To clarify an unanswerable question (“Does Religion Work?): My particular concern has been whether the practices or views of Buddhists and Christians (particularly Catholics and Tibetan Buddhists, the traditions to which I belong) are correlated with increases in altruistic behavior. My hunch is that Christians tend to believe that religions are the best game in town for inspiring us to “make the world a better place,” and that Buddhists, particularly in the Tibetan tradition believe that meditation practice has a similar effect, albeit (usually) indirectly. I shall return to the meditation question in my next entry. But first let’s take a look at the evidence for altruism and other possible effects of religious belonging, views and behaviors, mainly among American Christians.
Last August on this blog I expressed my disappointment that, all things considered, after 2,000 years the Kingdom of God, i.e. a world of justice, kindness and equity, was realized more in the hope that in the state of the world. I was particularly unnerved by the American class warfare over health care, and by my inference (open to challenge) that Right Wing American Christians who resent government were among those who opposed the redistribution of some of their income to provide health care for the poor, disabled, et al. Despite the notorious bias toward the poor and African-Americans in death penalty sentencing, American Christians have long been divided over opposition vs. support for the death penalty. Christians, like Western Buddhists (perhaps like many of their Asian counterparts) both blithely accept the killing of nonhuman animals soley for their own gustatory pleasure. (Hal Herzog’s studies of human relations with animals have shown that the majority of Americans who think nonhumans are like us in all significant ways still eat them.) One’s dismay at this is heightened by the data from the UN White Paper showing that animal agriculture is by far the largest source of greenhouse gases. These situations are made worse by the American ethos that considers many moralities as a matter of aesthetic choice. (Think of the last barbecue you attended where your host provided a vegetarian option.) In such cases, morality has been subsumed under the rubric of “taste.” Occasionally a voice speaks from the wilderness, declaring like Tom Friedman (not a “usual suspect” for moral wisdom) that private virtue is a hobby. Private virtue and personal example will not overcome the massive human killing of nonhumans for pleasure, global warming, extreme overpopulation, the coming global conflict over water rights, the millions of annual deaths of Africans due to unclean water and other effects of Extreme Poverty.
For some anti-religious extremists the aforementioned would be an invitation to argue that religion has failed humankind. This type of deductive argument from a priori bias seemed much too simplistic to me, not to mention, false, and I suspected that the “flaws” expressed here were not from religion per se, but in human nature. This impelled me to set aside my longtime interests in biblical scholarship (Historical Jesus studies) and Buddhism (and religious pluralism), and turn to the study of the cognitive sciences. I attended courses at Yale University in Cognitive Science (broadly), Moral Psychology, Social Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. I was exposed to such participating disciplines as Developmental Psychology, Comparative (Animal) Cognition, Linguistics – especially the evolution of language, Evolutionary Psychology, Vision Science, etc. Meanwhile I continued my participation in Yale Working Groups in Bioethics, and Religion and Science, and joined another on cognitive science and culture.
In the course of these studies I attended Paul Bloom’s Devane Lectures on “The Moralities of Everyday Life,” Paul is an acknowledged atheist, a naturalist and secularist, who concedes that on first take religion might seem helpful and that humans are “born believers,” but his own (admittedly subjective) bias is that on balance it does more harm than good. Despite his own biases, he keeps up with much of the literature on religion and psychology and this makes him a helpful source providing one is careful to parse the science from the opinion. (For an excellent recent example of Paul’s writing in this area see “Religion, Morality, Evolution,” in The Annual Review Psychology 2012, doi 10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100334.) Paul has repeatedly cited the historic “meta-study” of religion in America published as American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us. I see no evidence that it supports Paul’s bias, and happy to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it does not support my own skepticism.
How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us (?)
American Grace, by Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is probably the most ambitious study of religion in America in decades, reaching into areas unexamined by the series of very useful and admirable surveys by the Pew Charitable Trust, the Gallup organization’s polling, and specialized studies like Elain Howard Ecklund’s on views about religion and science. American Grace examines how the changes in sexual mores and attitudes toward authority in the 1960s provoked reactions among conservative Christians that became linked to politics on the 1970s and 1980s; this phenomenon in turn led to an abandonment of organized religion by many young Americans. Both conservative and secular extremism continued to grow, shrinking the middle. But at the same time Americans became increasingly at ease with religious pluralism. (Among the study’s findings: “Between one-third and one-half of all American marriages are interfaith,” and ‘Even fervently religious Americans believe that people in other faiths can get to heaven.”) It should also be noted that the title is a misnomer. But in today’s blog I want to focus specifically on Chapter 13, “Religion and Good Neighborliness.”
Does religion affect generosity?
In general the studies in American Grace found that religious Americans (controlling for demographics like race, etc.) are more likely than secular Americans to:
- Give money to a charity.
- Do volunteer work for a charity
- Give money to a homeless person
- Donate their own blood
- Help someone outside the own household with housework
- Spend time with someone who is “a bit down”.
- Allow a stranger to cut in front of them
- Offer a seat to a stranger
- Help someone find a job
And these differences v. secular Americans are not marginal.
- Americans who volunteer for religious groups are two or three times more likely to also volunteer for secular groups than those who don’t volunteer for religious groups. Weekly churchgoers volunteer significantly more than annual churchgoers, to religious and secular causes. Regular churchgoers are more than twice as likely to to volunteer to help the needy, compared to those who rarely, if ever, attend church.
- In terms of the percentage of their annual income, the average person among the most religious fifth of Americans studied is four times as generous as the average in the least religious fifth. Those who donate to religious causes are far more likely to donate to secular causes, and they give a larger portion of their income. They have a particular edge in giving to educational, youth and international organizations; but even with a specialized group like the American Cancer Society, the weekly churchgoer is more than 33% more likely to donate than his secular counterpart.
The intensity of engagement with a religion, e.g. church attendance, is more predictive of these behaviors than which religion a person belongs to.
Are religious Americans good citizens (in a secular state) ?
Education is the strongest correlate to civic participation, partly by encouraging it, partly by offering the social and cognitive skills, and partly because of the economic status associated with higher education. Except for a partial correlate for economic status, religion is the strongest predictor for civic engagement:
- The most religious Americans belong to 34% more civic organizations that the the most secular (fifth).
- They are more than twice as likely to be leaders within these organizations
- They attend three times as public meetings on local affairs
- They are more likely to vote in local elections (56% v. 46%).
- Controlling for various background characteristics and ideology, they are almost twice as likely to report belonging to a organization engaged in local political or social reform. They are more likely to engage in protests and demonstrations. (However, activism is higher among religious liberals than conservatives.)
- Although conservatives tend to more religious than liberals, it is their religiosity, not their political ideology that produces their generosity.
There is much for reflection and further investigation here. I have seen no evidence that these effects are produced solely by the desire to maintain and enhance one’s “in-group status,” as secularist skeptics might suggest. The effects correlate most highly with frequent church attendance, rather than denominational affiliation, per se, or the strength of ”beliefs.” But one would hope to find correlates more specific than frequency of church attendance. And one would like to pressure further with questions about genuine engagement with the poor and needy, and about the kind of altruism Pope John Paul II called for: compassion at a cost to oneself. But the meantime we can find hope in Putnam and Campbell’s magisterial work, that indeed some element(s) of institutional religious participation do inspire American Christians on a large scale to actions that “make the world a better place.”
Coming Soon: “Does Meditation Work?”
For my initial blog essay on this subject, see “Does Religion Work: The Quest for a Human Future.”
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