Religion can Unite us or it can divide us


It goes without saying that religion can be a force for good or ill. We have known for quite some time that religions can unite us, but they can also divide us. No one should know this better than a Mennonite like me. As I have said many times, when religion divides us rather than connects us, it is not actually religion at all. It is something else. In fact when religion divides us, it is not even religion. It is misnamed. It should be called anti-religion.

If the data shows (as I argued in an earlier post) that religions help people to be more generous to members of their own group, how does it help or hinder them to be generous towards non-members of that group? That is an interesting question. Robert Putnam and David Campbell wrote a book that dealt with exactly that. It was called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. This is where the evidence gets really surprising, because one might think that people who are generous to members of their own group, don’t have enough resources to be generous as well to non-members.

As Jonathan Haidt said,

“Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. Of course religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as the American Cancer Society. They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.

Putnam and Campbell did not stop there. They were even more explicit:

By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”


Frankly this is directly contrary to what I always believed was the case. I first thought about this when I learned that the little town of Blumenort near to us in Steinbach had the highest rates of charitable donations per capita in Canada. At first I thought that was fantastic. It is fantastic. But, on reflection I thought that was only because Blumenort was a primarily Mennonite town and they gave most of that money to their church. I was dismissive for that reason. It turns out, based on this data, that I might be wrong.

Does that mean that my entire view of religion is wrong? The book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt really made me seriously rethink what I thought about religion! That is amazing. I always thought I was open to new ideas. Now I had proof that this was true.

Now all of this brings up more questions. Fruitful new ideas always do that. That is a good thing. As a result I asked, what type of religion has this result? Is Islam as much a force for good as Christianity? Buddhists better than Muslims?  Are Catholics better than Mennonites? What about less institutional religions? Putnam and Campbell in from their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. did not have answers to all of these questions (darn),  but they did have some useful information about such questions as well.

Jonathan Haidt reflecting on the data of  Putnam and Campbell Putnam and Campbell analyzed the data this way:

“Why are religious people better neighbors and citizens? To find out, Putnam and Campbell included on one of their surveys a long list of questions about religious beliefs (e.g. “Do you believe in hell? Do you agree that we will all be called before God to answer for our sins?”) as well as questions about religious practices ) e.g., “How often do your read holy scriptures? How often do you pray?”). These beliefs and practices turned out to matter very little. Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon…none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people.”

I was not surprised to learn beliefs were largely irrelevant. I have thought that for a long time. Putnam and Campbell reject the New Atheist emphasis on belief and reach a conclusion straight out of Durkheim: “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

It’s not doctrines or even faith that matters. What does matter is to what extent does a religion help us to connect to others. Which brings me back to my fundamental principle—religion is something that helps us connect to others or even the world. That goes back to the original meaning of the Asian word religios which means connection.

I would put it this way: the more your religion leads you to feel connected with your fellows the more likely you are to be a better neighbour; the more likely you are to be a better citizen, the more likely you are to be a better person! That is what religion—true religion—is all about. Religion is what connects us to others. Religion is not what divides us from others.

2 thoughts on “Religion can Unite us or it can divide us

  1. wowizowi. in 2020 somebody wakes up on 10/3 and knows what is really a TRUE religion.

    as for connections, neither political nor drug, i do not understand why is has to be one or the other. a religion can facilitate connections while simultaneously facilitating divisions. in fact, they do inevitably and endlessly.

    the a/theism discussion has always struck me as a bit overdetermined.
    the atheists are seemingly defensive, which is not necessarily surprising because theism still rules. after all secularism is only as few hundred years old. religion, beginning as “animism” or what the christians would call “paganism”, is probably hundreds of thousands of years old.
    so all “conscious” secularists or atheists are probably unconsciously religious whether they know it or not.

    the problem is not religion, with or without connections. the problem is the “moralistic” stance taken by virtually all religions.

    overall i am still astonished that this a/theistism issue is still of intellectual import. it may be of political import. but otherwise? who cares?

    1. I care. I find religion fascinating. I find Buddhism and Native American/Canadian religions most interesting. You can’t deny the importance of something that affects billions of people and often to an astonishing extent. Like it or not, religion is here to stay.

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