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Oct 02 2011

British atheists more involved than American atheists

Here is an interesting report about the effect of religion on volunteerism in Britain and the USA.

A new study released in Britain shows that atheists are just as likely to volunteer in the community as Christians. In the United States, however, religious people are three to four times as likely to volunteer, marking a stark difference of how religion affects public life in the two countries.

The report suggests that social ties may be a big reason for the American disparity. Here’s a quote from one of the authors of the study.

“The intense tie is not to the theology but in the emotional commitment to others in their small group,” Putnam, who is not a Christian, told the U.K.’s Guardian in 2007. “Most of these people are seeking meaning in their lives but they are also seeking friends. The small groups spend two hours a week together – doing the volleyball or the mountain biking and praying; they become your closest friends.”

That sounds plausible as far as it goes, but I think perhaps another reason for the disparity might be the relatively greater polarization that exists between the American believer versus the American atheist (or substitute conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, etc). Social relationships cut both ways, and to the extent that unbelievers are marginalized and excluded by society in general, they are correspondingly sidelined when there are opportunities to volunteer.

Fortunately, thanks to the New Atheists, a lot more unbelievers are standing up and dare I say exposing themselves as non-Christians, in a Christian-dominated society. That takes courage, especially if you’re going to be among the first to do so, but I think the seed has already been sown. British society is largely post-Christian, and I think the closer we come to follow that example, the more likely we are to show similar statistics in the realm of social participation (especially as conservatives become more and more hostile to organized social welfare).

And by the way, speaking of opportunities to volunteer, let me stick in another plug for Donors Choose. Come on, Americans, we can’t let the British atheists get all the good press! ;)

4 comments

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  1. 1
    John Morales

    Your charity is admirable, but I suggest that a not-insignificant factor is the in-group discomfort for those who don’t “volunteer”.

  2. 2
    Pen

    It’s interesting news, but I have to say that as atheists are virtually the norm in Britain, and religion is marginal and confined to churches, it’s really not surprising. Actually, one of the main expressions of voluntary contribution by British atheists in the villages is turning out for events to keep village churches in repair. That’s so that three old ladies can have a roof over their heads when they’re eyeing up the vicar praying (and also to protect our architectural heritage).

  3. 3
    rutty

    Define “charitable donation” or “volunteering”. Perhaps churchgoers in the US pay more in tithes than us here in the UK. That counts as a charitable donation right? How much charity in the US or UK is circular – paying into your own charitable groups? Same with volunteering.

    My mum helps out at a local church despite not being religious. She helps cook food for the pensioners’ meal, although I doubt she’d self-define as an atheist.

    It’d be interesting to see how these figures would work out if you removed donations to religious organisations.

  4. 4
    Dave The Happy Singer

    The report suggests that social ties may be a big reason for the American disparity.

    Or it could be that the study tells us very little about atheists’ engagement, given that its survey only included five atheists and agnostics.

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