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The good that comes from belief

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Being religious makes for more ethical and giving young people, writes Andrew Singleton.

ATHEISM is the "new black". Of course, in Australia, we've always had atheists aplenty. Now, however, it is acceptable to come out of the closet of disbelief. The poster boy for this new atheism is British academic Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion is a bestseller.

It is no surprise that atheists are finding their voice anew. Data from the most recent census show that more Australians do not identify with a religion. Indeed, the Christian denominations appear to be in steady decline, losing almost 7 per cent of those who previously identified with them in the decade to 2006. About 20 per cent of adults up to the age of 60 don't believe in God. Most of these have never believed. Now though, they are comfortable saying so.

Endless media representations of religious-related violence, whether in Baghdad or Ambon, confirm for many the profound destructiveness of fundamentalism and sectarianism. At the same time, the religious beliefs of the US President seem hypocritical considering many of his Administration's practices. And if they paid attention, unchurched Australians would hardly be impressed by the debates among Anglican leaders about female bishops.

For these kinds of reasons, more people seem to be concluding that we are better off without religion. And yet, as my colleagues and I document in our study of spirituality among young Australians, this is not necessarily the case. Religion is strongly associated with many positive life outcomes.

We found that one in five 13-to-24 year olds are actively religious, while about one in six could be described as atheists. The rest are religiously or spiritually disengaged but tend to either secular indifference or a superficial interest in the New Age.

But the most fascinating finding was the difference between the religious and the distinctly non-religious. The religiously active are more likely to have positive civic attitudes, display high levels of social concern and be actively involved in community service. Active Christians, for example, do much more hours of volunteer work per month than secular youth. On a measure of the extent to which a person holds positive human values — favouring an ethical life, justice for all and having an orientation to the common good — we also found the religiously active to be streets ahead.

These findings make sense when we consider that regular attendees at religious services are encouraged to lead altruistic and ethical lives and given ample opportunities to partake in community service.

What about the young atheists? Most secular-minded youth are more self-oriented because there is no widely understood or shared ethical alternative paradigm on which to model their lives. Despite recent commentary about "generation Y" being community-minded, our evidence suggests that the prevailing ethos of the past decade — individualism and consumerism — afflicts young people in spades. And the secular humanists and rationalists do not seem to be putting up a credible, earthly alternative way of life.

So where does this leave the new breed of atheists? Perhaps the vociferous anti-religious types such as Dawkins could afford to be a little less triumphalist. Some may see religion as a tired old superstition, but it does produce our most ethical and caring young adults — believe it or not.

Andrew Singleton works in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. The Spirit of Generation Y, by Michael Mason, Andrew Singleton & Ruth Webber is published by John Garratt.



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