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Politic religion

August 8th, 2003

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.

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  1. August 8th, 2003 at 22:59 | #1

    I think the phrase you want is “civic religion”.

  2. August 9th, 2003 at 02:15 | #2

    I doubt that Plato was seriously recommending religious indoctrination as social control: I take those passages in the Republic as satirical attacks on “politic religion.” 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.

  3. August 9th, 2003 at 07:17 | #3

    Note that I also said that the benefit of Jesus’ teaching doesn’t necessarily depend on believing that he existed, either. So a fable can be good even if you know it’s a fable.

  4. John
    August 9th, 2003 at 07:50 | #4

    The Blog Geist strikes yet again! I was actually making this correction when I received your comment.

  5. Homer Paxton
    August 9th, 2003 at 11:44 | #5

    Actually stentor you are 100% wrong.
    If he never existed christianity would die fortunately there is historical proof for his life and deeds.
    You are right if you were thinking of Buddha.

  6. August 9th, 2003 at 11:48 | #6

    …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.

    There are so many wrong-headed and ill-willed implications of this statement that I can’t believe and sensible and nice person like Pr Q has said it. It must have been maliciously generated by a virus or hacker or something.
    I am not interested in Plato & Strauss, they were just scribblers.
    But Machiavelli had bad political judgement? Judge him by his students, not his times. His students have prospered mightily since. Churchill and Roosevelt were machiavellian statesmen who lied and cheated in the service of Good Ends.
    Churchill: said that “In war, the truth is so important, it must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.”. How true!
    Roosevelt publicly insisted that he intended to balance the US budget deficit and keep the US out of the war against Germany. I for one am glad that he lied about these things.
    Does this mean the Pr Q thinks R & C were wicked and stupid men?
    These machiavellian statesmen were both conservative social democrats who:
    created the welfare state to fight poverty
    used the warfare state to fight fascism
    Why do I get the sense that the modern Cultural
    Left do not seem to care much about these things any more? Perhaps that explains why ordinary Australians are turfing Cultural Leftist inclined governments out.
    Pr Q’s asserts that liberal Machiavellians posit political lies as “desirable” in themeselves which maligns the personal character of who liberal Machs [pun] who work on the negative utilitarian assumption that politics, in the era of Fascist Revolution and Fundamentalist Reaction, is the choice of the Lesser, and therefore Necessary, Evil.
    As for the “Might is Right” base canard that is often hurled at liberal Machiavellians, I would point out that Right can create Might which is why Enlightened societies are powerful and that a Righteous Might is Right all the same.

  7. John
    August 9th, 2003 at 11:58 | #7

    Jack, I was thinking of Machiavelli’s own (notably unusccessful) political career, and also of his preferred example of virtu, Cesare Borgia. The conspicuous disregard for morality displayed by the Borgias discredited them and provided the opponents of the Roman Church with a stick they used to great effect for centuries.

    There’s a lot I admire in Machiavelli, particularly The Discourses, but I don’t think conscious Machiavellianism has a good track record.

    As regards the Churchill quote, I think this refers to deceiving the other side in war, which is not really relevant.

    My impression is that Roosevelt made up the New Deal as he went along and wasn’t consciously lying when he promised to balance the budget. He was lying about wanting to keep out of the war, but unless you buy conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbour it’s hard to see this as Machiavellian grand strategy – more like temporising and hoping events would turn the debate in his favor.

  8. Clem Snide
    August 10th, 2003 at 01:34 | #8

    The stuff about neo-theo prisoners having a higher recidivism rate is not new. I recall reading something along the same lines years ago. Nor should it be surprising that the most Machiavellian prisoners would tend to find God if they thought it would reduce their sentences. “A Clockwork Orange” made the same point rather entertainingly.

  9. August 10th, 2003 at 06:51 | #9

    If he never existed christianity would die fortunately there is historical proof for his life and deeds.

    I imagine the continued existence of the church would be the foremost piece of evidence, then, since by your reasoning if Jesus didn’t actually exist the church would have died long ago regardless of what anyone believed about him. In any event, I think there’s something to the claim that if Christians could be made to believe that Jesus didn’t exist (regardless of whether that claim was true), the religion would suffer. That’s because for many people (but not all — which was the point of my post) ascribing importance to Jesus’ life and works is believed to be dependent on his actual existence.

  10. Homer Paxton
    August 10th, 2003 at 11:29 | #10

    Stentor,
    The central tenets of christianity are the crucification on the cross and thr resurrection.
    without these two points Christianity withers and dies.
    it would mean none has taken the punishment for anyones sins and there is no way to heaven.
    In short nothing.

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