The claim that religious programs are more effective than secular programs will be center stage this week when Congress holds hearings on federal funding for faith-based social ministries.
One of the key players on the stage will be Byron R. Johnson, a social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has tried “to measure the influence of religion on social problems,” according to an article in today’s New York Times.
Johnson and other social scientists say, “there is scant evidence showing which religious programs show the best results and how they stack up against secular programs,” the Times reported.
“From the left to the right, everyone assumes that faith-based programs work,” Johnson told the Times. “In terms of empirical evidence that they work, it’s pretty much nonexistent.”
“We’ve created an office out of anecdotes,” Johnson said of the new White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
During his first 100 days in office, one of President George W. Bush’s major initiatives has been to provide federal funding for faith-based programs. Bush has argued that religiously based programs can produce more personal transformation than government programs for far less money.
The Times article noted that research does show that faith creates benefits: “religious people cope better with old age, sickness and hardship; they are healthier; they drink less alcohol; they volunteer more.” Religiously involved youth are “less likely to do drugs, or be involved in crime.”
The benefits of faith should not be confused with the claim that religious organizations are more effective than secular organizations.
David Reingold, a researcher at Indiana University, told the Times that “religious programs are more likely than their secular counterparts to limit the clientele they serve.”
“It’s an extreme exaggeration to say that religious organizations are more effective,” Reingold said.