By JR on Friday, September 09, 2011
I'm getting ready to duck, but don't shoot the messenger. The results are in: religious people are nicer. Or so says Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard.
Described by London's Sunday Times as the most influential academic in the world today, Putnam is not a religious believer. Best known for Bowling Alone, the book that made ''social capital'' a key indicator of a healthy society, Putnam, with his co-author David Campbell (a Mormon), has waded into the debate about religion in the public square with his latest offering, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us. The book emerges out of two massive and comprehensive surveys into religion and public life in America.
Their most conspicuously controversial finding is that religious people make better citizens and neighbours. Putnam and Campbell write that ''for the most part, the evidence we review suggests that religiously observant Americans are more civic, and in some respects simply 'nicer' ''.
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On every measurable scale, religious Americans are more generous, more altruistic and more involved in civic life than their secular counterparts.
They are more likely to give blood, money to a homeless person, financial aid to family or friends, a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone who is ''a bit down''.
Putnam and his team interviewed 3000 people twice over two years, asking a range of questions about people's religious lives as well as their civic involvement, social relationships, political beliefs, economic situation and demographic profile.
The religious landscape is very different in Australia, but what information we do have suggests similar results here. A 2004 report by the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Research and Philanthropy in Australia, found that people who said they were religious were more likely to volunteer, and for more hours, than others. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data suggests the same. Nonetheless, a study here as in-depth and wide-ranging as Putnam's would be fascinating.
Putnam says religious people don't like everything about his book, but they do like this material.
Yet, despite what I'm writing here, I'm not really claiming that people of faith are better people than non-believers.
Many of my friends have no faith and would outdo me on measures used in these surveys.
In the church, just like any area of life, it's a mixed bag of the good, the not so good and the, well, nutty.
But this research is in stark contrast to claims by prominent authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. After reading their works, you'd swear that religion makes you immediately abandon rationality to become an inward-looking extremist. What Putnam's book does at the very least is to bring a bit of balance into the conversation.
A sobering note for believers is that this study reveals that the content of a person's belief isn't what matters so much as their level of involvement in a religious community.
An atheist who comes to church to support her partner will rate as well as any believer on these scores.
What can't be denied, according to Putnam and Campbell, is that there is something unique about a religious community, that has an impact on people for good.
So next time a removalist truck delivers a bunch of God-botherers into your neighbourhood, don't despair. It might be reason to celebrate.