A psychologist and a cultural sociologist investigated the connection between religion and higher rates of volunteering. What they found surprised them both.

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Religious leaders, pollsters, and political figures warn the public about the perils of an increasingly secular society. Beyond the pearl-clutching about available contraception, legalized drugs, and marriage equality—all of which sound great to me—there are dire warnings about the disintegration of society. The social fabric, if we are to believe these alarmists, is bound together by godly beliefs, and these threads are fraying.

This moral panic is interesting because, shockingly, there is (charitably) some merit to the argument—but not in the way it is generally assumed.

Religion is portrayed as a net social good because it builds social connectivity. Religious texts extol the notion of community and charity, and the public-facing side of religion leans heavily into this narrative.

While there isn’t a lot of research addressing religion and altruism, the existing studies show that the religious are more likely to volunteer than the nonreligious. Religious individuals are thought to be selflessly devoting their time and energy to better the lives of people around them. Perhaps God is not merely good on an individual basis, but also good for society at large.

There are two broad explanations to account for an association between religion and volunteering. The first is that the religious are more motivated to volunteer. The second is that the religious have more opportunities to volunteer.

Dr. Penny Edgell and I investigated this topic using nationally representative Canadian data. We were the first researchers to compare the patterns of volunteering that atheists and religious individuals demonstrate. Our argument was bulletproof: If religion promotes altruism, then atheists should have comparatively lower levels of volunteering.

Holy hell, were we in for a surprise.

When looking at religious identity predicting volunteerism, atheists out-volunteered many of the religious groups. In other words, if you compared the average atheist and the average Catholic on volunteerism, the godless were more likely to be philanthropic. This set of findings was perplexing, which is academic parlance for “WTF?”

As an academic, I am skeptical by nature. I was expecting to find no differences between atheists and other groups. Instead, we found atheists were leading the way. While the secular side of me was tickled by our findings, this just made me more suspicious. After a suggestion from a helpful reviewer, we began to explore how religious attendance factored into the relationship between religious identity and volunteering. We found that the more frequently a person attended church, the more likely they were to volunteer. This was consistent with the “opportunity” explanation for volunteerism.

I was expecting to find no differences between atheists and other groups in volunteering. Instead, we found atheists were leading the way.

After some re-analysis, we confirmed our initial finding: The average atheist volunteers more than the average religious individual. But this seems to be driven by the fact that the average religious individual isn’t particularly religious. Only 10-15% of religious individuals indicated that they attended religious services weekly and pray daily.

It seems that both atheists and religious folk have agreed that religion just ain’t for them.

When individuals go to church a lot, the findings swing the other way, and the religious are more likely to have volunteered in the past year. This finding makes sense because social participation means there are more opportunities to volunteer for activities. In other words, the more community organizations a person is a part of, the more likely they will be to end up volunteering in some capacity.

But there’s a noteworthy twist.

When you factor out people who only volunteer in a religious setting, the impact of religion on volunteering evaporates. So the driver of the effect isn’t religious individuals volunteering for the PTA, museums, or the Rotary Club—it’s religious individuals volunteering within religious organizations. Serving as an usher, an elder, a church accountant, and bringing food to a potluck all qualify as volunteering.

This is like arguing that Dungeons & Dragons promotes volunteering because each week a player is responsible for bringing snacks. Yes, that person is providing a service to others, but that service is limited to the people who participate in that organization. This is why only a handful of +3 Bards have ever received prestigious humanitarian awards.

So why do atheists volunteer? My colleague and I suspect that people who self-identify as atheists are not merely indicating the lack of a belief in god(s), but the acceptance of social responsibility. The Gospel of Matthew notes that you will know the quality of an individual by the actions they perform. Apparently, the average atheist believes that materially improving the lives of others is something to strive toward. Nonbelievers realize that the world won’t get better unless they themselves put the effort in, and they certainly seem to be up for the challenge.

You can find our study here.

For those interested in secular philosophy, I recommend This Life: Secular faith and spiritual freedom by Martin Hagglund.

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David Speed is an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John teaching program evaluation and statistics. He holds a Master’s in applied research and a PhD in social/health psychology.