Last night I attended a talk by Robert Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame). He spoke about his new book, “American Grace” and the influence of religion on American politics. His main point is that Americans are highly divided on religious matters but also highly tolerant of each others religious views. In brief, Putnam’s thesis is that during the sixties young Americans became less religious but that older Americans became more religious as a reaction to the changes in social mores which took place at the time. This lead to the religious division we see in American today and the rise of the “young nones” – young people who do not identify with any formal religious group. Putnam measures religiosity using survey questions such as “How often do you say grace or give thanks to God before a meal?”
However, despite this divide, Americans are very tolerant of people who do hold divergent religious views. Surprisingly, a majority of evangelical Christians in America believe that good people of other faiths or of no faith at all can go to heaven. Putnam explains this unusual finding in two ways. He points out that many Americans have switched religions during their lifetime, and also have close friendships or familial ties with people who belongs to a different religion. Knowing these friends and relations to be good people leads Americans to believe they will be saved despite the teachings of their faith.
Putnam’s research also showed that people with close social ties through religious organizations are “nicer” that is to say, more likely to volunteer, give to charity and to help strangers. However it is not the religious belief which is a predictor of “niceness” rather the social ties that usually accompany them. So an atheist who has many friends who attend church and goes to the occasional service with his or her religious spouse is “nicer” than the devout but socially isolated church goer.
In terms of social capital, Putnam sums up his finds thus: “Bowling together is better than bowling alone, but bowling in the church league, that’s the real deal.”