Religiously active people more likely to engage in civic life, Pew study finds

The Pew study authors say their findings counter the view that religiously active people are less engaged with the secular world. Increased trust of others and optimism about one's impact on the community are cited as factors.

Cory Young/The Tulsa World/AP
In this November photo, Mizel Jewish school fifth-grader Brandon Sweet worships inside the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, which recently received pews, an ark, and other religious artifacts from a Muskogee synagogue that closed a month ago, in Tulsa, Okla.

Religious activism is good for civic life in America, according to a new study out from the Pew Research Center Project on the Internet and American Life released on Friday.

The report finds that some 40 percent of Americans engage in some form of religious activity, whether going to a mosque, a synagogue, or a church. And in turn, they feel better all around about their place in the larger civic community.

According to a statement on the website, these individuals are more trusting of others, are more optimistic about their impact on their community, think more highly of their community, are more involved in more organizations of all kinds, and devote more time to the groups to which they are active, in comparison to those who do not engage in religious activities.

As far as technology goes, the study found, Americans who are members of religious groups are just as likely as others to use the Internet, have broadband at home, use cell phones, use text messaging, and use social-networking sites and Twitter.

“Some analysts have been concerned that those who have active spiritual lives might not be as engaged with the secular world,” notes report author Jim Jansen on the website. “We see the opposite. Those who are religiously active are more likely to participate in all kinds of groups and more likely to feel good about their communities. Those who are active in religious groups seem to be joiners. They also are active users of technology,” he adds.

These conclusions do not surprise scholars of American religious life or technology.

“This confirms what other researchers have been finding in recent years,” says Douglas Jacobsen, professor of theology and church history at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn. He notes that despite a public assumption that religiously-engaged individuals might be less inclined to civic participation, he points to such recent research as the critically acclaimed, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, as evidence that leading mainstream scholars are finding just the opposite.

“They found that churchgoing people are three to four times more civically active than those who do not go to church,” he says.

However, he points out that this engagement is not necessarily tied to the specific beliefs. “It has more to do with the act of being part of a congregation,” says Prof. Jacobsen, adding that friendships in a religious setting “tend to have a morally super-charged quality to them.”

When people ask you to do something, he says, “you tend to say yes.”

Religious teachings have a component of helping others at their core, points out Eugene Fisher, Professor of Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University in Florida.

“Civic participation would be a natural result of that push to help your fellow man,” he points out. But he does suggest that the 40 percent figure for those who engage in religious activity might be too low.

“There are many more people who consider themselves either religiously or spiritually engaged but who do not participate in the traditional religious institutional life in America,” he adds.

The high level of digital participation by religiously engaged folks does not surprise media expert Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.”

“The Internet is an amplifier of all that each of us are in our humanity,” he says via e-mail, adding that if an essential component of anyone or group is their religion, “then they will enjoy and rely upon the Internet as a way of being in touch with others of similar perspectives, and spreading the word to the world at large.”

This report is based on the findings of a survey on Americans’ use of the Internet. According to the site, the study findings are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from Nov. 23 to Dec. 21, 2010, among a sample of 2,303 adults, age 18 and older. Telephone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (1,555) and cell phone (748, including 310 without a landline phone).

Staff writer Dan Wood contributed to this report.

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