So are the Non-Religious “Just as Servant-Minded” as the Religious?

As you might expect, much hoopla is being made by the Atheists™ over the latest results of the England Citizenship Survey (y/e March 2011). According to a report in The Christian Post,

A new study released in Britain shows that atheists are just as likely to volunteer in the community as Christians.

But is this true?

Frankly, the answer is “there's no way to know from the survey”. Let me explain.

I downloaded the detailed results of the survey (xls here) and went to the relevant page (Table 6). And get this, the behaviour actually surveyed was this:

Participation in civic engagement and formal volunteering at least once in the last year

That's right, this great measure of civic involvment was “at least once in the last year”. Which is, I put it to you, hardly an effective measure. It makes no distinction between active sustained involvment and sporadic involvment. So, consider the fact that I am involved in a number of different organisations which I would consider as both informal and formal volunteering. Also, a couple of weeks ago, I volunteered for an afternoon's work to help set up the Spring Fair at my children's school. It's hard to tell exactly what difference the survey would have recorded between my current level of activity and if I had only done the Spring Fair set-up, at least when measured by religious affiliation.

Not that this could not have been measured. Frustratingly, on Table 7 you find the results of both “at least once a year” and “at least once a month” displayed but not analysed according to religion or lack thereof. Of course, when you examine the table you do find vast differences between the 2 columns and different levels of drop-off between the 1 yr and 1 mth columns.

I've written to the Citizenship Survey office asking for the extra data (which must exist, it's just not been reported). Hopefully they'll be able to provide it.

In the meantime, if someone makes a claim that this report demonstrates there's no difference between the Christian and the areligious the appropriate response is to point out that the reported data simply doesn't tell us anything meaningful.

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  1. andrew finden

    I’m not sure of the value of this kind of thing.. Christianity is not valuable simply because of the volunteering it inspires, and having to defend / brag about Christians being more civic minded seems a little proud.. is it really something we need words to defend?

  2. David Ould

    hi Andrew,

    FWIW, I agree with you. But I do think it’s worthwhile defending Christianity from unsubstantiated criticism/attacks. And the conclusions and implied equivalencies in the cited article are simply unsustainable from the data.

  3. Brian

    Hi David
    I’m sure you’re right – such a measure is not very meaningful; but there are few secure conclusions to be had from the research on religion and volunteering.  It is not a large literature and has not dealt conclusively with the range of relevant dependent or independent variables.  A positive correlation between religiosity and volunteering is often reported, though a causal relationship hasn’t been established and the types and measures of volunteering vary in sometimes puzzling ways between those with different degrees of religiosity.
    As an example, a 2006 Australian study (Lyons and Nivison-Smith) reports that while highly committed religious people volunteer more than the less committed and non-religious overall, they volunteer variously at similar or lower rates and hours than the less committed and non-religious for non-religious causes and activities.  That is, they direct their excess volunteering to religious causes. Those who identify as religious, but infrequently attend church, are less likely to volunteer for non-religious activities than the non-religious and more frequent church attendees, but when they do, it is for more hours.  This study suggests that religiosity does positively correlate with volunteering on the whole, but not consistently across all types of volunteering, all measures of volunteering and all degrees of religiosity – thus frustrating a causal inference.

    What is exercising much interest in this field is the increase in volunteering associated with the current trend towards secularisation.  This seems inconsistent with the view that religiosity is a major contributor to volunteering.  In Australia there is a correlation between the decline in religiosity and an increase in the number of people volunteering.  The ABS reports that the percentage of individuals volunteering has risen by 11 points over years 1995-2006 (though the number of hours per person has decreased).  Over a similar period (1993-2009) the latest CRA study has measures of religiosity all decreasing – religious identification by 20% (of total population), attendance by 7% and belief in God by 15%. 
    Interestingly, the Barna Group in the US reports a 10-12 point drop in rates of volunteering across each of the three measured subgroups of Christians– ‘born agains’ Protestants and Catholics – over the period 2001-2011.  The total number of volunteers in the US has increased by three points over this time.  This seems to further disrupt the case for a causal connection between religiosity and volunteering.


  4. AndrewFinden

    Hi David,

    Is someone saying “having no religion is no barrier to civic participation and volunteering” really an attack or criticism though?
    While it may well be in error for them to talk about “exploding myths that religious people contribute more to civil society than others” I just don’t see what protesting that actually achieves other than making us look defensive and a bit self-righteous.. shouldn’t we simply get on with being more civil-conscious as we claim to be, and let our fruit show the truth?

    But then, to say that it “would theoretically debunk claims that religion encourages volunteerism and community participation.” is of course a false-hood about Christianity. The level of participation of non-believers says nothing about whether Christianity encourages community service. To my mind, the issue of whether people can be encouraged without religion is a non-issue..

  5. David Ould

    I think it’s a little more subtle than that, Andrew. Couple of observations:

    Our Lord does say that we’ll be known by our fruit.
    However, I dare say that fruit will sometimes not fit the expected pattern of the world.
    Nevertheless, it does seem to be a point of attack by some.
    So when it is (as in this case the BHA are making an issue of it) the question becomes whether the claims being made are really supportable.

    Having said that, in another recent thread I did note that statistics alone are not the only measure of the truth so I’m not going to be dumb enough here to say the opposite.

    I’ve received logon details tonight for the full dataset so hopefully I’ll be able to roll out the full analysis tomorrow.

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