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Does religion make you a left-wing activist?

23/04/2012
Image by fakelvis

Two weeks ago, think tank Demos released a report on the civic activism and political viewpoints of religious people. It is an attempt to use survey data to promote the importance of faith to a progressive and active society.

The first argument the report makes is that members of religious organisations are more connected and more likely to be active in their communities than the non-religious. It’s interesting that Demos felt they needed to prove this, as the relationship has been accepted among scholars of the social sciences since Robert Putnam first wrote about social capital. Any group that fosters sustained interaction within local communities, especially when they are targeted towards a common endeavour, is likely to lead to closer bonds, trust and social networks.

Putnam praised the rise of megachurches in the US for bringing local communities together for a wide variety of pursuits, and Catholic Priest Andrew Greely argued that religious organisations accounted for a large amount of the volunteering, and therefore social capital, in America. The first person to study social capital in the UK, Peter Hall, worried about the decline in religiosity because it might mean people would interact less, and even David Miliband has argued that new types of groups are needed in the UK to supplant the decline in church-going.

This religions-as-organisations finding is the major conclusion of the Demos report, but it also goes further than other studies – it suggests that the reason religious people are more active in their communities and politics is because they hold progressive views. This argument formed the headline when the report was picked up by a handful of media, who focused on the finding ‘Religious people are more likely to be leftwing’ (see the stories in the Guardian and Daily Mail).

The authors use responses to the European Values Study to argue that religious individuals tend to have progressive and not conservative views, and that these are linked to their activism. This is despite admitting that there is a ‘body of research’ arguing activism is all about an individual’s social context and networks and not about beliefs. Their ideological position is made clear when they suggest that the decline in civicness in the UK is down to reductions in religious participation, and claim:

“Many argue that without religion’s ultimate sanction, social mores would break down and amoral chaos would reign.”

There seems to be some selective use of data in order to suggest that it is the progressive values of the religious are holding society together. In fact, the data analysis only finds evidence that religious people are progressive after religious respondents are separated into two types – ‘exclusivists’, who believe there is only one true religion, and ‘pluralists’ who are willing to accept other religions contain some basic truths. In the analysis, only the views of the more progressive and activist pluralists are taken into account. The exclusivists are less engaged in politics, and more conservative, but they are ignored in the headline findings of the report.

Furthermore, many questions which might be thought to measure ‘progressive’ views are ignored in the analysis, and only a few are discussed. We find out what these religious pluralists feel about living next to immigrants, but though the survey asks about living next to other groups, including people of different religions and homosexuals, the analysis does not cover these questions. A majority – 55% – of UK religious respondents described themselves as left-wing, but this is compared with 60% of non-religious respondents. Across Western Europe, the religious were less likely to be left-wing than the non-religious. On whether competition was good or harmful, and on weighing up individual responsibility and state responsibility, there is little difference between the religious and non-religious. However, those surveyed also answered questions about their views towards women’s rights, relationships, homosexuals, morality, the needy in society, and there is even a question attempting to discover whether a respondent is generally conservative or progressive. None of these results are addressed.

This is a partial analysis, at best, and it certainly does not prove that religious people are more progressive activists, just what we already knew – that they are more likely to be engaged in their communities and politics. There have been thoughtful theories of how values and activism are related. For example, Eric Uslaner argues that a core characteristic of activism is optimism, which can be bred from moral values. This pamphlet woefully fails to look at the relationship between religious values and progressive values or activism. It twists survey results to fit its argument, without explaining why this might be the case. It is true that belonging to an organisation, religious or not, fosters activism, but this says nothing about the values or politics of the people involved, and how these might interact with their engagement.

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