As I mosey my way back and forth through American Grace, my book of the year, I want to go back to an important chapter entitled "Religion and Good Neighborliness." In this chapter the authors, using data from several sources, demonstrates that in terms of volunteering time and giving of money, religious people stand far above seculars in their generosity. Now, you might say, well, they do give to their churches, but that's not all. A majority of regular church goers also make up the bulk of volunteers at schools and service organizations, and more. Consider this:
Of all people who volunteered for a religious group, 91 percent also volunteered for at least one secular group, whereas of those who did not volunteer for a religious group, 69 percent did not volunteer for any secular group either. Those of us who volunteer for religious groups are two or three times as likely to volunteer for secular groups as well, compared to those of us who don't volunteer for religious groups. Americans, it seems, mostly choose between volunteering and not volunteering, not between religious and secular volunteering. (American Grace, p. 445).
And the same goes for giving of money -- if you give to religious groups you're more likely to give to "secular" ones as well.
The authors note that in essence "religious Americans are more civically active." They're more likely to join community organizations, engage in community problem solving, participate in civic and political life, and press for social and political reform.
Oh, and if you think that it's just the Religious Right that's active in the public arena, the surveys say quite the opposite. The authors write:
Indeed, for many measures of civic engagement, such as club membership, organizational leadership, and (as we have seen) local reform activity, religiosity matters more for the self-described liberals than for self-described conservatives. That is, the difference in activism between a religious liberal and a secular liberal is even greater than the comparable difference between a religious conservative and a secular conservative." (American Grace, pp. 456-457).
In this regard, the authors are able to put to rest the claim that conservative Americans are more generous than liberals (Arthur Brooks). While it is true that religious folks tend to be more generous and conservatives are more religious than liberals, the key is not conservatism but religiosity. That is, its the faith and not the politics/economic theory that leads to generosity. Again, just to be clear on this, the authors write that with all things being kept constant (size/numbers, etc), "liberals are never less generous than conservatives, and are, by some measures, better neighbors than conservatives" (p. 458). Yes, read closely:
Liberals, for example, work more often on community projects, cooperate more to solve community problems, and volunteer more often to help the sick, the needy, and neighborhood and civic groups, whereas on none of our measures of generosity and civic engagement are conservatives more active. Holding religiosity constant, ideology has little significant effect on total giving or total volunteering, nor on any of the fifteen good deeds discussed earlier, but liberals assuredly give and volunteer more for nonreligious causes than conservatives do. According to the best available evidence, the "civic good guys" are more often religious liberals, not religious conservatives. (American Grace, p. 458).
So, who do you want for a neighbor?