In Large Type

brilliant ideas in a big font… often gay interest or political topics.

Robert Putnam @Stanford: American Grace

Posted by bert5 on 16 November 2010

[Author’s note: has labeled my blog as reactionary.  I had to look it up, but reactionary means conservative.  Sorry folks, this is a radically liberal blog.]

I found Putnam’s book ‘Bowling Alone’ fascinating, so I was fairly enthusiastic to hear Putnam talk at Stanford about his new book ‘American Grace’ even though it has to do with religion, and I’m an atheist.  He seemed to talk liberally about the contents of most of his book in his roughly 90 minute talk which was interspersed at times with anecdotes and self-deprecating humor.

Putnam shows a graph which shows that Americans are quite religious, far more than any other developed country and slightly more religious even than Iranians!  He then described how the sexual revolution earthquake of the early 60’s resulted in a reaction by some (older) Americans into a stronger embrace of more extreme (evangelical) Christianity.  He says this stampede to ‘family values’ actually caused another aftershock of younger folks into being non-believers in reaction to what they saw was promotion of extreme conservative beliefs and invasion of the political sphere by the ‘religious right’.   Both of these effects have conspired to empty much of the mainline Protestant churches.  The resulting polarization might predict religious war.  However, as I had heard him state earlier in an interview (I think it was on PBS Newshour) and again in today’s talk, surprisingly Americans are tolerant of other religions and non-believers/atheists.  As evidence of this more than 50% of very religious people believe that persons from another religion or even non-believers could go to Heaven (despite this being quite contrary to almost every strict religious teaching)!  He says this is probably precisely because of the religious diversity in the US.  Americans are highly likely to have a friend or even to have married someone from another religion (or non- religion).  Once again demonstrating the principle that it’s difficult to demonize people you know.

One very surprising finding is that in America the group people view most positively out of all religions or non-believers is Jews.  Jews have something like a >80% approval rating, just besting Catholics.  (I think we should not let it be said that Jews are an oppressed minority, at least in America.)  Non-believers are at slightly above 50% approval, actually above Mormons which are below 50%.  Buddhists and Muslims are also in the 40’s below Mormons.  (I think opinions on Hindus were not requested.)  He was not terribly troubled about what appeared to be anti-Muslim sentiment because the Buddhists and Mormons had been lumped in roughly together with them.  He said it was essentially fear of the unknown.  People did not have a Buddhist, Muslim or Mormon friend.

Virtually as a side comment, Putnam mentions that people become more religious as they get married and have children (carrying on a religious/cultural tradition?) and puzzlingly around the age of 60 they also are increasingly religious.  I immediately thought of Heaven as a reason at the same time Putnam then mentions he hypothesized that people might be attempting to: ‘cover the bases’.

Linking back to Bowling Alone, Putnam then states that actually the number of friends you have from church predicts the amount of volunteerism, donations of money and time, and community involvement regardless of the type of religion it is.  This is in a way a measurement of the public good of religion (which I guess is not the source of all evil after all).  He then posed the question: what’s special about the ‘church’ friends that makes this happen, saying that he didn’t know the answer.  In the Q&A, no one really addressed it, but I think the obvious answer (which he probably would have thought of, too) would be that if you go to church and you believe you want to get into Heaven, you are supposed to be doing good deeds.  I.e. good people do good deeds, and besides you want to get the word out that in your religion, people are actually trying to get to Heaven and doing good things, it’s like peer pressure, advertising and competition all wrapped together.  Anyway, that was my guess.  Will there ever be a secular organization to do good like churches?  I believe there could be as soon as they stop being distracted by the assault by the religious on the separation of church and state (a principle which I think is all important to atheists).  Atheists, secular humanists motivation in such a group may be to prove that people can be moral (have compassion, show kindness, etc) despite not believing in religion.

The Stanford Daily coverage.


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