I found the following in the executive summary of Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, prepared by the “Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America,” Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. This paper seems to indicate that many of the things I value most — social equality, racial diversity, breaking down class distinctions, changing the world, etc. — are positively associated with just being a part of a religious community. Note that the paper is silent on the matter of specific beliefs. I’d hypothesize that what’s most important about religious community is not specific beliefs, but rather the fact that a religious community is organized around high ideals with ethical implications.
What is the impact of this religious engagement? Involvement in communities of faith among all goers collectively is strongly associated with giving and volunteering. Indeed, involvement in religious community is among the strongest predictors of giving and volunteering for religious causes as well as for secular ones. Religious communities embody one of the most important sources of social capital and concern for community in America. Religious people are great at ‘doing for.’
Moreover, religious involvement is positively associated with most other forms of civic involvement. Even holding other factors constant (comparing people of comparable educational levels, comparable income, and so on), religiously engaged people are more likely than religiously disengaged people to be involved in civic groups of all sorts, to vote more, to be more active in community affairs, to give blood, to trust other people (from shopkeepers to neighbors), to know the names of public officials, to socialize with friends and neighbors, and even simply to have a wider circle of friends. Interestingly as well, Americans are more likely to fully trust people at their place of worship (71%) than they are to trust people they work with (52%), people in their neighborhood (47%) or people of their own race (31%).
Another distinctive feature of religious involvement is that it is less biased by social standing than most other forms of civic involvement. Poorer, less educated Americans are much less likely to be involved in community life than other Americans, but they are fully as engaged in religious communities. Conversely, religiously engaged people have, on average, a more diverse set of friends than those who are less engaged in religion. Holding constant their own social status, religiously engaged people are more likely than other Americans to number among their friends a person of a different faith, a community leader, a manual worker, a business owner, and even a welfare recipient.
I cannot resist adding a caveat: As always, it’s wise to remain skeptical of such studies; it’s especially important not to confuse correlation and causation.