For over a century, a wide range of scholars, after studying the role that religion plays in civil society, have concluded that it is invaluable—a kind of communal glue holding disparate individuals and groups together.
Lately that conclusion has been challenged by popular but questionable reports that religion does nothing but raise non-empathetic bigots. So, seeking to test the question once more, the scholar Samuel J. Abrams went out into the field and polled Americans. The results are in, and they provide a powerful rebuttal:
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.
Unfortunately, Abrams reports, his students at the elite Sarah Lawrence college still “see religion as offering little value in building community and civil society,” and like to tell him that both “my faith and my teaching on religion and civil society are anachronistic.” In this they are undoubtedly joined by growing sectors of elite American society.