Eric Fritter Riley (fritterfae) wrote,
Eric Fritter Riley

Evidence-Based Religion

flameThis morning a friend of mine shared an article from the Johnson City Press about a local pastor who is running a "judgment house" for Halloween.  This concept is nothing new, as the "Hell House" stable of Christian horrors has been a staple in American Evangelical reactions to the secular Halloween since the 1970's.

For those unfamiliar with this practice, the "hell house" is a religiously motivated version of the typical "haunted house"; however, the focus is more on the moral implications of life choices and the afterlife consequences of those choices.  Where the typical haunted house has murderers, ghosts, and monsters, the hell house has abortionists, gays and lesbians, occultists, and drunk drivers as those who are damned to hell for their sinful lives. It is a living tableaux of a Chick Tract.

However, in thinking about the Hell House phenomenon afresh, I am struck by how similar in practice it is with the suite of scare tactic programs that were developed in the 70's and 80's to frighten kids away from committing criminal acts, doing drugs, and having sex. Those programs such as "Scared Straight", "D.A.R.E.", and "abstinence only education" have been reviewed to have either statistically insignificant impact or adverse impact in achieving their goals (crime avoidance, drug avoidance, teen sexual activity respectively).  The U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice Research in Brief from July 1998 focused on a study by Lawrence Sherman (and others) entitled "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising."  In the "What Doesn't" box on page 7 and the narrative text following they list "Scared Straight" programs where youth in juvenile corrections visit adult prison facilities, and "D.A.R.E." which was a high school and middle school drug abuse program.  In fact the Scared Straight program had directly adverse effects and actually had an increase in criminal behavior in comparison to a control group that did not attend the program.  Abstinence-only education has been proven repeatedly to not only be ineffective in reducing teen sexual behavior, but also to lead directly to higher rates of teen pregnancy.

This criminal justice research came out 15 years ago, the teen pregnancy research in 2007.  None of that is really news.

The question of punishment as a deterrent in general is another one that has real-world correlations as well.  Paul Robinson in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies published "Does Criminal Law Deter? A Social Science Investigation" and found that "in most cases criminal law does not foster deterrence."  While the increase in capture rate can deter crime, the increasing severity of punishment does not succeed.

It's no surprise really to see evangelical churches still producing "hell houses" today.  They are a religious alternative and with well over a thousand people coming in it certainly can be a lucrative product.  But I wonder if they question the effectiveness as method of instructing children in avoidance of sin.  My initial guess would be, probably not.

The question I have then, is why should any church push hell and damnation?

The afterlife is something that certain religions focus on far beyond any other topic.  People want to go to Heaven and be with their loved ones.  They want to be good people and do the right thing.  So, the incentive to be better is in there already.  It's the disincentive of eternal damnation that is the harder sell.  Given the evidence above as to whether punishment and the consequences of ones actions serve as a deterrent to committing crime, the same could easily be said about the commission of sin.  Hell is not a deterrent to everyone.  If life imprisonment, or even capital punishment are not reason enough to deter a criminal action, then the eternal damnation of a soul is no more or less reason to avoid sin.

The Hell House is a product of a time when many people felt that programs like Scared Straight, D.A.R.E., and abstinence only sex education were believed to be effective means of prevention.  Evidence has proven that thinking to be wrong and counterproductive.  So, regardless of however lucrative the Hell House may be as a product, churches shouldn't delude themselves into thinking that their message will be taken to heart and that children will live more moral lives in accordance with biblical principles.  In fact, they may want to rethink their entire "hell and damnation" strategy of preaching entirely.

If the church's business is in leading souls to salvation, then this is a losing strategy.

Tags: christianity, evidence based, law, punishment, religion, research, sin

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