A new study released in Britain shows that atheists are just as likely to volunteer in the community as Christians. In the United States, however, religious people are three to four times as likely to volunteer, marking a stark difference of how religion affects public life in the two countries.
The survey, conducted by the U.K. government, covered a wide range of issues, including influencing decisions, volunteering, community cohesion, fear of crime, racial and religious prejudice, discrimination and attitudes toward violent extremism.
According to the report, 58 percent of Christians participated in civic engagement and/or formal volunteerism between April 2010 and March 2011. Atheists, or "people of no religion," participated nearly just as much as Christians, with 56 percent.
British Hindus and Muslims were not as involved as either atheists or Christians, with only 44 percent participating and volunteering in the local community.
Those numbers have remained about the same since 2007, according to the report.
The numbers are a welcome find for the British Humanist Society (BHA), which says the results prove that atheists are just as likely as Christians to volunteer and participate in the local community, which would theoretically debunk claims that religion encourages volunteerism and community participation.
"These statistics clearly demonstrate that having no religion is no barrier to civic participation and volunteering, exploding myths that religious people contribute more to civil society than others," BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said.
"Many aspects of the Government's 'Big Society' agenda are geared specifically towards including and praising the contribution of religious people and institutions. It would far better be properly secular, inclusive and aimed to recognize the real contribution of people regardless of belief," Copson added.
In the United States, however, people who adhere to a religious faith are three to four times as likely to participate in the local community, according to Harvard professor Robert Putnam and University of Notre Dame scholar David Campbell, who discovered the findings while doing research for the book, "American Grace: How Religion is Reshaping our Civic and Political Lives."
Putnam's and Campbell's research suggests that religious people are more likely to participate in community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes, including secular ones, the Religious News Service reported.
Putnam's reasoning for why religious people are more likely to be active in their communities is due to the social ties people form when involved in a religious group. A frequently quoted example of Putnam's theory is his view of American mega churches, which carry a large amount of "social capital," or a network of friendship and community.
"The intense tie is not to the theology but in the emotional commitment to others in their small group," Putnam, who is not a Christian, told the U.K.'s Guardian in 2007. "Most of these people are seeking meaning in their lives but they are also seeking friends. The small groups spend two hours a week together - doing the volleyball or the mountain biking and praying; they become your closest friends."
Putnam also believes that the social capital formed by involvement in local churches could further contribute to increased volunteerism in other ways.
"These churches form in places of high mobility - people live there for six weeks and the church provides the community connection," he said. "When you lose your job, they'll tide you over, when your wife gets ill, they'll bring the chicken soup."