God’s truth, believers are nicer

This is an extended version of Simon Smart's Herald article of the same name.

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. Putnam is no lightweight—he’s been described by the London Sunday Times as the most “influential academic in the world today.” Nor is he a religious believer.

Most well known for Bowling Alone, the book that made the notion of ‘social capital’ a key indicator of the health of a society, Putnam, along with 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 conducted into religion and public life in America. Much of what they write will make for spirited dinner party discussions and on-line brawls.

But the most conspicuously controversial finding in this book is the point delivered most emphatically—that religious people make better citizens and neighbours! They write, “… for the most part, the evidence we review suggests that religiously observant Americans are more civic, and in some respects simply ‘nicer’”. I had my own reasons for understanding why someone might be sceptical of such claims, but was intrigued enough to read on.

Putnam and Campbell report that on every measurable scale, religious Americans are better volunteers, more generous financial givers, more altruistic and more involved in civic life, than their secular counterparts. Religious people are better neighbours, more community minded, more likely to volunteer (and not just for faith-based activities). They are more likely to give blood, to give money to a homeless person, to provide financial aid to family or friends, to offer a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone who is “a bit down”. They are more often taking part in local civic and political life and pushing for reform. The list goes on, and it’s a long list.

America is a generous nation, but there is a sharp difference between religious Americans and secular Americans in terms of giving, to both religious and secular causes. The writers report that, “virtually every part of the American philanthropic spectrum benefits disproportionately from giving by religiously observant men and women, but this is especially true for organisations serving the needy.” (450) This is even more striking given that religious Americans are slightly poorer than secular Americans.

In almost every category measuring ‘good neighbourliness’ believers score much higher than a comparable person who is secular. Some might complain that surveys can tell you anything, but this data is substantial and rigorous. Putnam and his team interviewed 3000 people twice over two years, firstly in 2006 and then in 2007. They conducted a wide-ranging set of questions about people’s religious lives as well as their civic involvement, social relationships, political beliefs, economic situation and demographic profile. “Every significant generalisation … remains accurate when we control simultaneously for gender, education, income, race, region, homeownership, length of residence, marital and parental status, ideology and age,” (italics theirs) they write.

We all know that the religious landscape is very different in Australia, but what information we do have suggests similar results would be found here. A 2004 report by the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Research and Philanthropy in Australia, for example, found that people who said they were religious were more likely to volunteer, and to volunteer for more hours, than those who said they were not. The report found the effect was more pronounced for those who attended church or other religious services frequently. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data suggests the same. Nonetheless, a study as in-depth and wide-ranging as Putnam’s in this country would be fascinating.

Putnam says that religious people don’t like everything about his book, but they do like this material! Yet, despite what I’m writing here, it’s really not my go to claim that people of faith are better people than non-believers. Many of my friends have no faith or believe something different from me, and plenty of them would outdo me on measures used in these surveys. Experience in the church suggests that, just like any area of life, it’s a mixed bag of the good, the not so good, and the, well, nutty.

Experience in the church suggests that, 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 in recent years by prominent authors like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris that imply the opposite. After reading their works, you’d swear that religion made you immediately abandon rationality to become an inward looking extremist, more bigoted, more selfish and most interested in infecting the community with something sinister. 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 Putnam’s and Campbell’s 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. On the other hand, a devout believer not involved in a religious community, will do as poorly as any secular person on the score of good neighbourliness.

What can’t be denied, according to Putnam and Campbell, is that there is something unique about a religious community that isn’t found elsewhere, that has an impact on people for good. If nothing else, it must be acknowledged that a community of faith apparently draws even the most selfish and mean-spirited of us towards something bigger and grander than ourselves.

For whatever reason, hanging out with people of religious faith might be better for you than you think. That’s what Putnam says he’s discovered. So next time a removalist truck delivers a bunch of God-botherers into your neighbourhood, don’t despair. If you can trust the stats, it might be reason to celebrate.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

This is an extended version of an article that originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald