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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Does religion really poison everything?

In Touchstone magazine, Logan Paul Gage asks, "Does Religion Really poison everything?" Citing findings from an academic conference,
"Religious Practice and Civic Life: What the Research Says,” he notes some trends that Mario and I covered in The Spiritual Brain Spirituality is more individualistic than it used to be. Fewer Americans go to church, for example, but prayer and belief in an afterlife have both increased.

Also, those who are involved in a religious tradition are more likely to be altruistic. According to the University of Toronto's Tom Smith, who directs the General Social Survey,
... according to the 2002–2004 GSS, for every 100 altruistic acts—like giving blood or letting someone ahead of you in the checkout line—performed by nonreligious people, the religious perform 144.
Volunteerism also benefits from religion, according to Baylor’s Christopher Bader and F. Carson Mencken (finally, a religion-friendly Mencken), who cited the Baylor Religion Survey. Weekly church attendees volunteer more often in their communities, both through the church and through secular organizations.
The correlation is most striking among men.

Mark Musick of the University of Texas thought, when he started his research on volunteerism worldwide, that education would best predict who volunteers, but he found that attending religious services was the strongest predictor, stronger than either education or income. Gage comments,
This helps us understand why Utah and Nevada have the highest and lowest volunteer rates, respectively, despite their shared geography. Even when you exclude explicitly religious volunteering, heavily Mormon Utah still ranks tenth in the nation.

I'm not surprised by this (any more than I am surprised by the fact that religious people are more honest and that religious teens are less likely to be delinquent). All these are logical consequences. For example, you are far more likely to have your arm twisted to do volunteer work if you attend religious services than if you hang at a shopping mall. I should know because I have been, at various times, one of the people twisting the arms myself ... staying up late to write appeals for sweat or cash on behalf of the needy, and then delivering them with genuine emotion to a captive congregation. But why not? They know it's coming, and it gets the job done.

Gage, a policy analyst with the Discovery Institute, proves a link to Robert Wuthnow's keynote address, Myths About American Religion. Wuthnow, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, provides an excellent survey of what is and isn't really going on. For example,
It is true that the religiously nonaffiliated still have ties to religion. At least half, if not more, believe in God. As many as a quarter attend religious services, often at churches that do not require membership or formal affiliation. And about a quarter fall into that much-discussed category who say they are "spiritual but not religious," meaning that they have some interest in prayer, meditation, and spirituality. But all of these aspects of religion are driven mostly by the demographics of growing up, getting married, and settling down—all of which are happening later—more so than by disaffiliating from religion because of politics.

Take one Wuthnow as an antidote to the next farout theory you hear on the radio, whether about the Religious Right or the Religious Left, or the End of Religion. (Note: Don't, however, simply extrapolate American findings to Canada. Canada is genuinely different in a number of ways. More later.)

The conference hosted by the Heritage Foundation and research partners Child Trends and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, and held in Washington, D.C., in late October.

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