Does religion really work?

I’m using the word “work” in the most pragmatic sense. Is there a measurable way of proving that people of faith live longer, live better, have better marriages, are financially successful, have fewer problems with their children, are free from drugs and alcohol, and never lose their temper and hurt other people. Does it work?

I raise this pragmatic question because a few years back the state of Florida decided to launch a faith-based prison program. Nearly 800 prisoners representing 26 faiths were chosen to participate in this experiment. The idea was for the facility to focus on encouraging the spirituality of inmates of all faiths. Along with prayer sessions, the facility offers religious studies, choir practice and religious counseling.

There is a lot of energy these days for faith-based initiatives. Many argue that religious groups are better suited than the government to deliver social services. There is a presumed, even if unstated, belief that an institution that at least acknowledges God will be more effective in bringing God in on the process, whatever the process might be.

In the case of a faith-based prison, there is hope that the power of the divine will work in the lives of inmates, hastening their rehabilitation and diminishing the rate of recidivism. Several studies of the program since 2007 suggest there is not much difference between faith-based efforts and other conventional rehabilitative approaches.

There is also a political side to the effort to promote faith-based initiatives. There are many political conservatives who make no bones about their desire to end New Deal-era social initiatives – everything from Social Security to unemployment.

One tactic is to play upon a general disgruntled attitude toward government and convince voters that faith groups would actually do a better job of caring for the needy. In this way, politicians cynically use our belief in God to shift the burden of the social safety net onto the backs of the faith community.

So we return to our original question: Does it work? Actually, the more pertinent question would be: Is this the way faith works?

And the answer is no. Faith is not a magical social ointment that, when smeared on an infected area – as in the case of prisons – some magical or miraculous cure results. Faith is a way of living in relationship with God. It is a chosen way, not an imposed way. It is a path, not a panacea.

Obviously, if all believers lived out the deepest tenets of their faith, the world would be a markedly better place. But human nature is complex and complicated. When dealing with the pathologies of the human psyche, we must admit that religious practices alone cannot make a person whole.

It is faith combined with other practices, other human sciences, other disciplines, that bring about healing and hope. Faith needs to be a component in prisons – and in fact is. There is hardly a state or federal prison that doesn’t offer religious services or counseling to those who seek it. Religious groups have never found it difficult to get into prisons.

But simply because we stamp “God” on the outside does not guarantee that God is on the inside. That is a phenomenon that takes place in the deepest recesses of the soul. And no matter how much we may want to legislate that reality, it just doesn’t happen by decree.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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