Aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and their media enablers like to claim that religion is “dangerous”, that it spreads prejudice and leads to societal division.
Religion can have these effects, as can other ideologies and philosophies, including atheism, but there is lots of evidence to knock down such claims. For example, a report we published in 2008, written by Professor Patricia Casey draws on many studies showing the mental and physical health benefits of religion. In the field of education, Catholic schools both here and in the UK have shown themselves to be extremely inclusive, not divisive
We also know that religious people tend to give more of their time and money than the non-religious. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Professor Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and his co-author David Campbell show that the most religious people in America give away on average $3,000 to charity each year, compared with $1,000 by the least religious.
This is despite the fact that religious people tend to have slightly less money than the non-religious. When income is taken into account, the most religious are four times as generous as the least religious.
In their new book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," Campbell and Putnam point out that in 2006, 80 per cent of all Americans reported having made a charitable contribution in the previous year. But religious people contributed more than others.
However, they add: “Of the most secular fifth of Americans, two-thirds said they gave money to charity in the previous year. That's an impressive number, but it pales next to the 94% of the most religious fifth who reported making a charitable donation.
“We find the same pattern when we examine how much people give. On average, those in the most religious fifth donate $3,000 to charity annually. Those in the most secular fifth give approximately $1,000. The story is the same when we consider charitable giving as a fraction of household income: By this measure, religious Americans are four times as generous as their secular neighbors, even as they are a little less affluent than secular Americans.
“The 'religious edge' in giving isn't attributable to some other demographic characteristic common to religious Americans. These results hold up even after accounting for a wide array of other factors known to influence charitable donations, such as income, age, education, marital status, gender and race.”
In other words, religious people generally are more charitable.
What these figures suggest is that a more religious population is a population in which charity and volunteerism is stronger, not weaker. Religion is an expression of social cohesion and solidarity. Surely it is the absence of such qualities that is “dangerous”?