgoing youth having 'good attitudes.' "  If you want to see his reasons, look at his book "The Black Youth Employment Crisis" (1986).

The interesting question is whether society can make religion more important in the lives of convicted offenders.

May 9, 2011 at 01:17 PM | Permalink


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I'd also like to see the study where religion will get you an education, a job and put food on your table.

Posted by: james | May 9, 2011 5:58:49 PM

james --

It's not up to religion, and it's not up to the state, to get you an education, a job and put food on your table. As to education, it's up to your parents. As to the job and food on the table, it's up to you.

It's past time -- way past time -- for people in this country to stop thinking that their fellow citizens are put on earth to provide for them.

The underlying assumption of your post is also incorrect. People do not commit crime to "put food on the table." In the 18 years I was an AUSA, not one time did I encounter a defendant who committed his crime to obtain subsistence. They generally do it to get $300 sneakers, or to show dominance, or to get money for their next hit. Food on the table has zilch to do with it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 10, 2011 8:49:42 AM

My sincere apology to any one offended by the following. I respect religion, and do not bash it as other atheists do. I call my Atheism Intelligent Atheism because it recognizes the value of religion. I am an adherent of Weber (Max not Anton). To answer James, religiosity is associated with greater economic productivity, so it does put food on the table. This is settled sociology for 100 years. Weber studied the Protestant Ethic, but see Ancient Egypt's religion based achievements. See the productivity of Commie nations. See the productivity of Godless ghetto trash. See the productivity of God fearing USA, that of Godless Europe.

Let me see if I understand religion. You give us money now. You will be rewarded after your death. This has to be the ultimate scam. You die and there is no reward, but you are too dead to complain. The scam is brain based, since it happens in all cultures at all times of human history, with no known exception. It is the only crime with First Amendment immunization in the Free Exercise Clause.

Why is religion good, if it is false, a scam, and brazen theft? What real benefit does religion impart? It explains to people with IQ's under 125 why they should treat each other well, work, have a family, and not do the full time Roman Orgy. People with IQ's over 125 can think about the future, and answer those questions with utilitarianism.

So religion should be promoted in prison, where the average IQ is 85. They will learn that a cranky Old Man is watching their every move and thought. So they had better improve their ethics.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 10, 2011 9:30:14 AM

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