Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 3, 2007
Religious believers more likely to care for others
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Canadian society stands to become a much bleaker place if religious attendance continues to decline as it has over the past two decades.
"The whole country is going to suffer a significant loss in terms of civility," warns University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby.
Carleton University social sciences professor Paul Reed sees fragility in the volunteer sector, the tiny fraction of Canadians who provide the bulk of the assistance to others, from helping isolated elderly people remain in their homes, to running Scout troops for children to participating in volunteer fire departments.
Since Reed became involved in the creation of the website www.canadawhocares.ca, he said anecdotal evidence from volunteer organizations of their need for volunteers has been pouring in.
"They are desperate across this country. You have no idea."
His scientific research has been probing the characteristics that make up this cadre of volunteers who are so crucial to the smooth running of society.
What both social scientists have observed in their separate research is the relationship of church attendance to a desire to help others.
Bibby has found Canadians who believe in God - theists - are consistently more likely to value a range of values from honesty, kindness and family life to politeness and patience than do nonbelievers or atheists.
"I was surprised to find the difference so consistent across any of these interpersonal characteristics we looked at," said Bibby.
Among theists, 88 per cent value family life, compared with 65 per cent among atheists. Theists also value generosity far more than atheists do: 67 per cent vs. 37 per cent.
Theists value forgiveness (84 per cent to 52 per cent). They value patience more (72 per cent to 39 per cent). In all 12 interpersonal values measured, theists ranked higher by more than 10 percentage points, except for honesty where the gap narrowed to 94 per cent vs. 89 per cent.
"Holding the value of compassion does not necessarily guarantee compassion," Bibby said. "That said, people who are compassionate are invariably going to be people who value compassion."
These results come from a national survey of 1,600 Canadians completed in 2005. In a news release announcing the findings, Bibby raised the age-old question of whether people can be good without God.
Value being good
The answer is more complex, he said. "People who don't believe in God can be good. But people who believe in God are more likely to value being good, enhancing the chances that they will be good."
Reed's work over the past couple of decades also shows a strong relationship between frequent church attendance and a willingness to help others. "The activity of volunteering has been an integral part of the warp and woof of our society for a long, long time," said Reed.
Volunteer work, however, is increasingly done by a small minority. "Two thirds of all volunteering is done by about five per cent of the adult population in Canada," Reed said.
Reid pointed out that belief in God coupled with frequent church attendance is a key characteristic of this volunteer core group.
Social price of non-belief
Bibby also stressed that the values he studied come primarily from religious groups. "To the extent that Canadians say good-bye to God, we may find that we pay a significant social price."
Bibby said he has been surprised by how blas‚ people have been over the decline in religious participation over the past two decades, though that decline shows signs of reversing.
Reid sees a number of possible factors contributing to the decline of the volunteer core. One of them is the migration of Canadians to big cities. Volunteerism is the lowest in these areas and highest in small towns. He noted his sister spends three hours a day commuting to her Toronto area job. With people spending so much time getting to and from work, there is not much left over for helping others.