Doing good is not the preserve of the religious

This week’s question on The Guardian’s Comment is Free Belief section is ‘Do Believers make Better Citizens?’ This is what I think.

Whether it’s from Red Tories or Blue Labour, London Citizens or the Big Society, the persistent connection assumed between religion and social participation is one of the fictions that has most irritated humanists in the past decade. It rests on a story of Britain as being once a Christian place, where communities were strong and charity widespread. Britain became less religious, but still with movements of social solidarity that, although secular (trade unions, for example, or friendly societies), tried their best to perpetuate the good effects religion had. They couldn’t do it, of course, and now these secular movements have collapsed. To save ourselves from going down with them, we must turn back to our good old-fashioned religions – they alone are able to provide the solidarity, community and motivation we need to fix our horribly broken society.

It’s not just a few disillusioned old ex-Marxists who have adopted this idea – the theoretical analogue of their own individual life stories – but a worrying number of otherwise rational people.

Even some non-religious people join in. Of course they don’t believe in all that religion stuff themselves, but religious people certainly do more good in society than non-religious people, don’t they? They volunteer more and things like that. Naturally, many religious leaders welcome this reinforcement of the case for their own importance with open arms and make statements, like those of the Bishop of Leicester and the chief rabbi giving evidence to parliament on the “big society” recently, warmly affirming the proposition that religious people disproportionately contribute to voluntary, charitable and civic life.

Unfortunately for them, the argument they advance is supported more by faith than by evidence.

This point was demonstrated yet again last week by the latest figures from the government’s citizenship survey. In terms of civic engagement and formal volunteering, the figures show no significant difference between those with a religion and those with no religion (57% and 56% respectively). There is scarcely any difference in participation between those with no religion and self-described Christians (56% and 58%). At 44%, the proportion of Hindus and Muslims participating in civic engagement and formal volunteering is actually lower than the proportion of non-religious people doing so, and the lowest of all groups. This is no flash in the pan – it is a continuing feature of the figures over a number of years.

The figures supplement other data that makes the same point, not only from previous years’ citizenship surveys. In 2007, Faith and Voluntary Action, from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations found that “religious affiliation makes little difference in terms of volunteering”, and as a matter of simple numbers, the overwhelming majority of the voluntary, community and charity sector in the UK are secular.

Why, in the face of such data, do so many persist in advancing the false argument that religious people engage more and the doomed policy of placing our hopes for a better future in the success of churches, temples and mosques? Some are clearly self-interested, trying to boost their own religious agendas, but many may simply be unaware of the facts. Non-religious people are volunteering all the time, but don’t feel the need to do it in the name of being non-religious. They may even do it for charities that have a nominally religious origin. Being therefore less visible than specifically religious contributions to society, this can support the myth that non-religious people do less community work. This anecdotal misconception can only be corrected by data, which is not something to which most people have access.

But I for one wouldn’t necessarily want it any other way. I am not overly concerned whether a person doing good is doing it because she thinks God wants her to or out of a humanist sense of obligation to fellow human beings. We would do much better to concentrate on other factors – economic and social – that will improve the conditions in which volunteering and engagement can flourish. I don’t think it is too much, in our shared society, to ask religious leaders to adopt the same view and give up the one-upmanship. To focus on what divides us rather than on the shared humanitarian and civic principles that might unite us is counterproductive.

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