I wouldn’t want anyone to face the email in-box I faced last night and this morning as a result of my Slate essay (*) on the Prison Fellowship, but reading through it was an educational experience. I couldn’t resist sharing one of the more … interesting … letters. About half of the couple of hundred messages were one variation or another on the message of Christian love and compassion below. (See the post above for more substantive issues.)
One striking pattern in the email was the willingness of many correspondents to assume that they knew my personal religious position: only an atheist, it seemed to them, could doubt a faith-based program. I doubt they would have made the same inference had I been criticizing an Islamic prison ministry.
This is not the time or place for a theological discussion — I’m much less a “bright” than I used to be, as this document reflects — but it’s worth making a distinction between my own beliefs on religious questions and my beliefs about the effects of spiritual growth, and of religiosity, on behavior.
It’s quite possible to be an atheist and still think that religious belief and practice has, on average, good behavioral consequences. That, I take, it, was more or less Franklin’s view, and it was the view Gibbon said prevailed in elite circles in early Imperial Rome: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrates, as equally useful.”
As I pointed out in the original piece, a finding that IFI reduced recidivism would have been perfectly consistent with a disbelief in its theological underpinnings. The faith of the program operators, and the faith they manage to instill in the program participants, can have real-world effects, without regard to the truth or falsity of the beliefs involved. Christians and Zen Buddhists believe seemingly inconsistent things (I say “seemingly” because so much religious language is metaphor that strong rules of noncontradiction can’t be applied). Yet I would have no trouble believing that both Christian and Zen missionaries could run programs that improved people’s lives. The same goes for the claims made for various meditation programs; they’re plausible on their face, and I’ll believe them when I see the data from a competently designed experiment carried out by a truly independent group of scholars.
I don’t like Colson’s theology, his politics, or what I know of his ethics, so I’m not dismayed to learn that his program didn’t work, but it might have worked, or some other program he tried might work, and I’d have no trouble believing that if the studies were done right. Just call me Doubting Thomas.
Here’s the reader’s letter:
How dare you insult programs that try and help the angry, outraged, and bitter criminal’s in our society! You have nothing good to say, EVER! You are racest! Stop attacking programs that might help even one person to achieve a higher standard and quality of life. Intead, you bastardize the our president and have nothing better to do than spew statisicle bullcrap and add no value in your comments! Your pathetic! Go join in some anger managment group therapy! It’s obvious you have anger issues and hate Christian’s.
Thanks for waisting my time