Regular worship is the mortar of the Big Society

November 6, 2010
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 6th November 2010

Where is the Big Society when we need it? Where will we find those reservoirs of volunteering, mutual aid, good neighbourliness, philanthropy and altruism on which we are going to have to draw in the lean years that lie ahead?

A fascinating answer has just emerged, across the Atlantic, from the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. Putnam became famous a decade ago for a phrase he coined to describe our loss of all these things. He called it “bowling alone.” More people, he said, were going ten-pin bowling, but fewer were joining teams and leagues. It was his symbol of our increasingly individualistic, atomistic, self-preoccupied culture. Things we once did together, we now do alone. Our bonds of belonging – what sociologists call “social capital” – were growing thin.

That was the bad news. Now, a decade later, in his new book American Grace, Putnam sets out the good news. A powerful store of social capital still exists. It is called religion: the churches, synagogues and other places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility. The evidence shows that religious people – defined by regular attendance at a place of worship – make better neighbours.

An extensive survey carried out throughout the United States between 2004 and 2006 showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers are more likely to give money to charity, regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular. They are also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, give excess change back to a shop assistant, donate blood, help a neighbour with housework, spend time with someone who is feeling depressed, allow another driver to cut in front of them, offer a seat to a stranger, or help someone find a job.

For some acts of help, like looking after someone else's plant or pet while they are away, helping to carry someone’s belongings, or giving directions to a stranger, there was no difference between frequent- and non-churchgoers.  But there was no good deed among the fifteen on the survey more commonly practised by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts. Religious Americans are simply more likely to give of their time and money to others, not only within but also beyond their own communities.

Their altruism goes beyond this, however. Frequent worshippers are also significantly more active citizens. They are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, health, arts and leisure, neighbourhood and civic groups, fraternal and professional associations. Within these organisations they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They take a more active part in local civic and political life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. They get involved, turn up and lead. And the margin of difference between them and the more secular is large.

Tested on attitudes, religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance turns out to be the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race. On the basis of self-reported life satisfaction, religious people are also happier than their non-religious counterparts.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that each of these attributes is related not to people’s religious beliefs but to the frequency with which they attend a place of worship. Religion creates community, community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and toward the common good. Putnam goes so far as to speculate that an atheist who went regularly to church (perhaps because of a spouse) would be more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than a believer who prays alone. There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious community that makes it the best tutorial in citizenship and good neighbourliness.

This is pathbreaking research by one of the world’s greatest sociologists, and it confirms what I see every week in my travels across Britain. Around our synagogues I find networks of support often breathtaking in their strength and moral beauty. Here are people visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, helping individuals through personal crisis, supporting those in financial need, assisting people who have lost their jobs, caring for the elderly, and proving daily that our troubles are halved and our joys doubled when they are shared with others.

Religions build strong communities. We are going to need their social capital if we are to create a big society.