This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
As a professor at a college that declares itself proudly progressive, I am regularly told by my students that both my faith and my teaching on religion and civil society are anachronistic.
My students, many of whom identify as atheists or agnostics, tend to see religion as offering little value in building community and civil society. As evidence, they appeal to popular, if questionable, studies, including an oft-cited report allegedly proving that children raised without religion show more empathy and kindness than those who grew up with faith.
The trouble is that these arguments run counter to over a century of scholarly writing. A diverse range of thinkers, from Émile Durkheim to Robert Nisbet and Robert Putnam, have documented the role that religion plays as a key organizing principle in society. And more recent evidence simply doesn’t square with the idea that non-religious people are more empathetic than those who are religious.
So, in response to my students and their ideas, I want to share the findings from a new survey on Community and Society. The survey, published by the American Enterprise Institute, adds another layer to the relationship between religion, community, and empathy, and offers a rebuttal to the misguided proposition that religion plays little to no role in the formation of community. The numbers tell a powerful story, one in which religious adherents of all sorts are, in fact, far more connected and generous than their non-religious counterparts.
For instance, the survey asked a national sample of Americans about their connections to others. One portion queried if respondents felt close to anyone. Among respondents who said religion is important to them, 61 percent said they “often” felt close to others, with only 11 percent saying they rarely or never felt close to anyone. In contrast, an appreciably lower 43 percent of respondents who said religion was not important to them reported that they often felt close to others; 18 percent of these respondents stated that they rarely or never felt close to anyone. An almost identical gap emerged when respondents were asked if they felt “in tune with the people around you.”
Similarly, when asked about empathy and being able to identify and sympathize with others, 46 percent of religiously inclined respondents said they “often” can connect with others who understand them. Only 29 percent of non-religious respondents answered in the same fashion — a 17-point difference.
The survey also showed differences in community engagement levels.
I polled Americans about their connections to their neighbors, including knowing those living around them, talking to one’s neighbors with some regularity, or occasionally helping others out, for instance, by watching a neighbor’s children. Those who were religious were almost twice as likely to be more engaged with their neighbors compared to non-religious Americans. Forty-six percent of faithful respondents, for example, said they regularly offer assistance to their neighbors, compared to 28 percent of non-religious respondents.
Finally, the survey found significant differences in generosity. I gave respondents a list of people, from friends and family to neighbors and co-workers, and asked who from this list “do you think you would be both able and willing to help” if they were in a difficult financial situation? In each case, those respondents who said religion is central to their lives were far more likely to help out than those who deem faith unimportant.
More specifically, the majority of respondents, 87 percent and 79 percent respectively, said they would support helping their family members. However, the level of support drops when other groups are considered. Sixty-four percent of religious Americans said they would help a friend compared to just 42 percent of non-religious Americans — a 22-point difference. Twenty-nine percent of religious people said they would help their neighbors and 25 percent said they would aid their coworkers. Just 14 percent of non-religious people said they would help either neighbors or coworkers. These are significant results, pointing to nontrivial differences in the behaviors of those who see faith as central to their lives and those who regard it as unimportant.
These data illustrate a truth that has been documented by sociologists for over a century: Faith has a real and profound impact on human connection, empathy, and generosity. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has observed that “religion creates community, community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and toward the common good … and good neighborliness.” The data appear to back up such observations, suggesting that faith strongly correlates with behaviors that help build community and sustain civil society.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.