Christians in society

A recent survey of American religion reveals some interesting facts

Robert Putnam (Harvard) and David Campbell (Notre Dame) undertook extensive research of religious attitudes in the US, and late last year published the results of their research in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen an outline of their findings and an interview with David Campbell.

What they concluded

Among their findings were these:

  • Americans are more religiously devout than any other industrialised country (and more religious than Iranians), and also highly religiously diverse. Yet there is greater interfaith tolerance and acceptance than many might think.
  • Whereas there was a significant increase in evangelical christians in the period 1970 – 1990 and a small decrease in unbelief, these trends have reversed in the two decades since then, with evangelical christian numbers falling back to the former percentage while the number of the non-committed more than doubled.
  • The present high correlation between christians and conservative politics (as expressed in Republican party identification) is only a recent thing – it didn’t really exist in 1970.
  • A majority of American christians seem to have no problems in seeing some good in other religions, and a vast majority (82%) of the most devout agreed that non-believers could be good people.
  • Religious Americans are better neighbors than secular Americans — more generous with their time and treasure, even for secular causes.
  • Religious Americans tend to be less tolerant of civil libereties for minorities such as gays and unbelievers, but they are growing more tolerant at a faster rate than their secular compatriots.
  • As has been found in many other studies, religious people tend to be happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious.
  • Making friends with people from other religious (or irreligious) sub-groups tends to increase tolerance and acceptance of that group as a whole.

A challenge for the future

  1. We have a good “product”: If christian faith and commitment tends to lead to greater happiness, life satisfaction, neighbourliness and community involvement, then we should be able to show an attractive life to those who do not yet believe. It must also provide hope for the ills of western societies documented in What do christians have to say about a broken society?.
  2. We should get out more: If making new friends increases tolerance and acceptance, we need more christians to be moving out of our comfortable christian groups and making friends with non-believers. In particular, the derision and anger which characterise many online (and real life) meetings between christians and unbelievers is clearly unhelpful.
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