“Is there a Future for Community?” seems a provocative question. “Of course there is” would be the immediate reply of many but is this response grounded in evidence? This was the topic for a Council of Christians and Jews sponsored Seminar today at the Institute for Government with the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard University; well known for his book “Bowling Alone”.
Hosted by Lord Adonis, former Government Minister and chaired by Daniel Johnson, Editor of Standpoint, it drew a high quality audience. Prof. Putnam introduced the key findings of his latest book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” (with David E. Campbell). He said that in the US religious people are “nicer” than secular; meaning that they give more, volunteer more and behave in more neighbourly ways. This seems a startling conclusion.
Apparently what denomination or faith groups you belong to does not make a difference; neither does the theology. What matters is frequency of engagement; going to Church or Synagogue or Mosque is therefore good for you! His work on the United Kingdom was already showing similar conclusions.
He also highlighted the dark side and emphasised that this must not be forgotten in any reporting of his work. Religious people can be somewhat intolerant of dissent and polarise opinion in public. This is counter-balanced on the ground in the US by the close inter-faith friendships that most people have in that very diverse nation.
Lord Sacks helpfully defined community; “Where they know who you are and miss you when you are not there”! These attributes were found in religious communities not Facebook or Twitter. Echoing Prof Putnam he rightly said that theology makes an interesting subject but religion makes a difference in the world by joining us to others.
Journalist, Matthew d’Ancona asked why this was so? There is as yet no answer and Prof Putnam is looking for the missing ingredient which ensures this is the case for religious groups and not other social movements or organisations.
Clearly the UK offers a very different picture to the US with (as with the rest of northern Europe) low levels of Church attendance. You should not therefore hope to build the “Big Society” by having a “revival” of religion. But what attributes are there to congregational life that provokes engagement with others; often outside the faith group to which you belong? I believe that Unitarian communities offer opportunities to engage with others on issues of meaning; there are few other spaces to do this in our busy world. So lets forget the secular-religion grandstanding and debate and focus on what brings us together across the various divides.