Do Religious People Make Better Citizens?

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…

  • http://t3knomanser.livejournal.com t3knomanser

    I’ve gotta be honest, though. I don’t really want to be part of a community. That’s just me. I think creating atheist communities is a great idea, but I’m not going to be part of it, personally.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an age correlation as well. Many of the new nonreligious in the poll were of a younger generation. Young people with small children and/or are trying to finish up college degrees may also be less likely to volunteer, whereas an older retired person may do nothing but volunteer their time. Same with donating money: younger people have less. Also, some of the “polite” things described are often polite gestures to an older generation.

    So possibly nothing to do with religion whatsoever.

  • mikespeir

    Are we defining “good citizen” as “what religious people do”?

  • Erik

    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

    The problem is that they don’t differentiate on which of these projects, associations, etc are self-serving. If they give money and time to groups trying to get rid of homosexuals and go to political rallys to make sure only right wing extremist christians get into office, I think that makes them worse citizens. Activity alone is not enough; many active citizens make this country worse, not better.

  • Larry Huffman

    I think believing someone is going to be punished for eternity because of their beliefs…or lack thereof…is patently ‘not nice’.

  • Infinitemonkey

    I think making a “community” of atheists will be a hard sell. Some atheists, especially the angry ones, might see that as “religous”, since a group of people with common beliefs are coming together. Lets just hope the Invisible Pink Unicorn will prod them with her blessed horn into joining such a group.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    and donate time and money to causes — including secular ones.

    But what if we assign a negative value to those religious causes and activities that do harm, rather than just consider them to be neutral? That money a churchgoer donates for African missionaries may be going to fund witch-hunting, or to fight effective prophylaxis or to threaten paleontology of human origins. Money going to religious organizations in the U.S. may be going to promote theocracy, or to oppose effective science education, or to limit the reproductive rights of women.

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    I don’t for for bigot and morons who don’t “believe in evolution”

    This cancels out a 1000 religious community volunteers easily.

  • Just4Kix

    I volunteer to help out with charities all the time (seriously), and I’m not religious. I’ve never met a scientist with a clipboard asking me what my religious preference is, every time I did a good deed. This conclusion is hardly based on any real data.

    Being a skeptic, I read this as: those who do charitable services and claim they are religious, they are doing it for selfish reasons… to get into Heaven!

    Now if you look at it from the other standpoint, if you were religious, and your church asked you to donate your time to help out a charity, and you choose not to — you’ll suffer the slings and arrows from your congregation (plus the invisible man) — am I right? Maybe the results of this is just hard evidence of “pew pressure” – pun most definitely intended.

  • Siamang

    The theory is: if someone from your “moral community” asks you to volunteer for a cause, it’s really hard to say no.

    You know, that’s awesome when the people from your “moral community” are helping the poor or the needy.

    Not so awesome when your “moral community” is attempting to publicly shame your son to keep him from “turning” gay. Is THAT being a “better neighbor”?

    Religion is a power multiplier, no doubt about it.

    But this guy only tracked one side of the ledger.

  • tony

    The whole notion of community is actually the backbone of being a Christian. To be a Christian you have to be a part of the “body of christ” that is the church community. I have noticed that most atheists really don’t want to be a part of a community. They just want to do their own thing. Which is fine I guess, however the question I would have to ask is if that thinking exists within the majority of atheists, what would happen to society as a whole if those religious communities were no longer around? What would happen if all the religious aid groups that help people during natural disasters disappeared, what would happen if all the religious homeless shelters closed down, what would happen if all the local church food banks closed down. What would happen if all the after school programs closed down. The answer to that is that it gets filled by something else. The only answers that exist are either the government takes that up which means more taxes because government employees make more than volunteers or another religion takes over like in Europe. Which is becoming more muslim by the day. So really if you think about it what is better. Extremely high taxes, a muslim US or keeping what we currently have.

  • http://brokenocean.wordpress.com Nick_O

    I’ve gotta be honest, though. I don’t really want to be part of a community. That’s just me. I think creating atheist communities is a great idea, but I’m not going to be part of it, personally.

    This.

    I tend to enjoy individuals as I meet them; I have precious little time or patience for groups they identify with and belong to. I consider myself an atheist, and I appreciate the groups/communities that are formed for and by atheists, but I don’t wish to be included.

  • mikespeir

    I have noticed that most atheists really don’t want to be a part of a community.

    I have to admit this is an issue I don’t have resolved. What does happen when the majority become atheists who “really don’t want to be a part of a community”? Community is what has allowed us to rise above savagery. What will keep society up and running?

