In 2000, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone, in which he developed his famous thesis that more Americans than ever are going ten-pin bowling but fewer than ever are joining ten-pin bowling clubs or leagues. In other words, they're bowling alone, writes Lord Jonathan Sacks in ABC Online in an article originally published in Standpoint magazine.
Putnam used this as his symbol for the loss of community in America, the loss of what American economists and sociologists call "social capital." Ten years later, he published a book called American Grace, in which he documents his discovery that social capital is alive and well in America, in one place more than any other: in houses of worship.
After four years of research, Putnam discovered that if you are a regular church or synagogue attendee, you are more likely to give money to charity than if you're not a regular, regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular.
You are also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, give excess change back to a shop assistant, donate blood, help a neighbour with their shopping, help someone with their housework, spend time with someone who is depressed, allow another driver to cut in front of you, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job.
There is no good deed among all of those on the survey that is more practised by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts.
It goes further than this: frequent worshippers are also more active citizens - they are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, or health or arts or leisure. They are more likely to join neighbourhood or civic groups, professional and fraternal associations.
Within these groups they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They take a more active part in local civic life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. They turn up, they get involved, they lead. And the margin of difference between them and secular Americans is large.
Religiosity turns out to be the best indicator of civic involvement: it's more accurate than education, age, income, gender or race. Incidentally, religious regular synagogue or church goers are more likely to report themselves as being happier and they also live longer.
Putnam's book demonstrates that not only has religion not died, it is a fundamental and primary source of community and altruism. Furthermore, Putnam says that research in Britain - which is not yet published - confirms the same thing.
FULL STORY The limits of secularism and the search for meaning (ABC Online)