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Byron Johnson Explores the Influence of Faith on Human Flourishing at President's Speaker Series

Byron JohnsonOn Thursday, March 10, 2022, the President’s Speaker Series welcomed Byron Johnson, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, to discuss the positive impact of faith on human flourishing and the potential for religion to facilitate and contribute to the common good of all humanity. The event, titled “The Impact of Faith on Human Flourishing and the Common Good: A Conversation with Byron Johnson,” welcomed community members in person at Elkins Auditorium and via Livestream.

Pepperdine president Jim Gash opened the evening’s discussion by introducing Johnson and their shared connections. 

“From the moment I crossed paths with Byron six years ago,” said Gash, “I knew that we were kindred spirits and really cared about the same things—a deep and abiding faith in God and a desire to follow his son Jesus Christ and to do so in an academic university experience that taught students but also illuminated the scholarly enterprise.”

Johnson shared how his initial dissertation research set him on a path to uncover why inmates who claimed to experience a powerful conversion moment had similar rates of recidivism as those who did not have a conversion moment. For more than two decades, and with more than 200 publications in his catalog, Johnson has found that religious programming within prisons that encourage inmates to uphold a regular routine of faith-based practices such as Bible studies and mentorship relationships—rather than focus on a single conversion moment—has significant impacts on decreasing the rate of recidivism for years following release. 

In 2012 Johnson launched a three-year study on how the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary project at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, significantly impacted flourishing in the daily life of prison inmates. The maximum-security prison was known as one of the most punitive, violent, and corrupt facilities in the nation prior to the development of the seminary project.

“What can society at large learn from prisoners to help us flourish?” asked Johnson. “There is a peace and contentment in prisons among people who have found God that is contagious . . . We don’t want prisons to be overly punitive. We want them to see the inmates as valuable and see the solution is within the prison.”

Johnson will be leading one of the largest and most sophisticated studies on how faith impacts human flourishing around the world. The study will engage nearly a quarter of a million people in 22 countries around the world to identify how religion, family, community, economics, and other factors collectively contribute to feelings of flourishing. 

“One thing we consistently find is the tremendous protective factor religion has on individuals,” said Johnson. “You’re much less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, but there’s also an impact on helping people to do the right things, what we call prosocial behavior, but what can be described as acts of kindness.” 

Following Johnson’s discussion, Pepperdine University provost Jay Brewster announced the creation of the new Center for Faith and the Common Good at Pepperdine. The center will integrate key components of Johnson’s work and support scholarly investigations of faith structures that influence the common good. Johnson will serve as part of the center’s executive leadership team alongside Gash. Pepperdine vice provost Lee Kats, whose work overseeing the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs has facilitated funding for exceptional research across all five of Pepperdine’s schools, will serve as the center’s academic director. Johnson will also join the Pepperdine School of Public Policy faculty as a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religious Studies and the Common Good as of April 1, 2022. 

“We anticipate robust societal impact that will emerge from the Center for Faith and the Common Good,” said Brewster. “I think good things will come from this center that will have tangible impacts on our culture and our society and strengthen the scholarly work of Pepperdine.”

A full recording of the event is available on the President’s Speaker Series website.