    Historically, we’ve glommed around delusions that keep most of us more or less on the same page most of the time. What will replace those delusions? It’s a delusion itself to think that rational people will come to the same conclusions about fundamental issues. Will we splinter into factious shards? How do we avoid that short of devising some new delusion to which everyone is expected to subscribe? What will we do with those persons who refuse? I don’t see a believable way out of this dilemma.

  • Thilina

    So really if you think about it what is better. Extremely high taxes, a muslim US or keeping what we currently have.

    These aren’t the only options. If religion did rapidly start deteriorating (and another religion doesn’t take over- far more likely to be the likes of Scientology or Mormons than Muslims), volunteer groups that have no religious or (explicitly)secular purpose would start to pop up. Their is some of them around already (most tend to focused on particular issues) but most people prefer to join the church instead.

  • Aj

    They say more involved is better, but is it really? Firstly “nice” used to be an insult, and if that means not caring that people cut in line then it probably still should be. More importantly, not being able to say no to a member of your “moral community” is not in anyway a good thing. The way religious communities function is not necessarily a good thing we should replicate, perhaps it’s a turd in the bathwater. Sometimes groups are effective because of the power of authority and supression of dissent. Lets have some risk assessment here, something that is powerful is not always controllable, secular groups can, have, and do great harm, religion doesn’t have exclusive rights to that. Nationalist communities have also been successful in the same manner as these people assess “faith communities” as successful.

  • tony

    Sometimes groups are effective because of the power of authority and supression of dissent.

    Not necessarily, a lot of the religious groups gather in communities because they all feel they have a common goal amongst themselves. Which in their mind simply comes down I want to do good for God. I know for a fact that most the evangelical church is pretty splintered and directing them is like herding cats. Of course there are pockets here and there that have the problem of an extreme hierarchy but 80% really make up their mind on their own. Obama winning the election is an example of this. He won because a sizable number of church goers thought that he was better than McCain. The reason why Christians join communities is because they feel that they can accomplish more that way. Churches teach their followers that there is strength in community. The flaws that you have can be countered by the strengths of another and that it is sometimes impossible to do things on your own. I think anyone would acknowledge this as true, as the saying goes 2 heads are better than one. They take it one step further of course to also say that you can not live without God as well because we are flawed.

    As with atheists forming communities a hard fact that has to be realized is that if large numbers haven’t been formed now then they probably won’t be formed later. The only way they would form is if the fundamental perception of being an atheist is would have to change. Religious folks do what they do because they ultimately want to make one person happy and thats God. But for many atheists serving a complete stranger and even going the length of even putting your life on the line for a complete stranger doesn’t make sense. Atheists would have to serve others in the community with an ultimate ideal goal in mind. But its not just that the individual has to have that ideal but the whole collective would also have to in order for the civilization to be successful.

  • tony

    If religion did rapidly start deteriorating (and another religion doesn’t take over- far more likely to be the likes of Scientology or Mormons than Muslims)

    I could possibly see Mormons making that move and they are always trying to. As for scientology, I don’t think they could fill that gap because their leader’s goal is more about taking money and keeping it for himself then for any other thing. The whole network of scientology always leads back to making his life better. Yes there are some churches in the US that take advantage of their followers like that too but the entire religion of scientology is set that way. You should see some of the anonymous videos on scientology. You;ll see what I’m talking about. Its not a religion but a huge ponzi scheme.

  • llewelly

    Do Religious People Make Better Citizens?

    Of course they do.
    From here:

    Charmer Wren, vice president of the atheist society at the Metropolitan State College in Denver, was chatting on the group’s website with a fundamentalist Christian when he received a disturbing message.

    “He said the United States was a Christian nation and when I disagreed, he threatened to run me over if he ever saw me on campus,” Mr Wren said.

  • llewelly

    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.

    Conversely – when the community you were raised in, volunteered for, worked for, and so on, rejects you because they realized you don’t believe in their woo – you don’t feel inclined to help out.

  • llewelly

    I have noticed that most atheists really don’t want to be a part of a community. They just want to do their own thing. Which is fine I guess, however the question I would have to ask is if that thinking exists within the majority of atheists, what would happen to society as a whole if those religious communities were no longer around?

    My desire to avoid being a part of a ‘community’ is a direct result of my experiences with the sorts of religious communities you describe.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder how the Pew people would reply to this argument

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Why of course religious people make better citizens. How could you think otherwise when reading about stuff like this:

    Chalmer Wren, vice president of the atheist society at the Metropolitan State College in Denver, was chatting on the group’s website with a fundamentalist Christian when he received a disturbing message.
    “He said the United States was a Christian nation and when I disagreed, he threatened to run me over if he ever saw me on campus,” Mr Wren said.


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