Writing in Slate, blogger Mark Kleiman demolishes a report from the University of Pennsylvania claiming that faith-based programs reduce recidivism among prisoners. In essence, the report compared ‘graduates’ of the program with a control population, disregarding the larger group who failed to complete the program satisfactorily for various reasons. When the entire program group is compared to the control group they actually had slightly higher rates of recidivism (not a statistically or substantively significant difference though).
This is a striking outcome for a couple of reasons. First, as Kleiman notes,
You don’t have to believe in faith-healing to think that an intensive 16-month program, with post-release follow-up, run by deeply caring people might be the occasion for some inmates to turn their lives around.
Lots of programs of all kinds are strikingly successful when run, in pilot form, by deeply committed people with particular skills but fail when replicated on a larger scale.
In addition, though, you don’t have to believe in God to believe that faith-healing might work. There’s a long tradition, exemplified by Plato, Machiavelli and more recently by Leo Strauss in which religious or pseudo-religious belief is held to be good for the masses regardless of its truth or falsity. (I recollect the phrase “politic religion” in this context, but Google doesn’t show any links that would support this.)
While I would argue that the long-run effects of the kind deception recommended by Plato and Strauss are invariably pernicious, I would not have been surprised to find it effective in the short run. It’s easy to imagine that a promise of eternal salvation would help in supporting a desire to reform, particularly if you take the view that convicted criminals are typically not rational optimizers. So the results are something of a surprise to me.
UpdateThe Blog Geist being what it is, I am now noticing lots of references to the topic of politic/civic/pragmatic religion popping up. I liked this one from Stentor Danielson who argues that the social benefits of Jesus’ teaching do not depend on general belief that he actually existed.
In the comments thread, Mark Kleiman makes the intriguing claim that Plato’s advocacy of the “Noble Lie” was intended satirically. He says
After all, if you were going to tell fairy-tales hoping that they would be believed, you wouldn’t publish a document explaining that they were in fact fairy-tales.
My view is that Plato held an esoteric/exoteric distinction similar to that of Strauss and assumed that anyone literate enough to read his work was on the esoteric side of the divide.
OTOH, Kleiman’s argument points up how bad Plato’s political judgement was – the same is true of Machiavelli and Strauss. If you think lying and cheating in the service of good ends is desirable, the last thing you should do is say so.
Maybe there are some real philosophers reading this who would like to give a better-informed view on these topics.