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.
Described by London's Sunday Times as the most
influential academic in the world today, Putnam is
not a religious believer. Best known for Bowling
Alone, the book that made ''social capital'' a key
indicator of a healthy society, Putnam, with his 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 into religion and public life
in America. In the church, just like any
area of life, it's a mixed bag of the good, the not
so good and the, well, nutty
Their most conspicuously controversial finding is
that religious people make better citizens and
neighbours. Putnam and Campbell write that ''for the
most part, the evidence we review suggests that
religiously observant Americans are more civic, and
in some respects simply 'nicer' ''.
On every measurable scale, religious Americans are
more generous, more altruistic and more involved in
civic life than their secular counterparts.
They are more likely to give blood, money to a
homeless person, financial aid to family or friends,
a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone
who is ''a bit down''.
Putnam and his team interviewed 3000 people twice
over two years, asking a range of questions about
people's religious lives as well as their civic
involvement, social relationships, political beliefs,
economic situation and demographic profile.
The religious landscape is very different in
Australia, but what information we do have suggests
similar results here. A 2004 report by the
Department of Families, Community Services and
Indigenous Affairs, Research and Philanthropy in
Australia, found that people who said they were
religious were more likely to volunteer, and for
more hours, than others. The Australian Bureau of
Statistics data suggests the same. Nonetheless, a
study here as in-depth and wide-ranging as Putnam's
would be fascinating.
Putnam says religious people don't like everything
about his book, but they do like this material.
Yet, despite what I'm writing here, I'm not really
claiming that people of faith are better people than
Many of my friends have no faith and would outdo me
on measures used in these surveys.
In the church, just like any area of life, it's a
mixed bag of the good, the not so good and the,
But this research is in stark contrast to claims by
prominent authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam
Harris. After reading their works, you'd swear that
religion makes you immediately abandon rationality
to become an inward-looking extremist. 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 this 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
What can't be denied, according to Putnam and
Campbell, is that there is something unique about a
religious community, that has an impact on people
So next time a removalist truck delivers a bunch of
God-botherers into your neighbourhood, don't
despair. It might be reason to celebrate.