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How Religious Neighbors Are Better Neighbors

July 14, 2013, 10:00 AM

How does religion affects citizenship and American democracy?

One of the surprises we discovered is that religious Americans are better neighbors and better citizens in a way.  They're not as tolerant of diversity, and not as tolerant of say, sexuality or they're not as convinced civil libertarians as secular people are, but by all other measures, religious people really are more generous, more giving, nicer neighbors, and some of the evidence for that is that religious people volunteer a lot more and not just to be a church usher, but they volunteer for secular causes, to be a Little League coach or to work in a soup kitchen or whatever.  

Religious people are generous people. They give a lot more of their income away, a lot of that goes to church is of course but they are also bigger givers to nonreligious churches than to secular causes like, you know the United Way or some other secular cause.  Religious people are two or three times more likely to work on a community project or to be active in civic life and belong to civic groups of one sort or another.  They are more likely to work on social reform that is not just left wing activism of these religious people; they're more likely to work on social reform in their local community.  They're more likely to let people in front of them, they're more likely to help old ladies across the street, they're more likely to give a clerk who has given them the wrong change, more likely to give the change back.  In many respects religious people are more, as I say, better neighbors and better citizens, more likely to vote and so on.  

But then we begin to explore why is it that religious people are more civically engaged, and more generous neighbors and so on?  We thought, well it probably has something to do with their religious beliefs or theology, you know they believe that they should begin because if they don't God will punish them or if they are good God will benefit them and that will get them to heaven quicker or something.  That's what we thought it might have to do with something about their theology, but it turns out, that that doesn't... theology, even the belief in God, is completely irrelevant to this question of how good a citizen you are.  It has to do with being involved in religious social networks.  The more friends, close friends, you have at church or in your religious congregation, the better citizen you are the better neighbor you are and in some sense the nicer you are.  And it doesn't matter what religion it is, it's the same relationship... it's exactly the same for Jews and Protestants and Catholics and so on.  How firmly you believe in God doesn't matter at all it's really how many church friends.  

So, let's take two people, one of whom is really religious, firmly believes in God, prays all the time, but sits in the pews alone; doesn't have any friends at church.  That person turns out not to be nicer than many secular persons.  That is, being really devout isn't the key here.  Conversely, for someone who is actually not all that religious and may be not even sure if God exists, that goes to a lot of church suppers maybe because their spouse for example maybe goes to church and so they go along with their spouse but they're not convinced about the religion part of it but they have a lot of friends at church, that person is just as nice as someone who goes to church and is a believer.  So that in short, the secret ingredient here is friends at church and religious friends are supercharged friends, that's over and above just having friends.  Just having friends is likely to make you nicer but having religious friends, that's really, really powerful for reasons we don't quite understand.

I wrote this book a couple of years ago called, Bowling Alone, that was about how being connected in various kinds of civic groups, like bowling leagues, makes you happier and more likely to... makes your community better and makes your life better and so on.  So the moral of that story was bowling in leagues is better than bowling alone.  But the moral of this new story is, ah yes, but bowling in church leagues, that's the secret.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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