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Selfless or self–serving? The distinctive character of religious volunteering

Selfless or self–serving? The distinctive character of religious volunteering

Simeon Burke draws attention to recent polling and research which highlights the impact of religious commitment on community activism. 15/07/2019

The relationship between religious affiliation and commitment to voluntary action has reared its head once again in recent weeks. On Wednesday 26th June, the Queen hosted 160 leaders at an event at Buckingham Palace celebrating ‘faith and belief groups’, as well as the contributions of those of no faith, who are making a difference in their communities. Humanists UK responded by pointing to research which shows that not having a religion is no barrier to volunteering. So do religious people volunteer more?

The answer, in short, is yes.

An affirmative response of this kind represents a change from both the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 Citizenship Surveys. Humanists UK uses these surveys on their website and in their briefing on Religion, Belief and Volunteering to show that there is little difference between non–religious and religious people in terms of commitment to volunteering. However, in the most recent survey to break down the data on levels of volunteering according to religious affiliation — the Community Life Survey 2016–17 — the proportion of religious people who took part in any form of volunteering in the last 12 months was higher than those without religion: whereas 84% of Jewish people, 74% of Buddhist, 66% of Christian, 65% of Sikh, 65% of Muslim, 63% of any other religion and 60% of Hindu adherents volunteer, the proportion of those with no religion who volunteer was 57%.

It is also significant that these surveys do not account for the strength of affiliation among volunteers. Recent research shows that stronger religious affiliation — measured by attendance at religious services, importance of religion to one’s life and frequency of prayer — correlates with greater civic engagement. Pew Research’s 2017 report, Being Christian in Western Europe, shows that across 15 countries in Europe, and among Christians, participation for at least an hour a month in a community group or voluntary organisation increases with the individual’s level of commitment to that religion. Thus, while 11% of those who hold a ‘low’ commitment to Christianity volunteer with a charitable organisation, this increases to 21% for those of ‘medium’ and 28% for ‘high’ levels of religious observance. 14% of the religiously unaffiliated engage with charitable organisations, which is 3% higher than those who possess a ‘low’ commitment to the Christian faith – but amounts to just half the percentage of those volunteers who possess a strong commitment to the Christian faith. So an individual’s strength of religious affiliation — a variable which polls often struggle to capture — clearly makes a difference to his/her engagement with local voluntary action.

So much for the quantitative differences between the religious and non–religious. Are there qualitative differences in the ways in which religious and non–religious volunteering and local community activism take place? On this front, Humanists UK have suggested that religious volunteering is mostly self-serving with religious communities administering help and services to ‘their own’ (the classic example cited is that of flower arrangements at church). Ingrid Storm, a Manchester–based sociologist of religion, has similarly provided evidence that while religious people are more likely to volunteer, they tend to do so for their own religious institutions. In other words, the religious facilitate the creation of what Robert Putnam refers to as ‘bonding social capital’ — friendships and networks within a religious community — but struggle to foster ‘bridging social capital’, or the creation of connections between religious communities and those outside of that network.

However, a deeper look at the contributions of Christian organisations reveals that this division is not so clear cut. Volunteering done by Christians clearly does not serve just the church, but supports institutions which offer something for the whole community.

Recent work done by Theos on neighbourliness and resilience points to two fascinating conclusions which support this point. The first is that religious institutions often hold historic, social capital. Because churches, in particular, have often been embedded within a community for multiple generations, they have frequently developed a network of relationships with those facing hardship, with volunteers and with charities on the ground. The long–term presence of many churches in a local area means that they form an essential link between the voluntary sector and those individuals which charities seek to serve and help. Second, religious institutions help communities remain resilient in the face of changes to public funding and local government provision. As Paul Bickley writes in his report on resilience, the church — and we could easily include other religious communities in this observation — is well placed to help communities meet and prepare for tough times through providing a ‘nexus of people (social capital), places (physical capital) and purpose (spiritual capital)’. A recent NPC report corroborates this conclusion by noting that through a steady stream of volunteers, physical spaces and funding networks, churches are able to meet changes in the roll–out of services and funding. Religious communities are also well placed to offer emergency relief. As Amy Plender has noted, in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy religious communities opened their places of worship and coordinated relief efforts to aid those affected. In fact, these two distinctive contributions — longevity and resilience — are interlinked, since the church’s long–term commitment to the holistic flourishing of an area can bolster a local community’s sense of hope in the face of hardship and change.

At one level, the question of who volunteers hardly matters — even less still, who does so in greater numbers. Doing good is patently not the exclusive preserve of the religious. What recent data do show, however, is that when it comes to volunteering, the religious not only continue to punch well above their weight. They also represent a distinctively resilient and enduring force for community action.

Image: PaulTuckley/


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