Religion and volunteering

Religion and volunteering October 11, 2009

The last post was on religion and work ethic. So to follow up here’s another new paper on a similar topic: religion and volunteering.

Religious people do more voluntary work than non-religious people. According to a June 2009 Canadian report, the 15% people who go to Church every week make up 26% of the volunteer workforce.

It’s difficult to figure out exactly why this should be. Is it spiritual beliefs? The evidence I put up in my previous post, linking religious beliefs to a small increase in work ethic, might make lead you to think so. Religious people get an extra reward from volunteering (they usually believe they’ll get some kind of bonus from their God): that makes it more attractive.

But maybe it’s cultural. Religious people tend to swim in a sea of ‘volunteerism’, so volunteering might simply be something that’s expected of them by their peers. They also get more opportunities to volunteer, by virtue of being plugged into a ready-made volunteer network.

In contrast, non-religious people might be excluded from volunteering because (especially in a religious society), many opportunities for volunteering come with a lot of religious baggage. That can be a turn-off for the non-religious.

The new study, by Bianca Suanet and colleagues at VU University in the Netherlands, is interesting because it takes a fresh angle on the problem (VU University, by the way, has its historical roots as a Christian university).

They looked at two samples of Dutch people, a set who were around 60 years old in 1992, and a set of people who turned 60 in around 2002. In other words, the second set of people was born 10 years later.

They found that 43% of people who were 60 in 1992 did voluntary work, but this had dropped to 37% of those who were 60 in 2002. A small drop, but statistically significant.

Next they looked at the factors that might explain the drop. Most had no effect: it didn’t matter whether they were employed, had a father who was a church member, had a mother who did volunteer work, or had well educated parents.

What did matter is their own level of education – highly educated people were 2.7 times more likely to volunteer than people with low education levels. That might be, of course, because highly educated people tend to also have high levels of self-motivation. But presumably the psychological characteristics of the cohorts were the same, which suggests that it’s a direct effect of education on volunteerism.

And the other factor that made a difference was religious involvement. People who had religious beliefs but didn’t go to Church were not more likely to volunteer. But people who did go to Church were.

For religious non-Christians and Catholics, the effect was impressive – they were over 2.5 times more likely to volunteer than the non-religious. But for practising Calvinists, the effect was dramatic – they were 4.7 times more likely to volunteer.

Now, the actual effects of religion remain pretty small. Overall, they could explain only 16% of the variation among individuals. And religion is only a fraction of that (it’s pretty hard to tell from the stats they present, but it probably explains about 5-10% of the variability). It’s small, but it’s there.

So in light of this, there’s one other fascinating fact that comes out from the study. It turns out that, after controlling for all the other factors (including the increase in their education levels and the loss of religious belief), the more recent set of ‘oldies’ were actually more likely to be volunteers.

In other words, the decline in religion causes a negative hit on volunteering. That’s made up for a bit by the increase in education. But there’s something else going on that’s increasing volunteering.

And that something may well be cultural. To me, it seems likely that Dutch society is reinventing itself as religion becomes increasingly marginalised. Whereas religion and volunteering were once intimately connected, now volunteering is something for non-believers as well (incidentally, this is reflected in the constitution of VU University itself, which transformed itself in the 1960s from a religious university to a secular, state funded one).

So a secular future may not mean a future without volunteers. And the good news from Canada is that this is probably the case.

Canada, like other Western nations, has seen plummeting religious participation (Statistics Canada). And volunteering went down from 191 hours per person in 1987 to 149 hours in 1997 (here’s the 1997 report). But the last report shows an uptick, with volunteer rates climbing to 166 hours in 2007.

I think that the take-home from this is that religion probably does stimulate volunteering. But religion is not the only way to achieve this, and it’s probably not the best, either.

Suanet, B., Broese van Groenou, M., & Braam, A. (2009). Changes in volunteering among young old in the Netherlands between 1992 and 2002: the impact of religion, age-norms, and intergenerational transmission European Journal of Ageing, 6 (3), 157-165 DOI: 10.1007/s10433-009-0119-7

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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