That awkward moment when someone asks you what you do. Best. Ansa. Eva.


God’s truth, believers are nicer

“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.”


“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.”


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.”

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