According to a report published this week by the political think tank Demos religious people are more likely to volunteer, donate more to charity and be politically active. Although this has been observed in the USA before, this is the first study of its kind in the UK. The report states:
Faith communities build among their members, key values – responsibility, patience, compassion, solidarity and honesty. They help build character traits in young people that enable them to succeed in education and in the world of work. Faith groups and faith-based organisations are providing activities for young people, tackling unemployment, counselling on indebtedness, and supporting the homeless and those seeking asylum.
A recent example of this has been the rapid deployment across the UK of Street Pastors. Christian volunteers are out on the streets over the weekend until 3 o’clock in the morning offering a helping hand and mediating conflict – often intervening in situations before they get out of hand, reducing the burden on the police.
What is particularly surprising about the report is that the majority of active religious people in the UK are on the left of the political spectrum – quite different from the USA where the politically active (or at least most noisy) are on the right. It is not my intention to draw conclusions from this distinction, but to add the observation that, despite attempts to limit religion to the private sphere, faith continues to inspire public action. The findings of the Demos report in this country run counter to the prevailing wisdom that the more heavenly minded are the less earthly use.
While the report highlights the good work done by religious folk as volunteers it is silent on whether faith makes any difference to their daily work as teachers, nurses or corporate executives. If religious faith makes a difference to people’s voluntary activity, perhaps it also influences their daily work. This is not discussed in the Demos report and I cannot bring forth evidence to prove it. But it seems unlikely that faith only works “out of hours”. The values of equality, justice and compassion that inspire religious people to walk the streets of our cities late into the night must also make a difference on the day job.
My final thought is to respond to the question the Demos Report asks on its front cover and then ignores in the report. “Why do those who do God, do good …?”. While noting that religious belief and affiliation is declining in the UK the Report says nothing about how it might be encouraged and supported. If there is a correlation between faith and good work, this cannot be taken for granted. But how does God make a difference to the good we may do in the community, or in our professional life?
The report does recognise the role of communities of faith, but there is, it seems to me, something more that can be said. Religious faith, and by this I mean something more than spirituality, provides a space in which habits of mind and behaviour can flourish. It provides both container and content. The content, of whatever religious tradition, consists of a narrative that provides a unified cosmology, a comprehensive worldview, or a vision of human purpose and destiny. The container provides a set of rituals and practices that nurture and develop that purpose.
To the extent that a religious community provides this space, to that extent its members can tap into its ancient wisdom, developing the personal habits of mind and behaviour that lead to compassionate action. Whether at work or on the streets, in the family or in political life, religious faith can make a difference.
Those who do God, do good.
So some questions:
– in your experience of faith what is the source of inspiration for good work?
– what disciplines in your faith tradition help you nurture the habits of mind and behaviour that result in good work?
– if you are associated with a religious organisation (church, mosque, synagogue, etc), how does your participation help you do good work?