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Faith, Crime, and the PWGAD Factor

Bryon Johnson of Baylor University has this op-ed in the Houston Chronicle titled "The factor of faith in crime reduction."  Johnson is the author of "More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How it Could Matter More" (2011).

Put simply, increasing religiosity tends to be associated with decreasing crime. The weight of this evidence is especially intriguing in light of the fact that religion continues to be overlooked by so many. For example, one will look in vain to find any references at all to religion in criminology and criminal justice textbooks.
It's not hard to understand why the subject is undercovered in academic criminology departments.  Criminology is usually under the wing of the sociology department.  In America's generally left-wing academia, the sociology department is the little flashing light out on the tip of the left wing.  Finding good things about religion is not on the agenda.  Johnson is evidently surprised that "One of the first studies to shed new light on the religion-crime relationship was conducted not by a criminologist, but by an economist, Richard Freeman, at Harvard University." I don't find that surprising at all.  The same is true of studies showing the deterrent effect of capital punishment.

In the article, Johnson makes the usual leap from association to causation, both for at-risk youth staying out of trouble in the first place and rehabilitation of those who have already strayed.  The article says little about how he justifies this leap, though.  For the rehabilitation result, he merely says the faith-based program group was "matched" to a control group.  But researchers can only "match" on superficial variables; the more important inner ones cannot be directly measured.  People who volunteer for and complete the faith-based program may very well have inner differences from those "matched" in superficial characteristics, and those differences might have caused them to have a better recidivism rate even if there had been no program.  Of course, you can't write a full academic article in a newspaper, so maybe the research is better than appears from this article.

For "at-risk" youth who manage to stay off the path of criminality, participation in church is likely correlated with an important factor I call the PWGAD factor -- Parents Who Give A Damn.  (For an example of parents who don't, see the movie Precious.)  It is well established that good parenting is an important factor in keeping poor kids out of trouble.  Indeed, there is even support for the proposition that the left's cherished poverty-crime correlation disappears altogether when the parenting variable is controlled.

So is faith actually the cause of the better results, or is it just correlated with other factors that are the actual causes, such as the PWGAD factor?  It's a difficult puzzle.  Faith-based programs may very well help, but I'm not going to take it on faith.

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