Putnam strikes again!

May 8, 2009

I don’t often have a chance to be jealous of Michael Gerson, but somehow he’s gotten his hands on Robert Putnam’s new book about American Religiosity and it sounds fantastic:

At a recent conference of journalists organized by thePew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Putnam outlined the conclusions of “American Grace,” based on research still being sifted and refined. Against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, “religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens.” They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.

Putnam, for those readers who may not of heard of him, wrote the book on the decline of American public life, Bowling Alone, which should be on the bed stand of every Red Tory in the country. That he’s decided to write about our civic faith is excellent, though I have a hard time imagining his discussion of front vs. back porches being topped anytime soon.

Michelle Cottle, over at New Republic, has talked with Putnam and points out that the sociologically interesting part is that creedal differences don’t matter all that much: what counts is that you’re there: 

The real kicker about this, however, is that it really doesn’t matter where you go to church, or what you believe, but only that you do it, period. All that said, it certainly makes sense that there exists a mutually reinforcing aspect to the “niceness” of people who come together in religious congregations. And anyway, such correlation-vs.-causation parsing doesn’t negate the civic implications of Putnam’s findings: religious community makes for a better citizenry.

As much as I’m inclined to agree with this conclusion, it raises two big, slightly ambivalent issues in my mind. First off, if there is no difference between creeds in terms of overall positive effects, then does this implicitly confirm the irrelevance of the creedal differences between the sects?  I worry that a widespread emphasis on practice, contra dogma, could further erode our commitment to varied and serious denominations, setting the stage for the much-dreaded (though not necessarily bad) triumph of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. After all, there are huge differences between outlook that different denominations favor that don’t boil down easily into Putnam’s categories, and the growth of Americans’ already considerable distaste for dogma could have distressingly leveling effect on the playing field.  Puritans and Pentecostals may both wind up being nice and civicly engaged, but the reasoning behind their actions are radically different, as is the culture they bring with them. Yet if those are the standards by which we gauge the value of religious life, and by which religious elites conceive of their project, then religious life is going to get, well, less interesting. (But here I am judging a book that only Gerson seems to have read. Regular readers will likely see me eat my hat once the damn thing comes out.)

Secondly, this is further confirmation that even for confirmed or semi-confirmed atheists, tradition and ritual should not be thrown to the wind, as the Ditchkins of the world maintain. Even if one is thoroughly uninterested in the world of the spirits and the gods, it pays to do the rituals of belief, a point that all but few secularists completely miss, despite its pedigree in both Western (Stoic) and Eastern (Confucian) traditions.  One hopes that this kind of study revives interest in how secularity understands religious life positively, though given the current tone of atheism I would highly doubt it.

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