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New Research: Religion as Social Support

All around us, we face requests for help. Colleagues may ask us for advice, friends may need a listening ear, a social service organization may be raising funds or looking for more volunteers, and an elderly family member may need our care. Social scientists have found that religious people are more likely than non-religious people to support friends and family members. People may think that this is so because many religions encourage their members to help others and to do good in their community and world. Interestingly, scholars argue that values are not why religious people are more likely to help others; the real reason is that they have more religious friends. It’s the social aspect of religion, not the values or beliefs, that really matters.

This conclusion, however, has troubled me. Religion is not just social, as Durkheim, an early social theorist, argued; religion is multi-faceted, with personal, social, and organizational dimensions. How can only one aspect of something that is so multi-dimensional matter? I do not doubt that social aspects of religion play a role in why religious people help others. Indeed, religious people have friends who have similar values and beliefs and who can use good “peer pressure” to encourage them to do their moral and spiritual duty of helping others. I argue, though, that other aspects of religiosity matter too.

In my study, I limit my focus to attenders of religious congregations in order to understand why some attenders of religious congregations help others while other attenders do not, and I consider how social as well as personal and organizational aspects of religious life relate with whether attenders help others. I examine congregational friendships as a social aspect of religion, the private devotional activities as a personal aspect of religion, and congregational size and theology as organizational aspects of religion. I look at three forms of helping others that are fairly large-scale in terms of how much time, effort, and even money they require attenders to give to help another person–giving a loan, caring for someone who is sick, and helping someone find a job. In discussing the results below, I focus on those pertaining to private devotional activities and congregational context–the two new explanations that I examined. Before turning to these results, however, it suffices to say that attenders with more friends in their congregations were more likely to help others in all three of the ways that I examined (giving a loan, caring for the sick, and helping someone find a job).

Not only do congregational friendships matter for predicting whether attenders help others, but private devotional activities do so as well. Attenders who engage in private devotions more frequently are more likely to help others. There are a couple of reasons why this may be. First, through private devotions, attenders can internalize religious teachings that encourage helping, and they can integrate them into their everyday life. Second, devotional activities, while private, can have an outward or social focus. People can pray for others who are hurting, and they can seek comfort from God that they can then extend to others. Prayer and scripture reading at home should not be seen as a private exercise with little social value; they can be beneficial in encouraging religious people to help others.

While private devotional activities matter for understanding why some attenders are more likely to help others, congregational context does not. The two aspects of congregational context that I examine, size and theology, do not consistently relate with helping. Attenders of larger congregations are more likely to help someone find a job, but congregation size is unrelated with giving a loan or caring for someone who is sick. Attenders of more liberal congregations are more likely to care for someone who is sick, but they are not more or less likely to give a loan or to help someone find a job. These results suggest that congregational context (at least, size and theology) neither encourages nor hinders attenders from helping others.

In summary, congregational friendships and private devotional activities matter for understanding why some attenders help others while other attenders to not, but congregational context (size and theology) does not. Whether attenders help others or not is related to things that are within attenders’ control–making friends and engaging in private devotions. Religious leaders should not worry that their congregation’s size or theological persuasion will hinder attenders from helping others. 

Jennifer McClure
About the Author
Jennifer McClure is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Penn State.