God Won’t Repay Your IOUs


Big Data can give us insight into a surprising number of things – including the claims of religious apologists. To wit, take this story that I saw in New York magazine.

Three economists conducted a study based on data from Prosper, a peer-to-peer lending site that connects people who want to borrow money with those who have money to lend out. The question they wanted to answer was whether anything in the language of a borrower’s loan application predicts whether they’ll pay back the money they borrow. They scanned the text of the loan applications, and correlated it with data about whether those people later defaulted, to look for patterns.

And a big one jumped out at them:

Here are the phrases used in loan applications by people most likely to pay them back: debt-free, lower interest rate, after-tax, minimum payment, graduate.

And here are the phrases used by those least likely to pay back their loans: God, promise, will pay, thank you, hospital.

Mentioning God in your loan application was a strong signal that you wouldn’t pay back the money you borrowed. In fact, it was one of the worst omens in the data set:

Someone who mentions God was 2.2 times more likely to default. This was among the single highest indicators that someone would not pay back.

How can this be? If what Christian apologists say is true, that belief in God is necessary for people to be moral or trustworthy, then religious language in a loan application should make the borrower a safe bet. Instead, they found the opposite.

There are several possible explanations for this finding, not mutually exclusive. One is plain old affinity fraud: people who apply for a loan that they have no intention of repaying dress up their application with god-talk, hoping to fool lenders into thinking they’ve found a fellow believer whom they have an obligation to help. This kind of scam is common in highly religious enclaves.

But I think a more likely explanation is less cynical and sadder: some borrowers appeal to God because that’s all they can offer on their own behalf.

If you have the means to pay back a loan, like savings you can tap or the prospect of a good job, obviously you’d just say so. It’s only people who don’t have any of these fallbacks – the poor, the disadvantaged, the economically insecure – who have to resort to religion as an attempt to prove their sincerity. Religious belief doesn’t depend on evidence or proof, which makes it highly convenient for those who don’t have any to offer. No one seeking a loan would say “I promise I’ll pay you back, I swear to God”, unless they had no better argument to make.

Unfortunately for them, an intangible assurance of trustworthiness can’t substitute for a tangible one. There are no deities who bless their followers with magical money from heaven, no matter how much we might wish it were otherwise. And all the faith and good intentions in the world won’t enable someone to repay an obligation that they lack the power to fulfill.

If there’s a lesson to be generalized from this, it’s that loudly asserting belief in God isn’t sufficient proof of good character. All too often, it shows the opposite of whatever virtue the speaker is trying to claim. If I wanted to demonstrate some virtue, and I had evidence of myself behaving in a way consistent with that virtue, I’d just present that evidence. Appealing to God as a character witness on my behalf is a glaring warning sign that I have nothing else to offer.

This isn’t to say that failure to pay back a loan is a mark of bad character, necessarily. As I said, many of these borrowers are likely poor and disadvantaged and just got in over their heads. Even so, faith in the absence of evidence plays the same detrimental role. It interferes with a clear-eyed look at their financial situation, and allows them to persuade others, or to persuade themselves, that God has a plan for them and a change of fortune is just around the corner if only they believe hard enough.

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