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!