Secular Economist Proves Religion’s Positive Impact on Poverty
Emily Hall Religious persecution, missions, Christianity around the world
- 2018 Dec 07
Does a recent scientific experiment involving 6,000 households mean that being religious will cause people to earn more money?
Host, Stephen J. Dubner, talked with three men who conducted a scientific experiment in the Philippines: James Choi, a finance professor at Yale; Dean Karlan, academic economist, president and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA); and David Sutherland, Chair of the Board of International Care Ministries (ICM).
Choi works with Karlan at IPA. They told Freakonomics that they wanted to study a Christian ministry to find out if religion causes real-world success in people’s lives or if it’s just a coincidence – a correlation, not a causality. But they had a hard time finding a Christian ministry to be a part of their experiment. Why? Because whichever ministry that agreed to the parameters would agree to not preach religion to a group of people (control group) – that’s how the scientists would be able to compare results, after all.
But ICM took a look at the parameters and quickly agreed because they were interested in learning if what they were doing was really working. If the experiment suggested otherwise, Sutherland told Dunbar that ICM would want to be aware of that and change their program to better serve people in poverty.
For the sake of transparency, Choi identified himself as religious, claiming the evangelical protestant label. Sutherland is also evangelical protestant. And Karlan said he is agnostic. The experiment, however, was strictly scientific.
Asking Big Questions:
Sutherland talked about ICM’s work trying to alleviate intense poverty in the Philippines with a program called, Transform, which is taught by local pastors as well as trained ICM staff. Usually, people who participate in the Transform program meet weekly and receive equal parts religion/values, economics, and health training – 30 minutes each.
Sutherland and the folks at ICM were convinced that this training was impactful and helpful among the Philippine’s poorest. “But was it helpful because of the religious values?” Dubner asked.
This was the big question: “Can religion itself improve your economic standing?”
The experiment was a randomized controlled trial that lasted six months.
Here’s What They Did:
ICM sent out 160 local Filipino pastors to find two villages where they had not ministered in before. Then each pastor chose 30 families in each of their two villages whom the pastors identified as among the poorest in the villages.
Randomly, villages were assigned one of four different levels of the Transform program. The first group of villages received the “full package,” according to Freakonomics. This was the standard curriculum. The second group received only the religion/values training by the local pastor. The third group received only the economics and health training – no religion training. This group didn’t even meet in a church as the other groups did. The fourth group, the control group, received no training at all. They went about their lives as usual.
“We wanted the study to be about the effect of religiosity on economic outcomes,” Choi told Freakonomics.
“We ended up working with 6,000 households,” Karlan said.
Here Are the Results:
Six months later, Choi, Karland, and Sutherland returned to see what, if anything, had changed for the families and villages involved.
The first question they sought to answer was if the program that taught religion make them more religious. Did they read the Bible and go to church more? The answer: Yes.
Second – how did increased religion in someone’s life affect other things like poverty?
“Just being exposed to the religious curriculum increased income by 9%, relative to the control group,” Choi told Freakonomics.
“That’s actually pretty noticeable – that’s food on the table,” Karland said.
Why Did the Religious Training Increase Income?
Freakonomics is a secular radio show, but the host, Dubner, let Choi, Karland, and Sutherland share their ideas about why the religious training helped families in the experiment.
Southerland and Choi were outspoken about how faith in God infuses someone’s life with hope and optimism and increases work ethic. They talked on the show about how the love of God impacts people to love others and change lives. Karland, the agnostic, wasn’t sure about the why behind this experiment. But he told Freakonomics, “I am very interested in understanding more about issues on hope and aspiration.”
Listen to the Whole Episode
For anyone who wants to listen to the full episode or read the transcript here, expect a refreshingly honest and respectful public conversation about the economic impact of religion.
Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor, also makes an appearance around minute 25 of the show to talk about how faith impacts someone’s work ethic. Keller and Dubner discuss Martin Luther and John Calvin and how do you know you’re saved. They go into other questions about correlation and causation between evangelicalism and success.
It’s definitely not a typical economics podcast episode.
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