Harvard University professor Robert Putnam has a new book coming out next year: “American Grace: How Religion is Reshaping our Civic and Political Lives.”
Bits and pieces of the book’s revelations have been coming out — most notably at a recent conference hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Last week, we heard that “the percentage of ‘nones’ has now skyrocketed to between 30 percent and 40 percent among younger Americans…”
The latest revelation is that “people of faith are better citizens and better neighbors.”
The scholars say their studies found that religious people are three to four times more likely to be involved in their community. They are more apt than nonreligious Americans to work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes — including secular ones.
At the same time, Putnam and Campbell say their data show that religious people are just “nicer”: they carry packages for people, don’t mind folks cutting ahead in line and give money to panhandlers.
Putnam and his colleague David Campbell add one very important caveat to this: The goodness has nothing to do with faith or the divine or the existence of God or anything of the sort.
It has everything to do with an increased sense of community.
Putnam calls them “supercharged friends” and the more people have, the more likely they are to participate in civic events, he says. The theory is: if someone from your “moral community” asks you to volunteer for a cause, it’s really hard to say no.
The effect is so strong, the scholars found, that people who attend religious services regularly but don’t have any friends there look more like secularists than fellow believers when it comes to civic participation.
“It’s not faith that accounts for this,” Putnam said. “It’s faith communities.”
Of course it is. I don’t think that’s ever been in doubt. When you’re close to people — when you have people to love and people who love you back — you’re less inclined to do bad things. I thought that was just common sense.
It also means one focus of the atheist community should be creating and building our own local communities — to support each other in times of need and to offer a place where we can feel respected and appreciated for our beliefs.
When atheists work together, we have plenty to offer in the way of civic participation.
One example: The atheist group at Kiva.org has the largest membership and has also donated more money (nearly $500,000) than any other group. And those groups members barely know each other.
What happens when atheists communities are tighter knit?
The article by Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service quotes Ron Millar, acting director of the Secular Coalition for America (though Burke misidentifies Millar’s group as the American Humanist Association):
Ron Millar… said that nontheists are just as likely to volunteer for worthy causes as believers. For example, he noted that the Secular Student Alliance went to New Orleans to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity a few years ago.
“We’re out there,” Millar said. “We just don’t say we’re driven by our nonbelief in God to do good work.”
(A couple of the SSA’s affiliates did go to New Orleans, but it wasn’t exactly with Habitat for Humanity… what’s up with this reporting?)
Anyway, as churches lose their power, we need to be there to offer the community people want to have without the religious superstitions that so often go with it.
Let’s get rid of the bathwater and keep the baby. If that’s not a *perfect* metaphor for what we need to do, I don’t know what is…
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