Canadian Church folk a helping bunch

  • November 22, 2007
{mosimage}OTTAWA - Canadian society stands to become a much bleaker place if religious attendance continues to decline as it has over the past two decades.

“The whole country is going to suffer a significant loss in terms of civility,” warns University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby.

Carleton University social sciences professor Paul Reed sees fragility in the volunteer sector, the tiny fraction of Canadians who provide the bulk of assistance to others.

Since Reed became involved in the creation of the web site, he said anecdotal evidence from volunteer organizations of their need for volunteers has been pouring in.

“They are desperate across this country. You have no idea.”

His scientific research has been probing the characteristics that make up this cadre of volunteers who are so crucial to the smooth running of society.

What both social scientists have observed in their separate research is the relationship of church attendance to a desire to help others.

Bibby has found Canadians who believe in God are consistently more likely to value a range of values from honesty, kindness and family life to politeness and patience than do nonbelievers or atheists.

“I was surprised to find the difference so consistent across any of these interpersonal characteristics we looked at,” said Bibby.

Among religious believers, 88 per cent value family life, compared with 65 per cent among atheists. They also value generosity far more than atheists do: 67 per cent vs. 37 per cent. They value forgiveness (84 per cent to 52 per cent). They value patience more (72 per cent to 39 per cent). In all 12 interpersonal values measured, believers ranked higher by more than 10 percentage points, except for honesty where the gap narrowed to 94 per cent vs. 89 per cent.

“Holding the value of compassion does not necessarily guarantee compassion,” Bibby said. “That said, people who are compassionate are invariably going to be people who value compassion.”

These results come from a national survey of 1,600 Canadians completed in 2005. In an October news release announcing the findings, Bibby raised the age-old question of whether people can be good without God. He said the answer is more complex.

“People who don’t believe in God can be good. But people who believe in God are more likely to value being good, enhancing the changes that they will be good,” he said.

Reed’s work over the past couple of decades also shows a strong relationship between frequent church attendance and a willingness to help others.

“The activity of volunteering has been an integral part of the warp and woof of our society for a long, long time,” said Reed, who for decades has been studying the characteristics of what he calls “social embeddedness,” a group of factors that characterize people who look out for others.

Volunteer work, however, is increasingly done by a small minority.

“Two-thirds of all volunteering is done by about five per cent of the adult population in Canada,” Reed said.

Reid pointed out that belief in God coupled with frequent church attendance is a key characteristic of this volunteer core group. As a social scientist he cannot say for sure which comes first, the belief or the attendance, because frequent attendance can reinforce a belief in God.

Bibby also stressed that the values he studied come primarily from religious groups.

“To the extent that Canadians say goodbye to God, we may find that we pay a significant social price,” he warned.

Bibby said he has been surprised by how blasé people have been over the decline in religious participation over the past two decades, though that decline shows signs of reversing somewhat.

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