Yesterday, Professor Brian Leiter (Chicago) responded to my earlier post on religion’s social goods. I appreciate the response, actually, and I’ll leave it to readers to evaluate his post and mine. On one point, though, I think I should respond.

Leiter writes that I presented no evidence for my claim that religion encourages altruism outside the religious group itself. He writes:

As I argue in Why Tolerate Religion?, it is certainly true that in the Western capitalist societies, religion is one of the most common sources of resistance to the market pressure towards “self-centeredness,” but qua generalization, Movesian’s [sic] claim is obviously false: religion encourages the communal sentiments Movesesian [sic] describes, but mostly intra-religious group; there is no evidence, and Movesian [sic] cites none, that it encourages them generally outside the religious group. This, of course, is why religion remains, as it has been for millenia, one of the great catalysts of inter-group violence and hatred.

Actually, there is evidence, and I did cite it. Sociologist Robert Putnam has written that religion encourages communal sentiments generally outside the religious group, and that religion is better at this sort of thing than other types of associations are. I cited Putnam in my post.

Here, in full, is the passage I alluded to, from Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) (footnotes omitted):

Regular worshipers and people who say that religion is very important to them are much more likely than other people to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion, and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups. In one survey of twenty-two different types of voluntary associations, from hobby groups to professional associations to veterans groups to self-help groups to sports clubs to service clubs, it was membership in religious groups that was most closely associated with other forms of civic involvement, like voting, jury service, community projects, talking with neighbors, and giving to charity.

Putnam makes a similar point, with David E. Campbell, in American Grace (2010) (footnote omitted):

In particular, religiously observant Americans are more generous with time and treasure than demographically similar secular Americans. This is true for secular causes (especially help to the needy, the elderly, and young people) as well as for purely religious causes. It is even true for most random acts of kindness. The link is essentially the same regardless of the particular religion or denomination within which one worships, so that the relevant factor is how much one is engaged with religion, not which religion. And the pattern is so robust that evidence of it can be found in virtually every major national survey of American religious and social behavior. Any way you slice it, religious people are simply more generous.

Of course, one can discount this evidence or argue that it should be interpreted differently. Maybe Putnam and Campbell are wrong. But it’s incorrect to say there is no evidence, or that I didn’t cite any.

Articles by Mark Movsesian


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