While most religions provide ways in which people can access God, the divine or the sacred, they also encourage the adoption of particular views of the world, beliefs about the nature of life, values, and patterns of behaviour. Indeed, it has been argued that the great transformation of religion which took place in human society between 700 BC and 400 BC, the period known as the Axial Age, developed that dimension of religion associated with human values. It was a period in which Confucius, Buddha, Jeremiah and Socrates and many other religious leaders and prophets proclaimed that the fulfilment of life or the appropriate response to the divine would be found in compassion and a concern for social order and justice and not just in paying respect to the gods or God (Armstrong 2006). Through the centuries, all the major world religions have encouraged a range of pro-social values and behaviours.

At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that religions have sometimes been used to distinguish groups of people: those considered worthy of compassion and those not so considered. Thus, religion has often been used to defend one nation going to war against another, whether it be in the Crusades or in the colonial period between the 15th and 19th centuries. It took many centuries, even among deeply religious people, to acknowledge that slavery was incompatible with compassion and respect for the dignity of every human being. There remain debates within religious communities about what justice means, for example, in relation to the place of women in society.

While these debates and many others continue in religious organisations, at the heart of all religions are values of compassion towards others and a desire for peace and goodwill in social life. Religions also encourage discipline in life that contributes to a sense of inner peace, as well as to harmony in social life. Most religions have means whereby these basic values are taught to children and reinforced in adults. In Australia, in close to 16,000 churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and other religious communities, the values of compassion and justice, peace and social harmony are reinforced week after week. We currently estimate that around 3.5 million Australians participate at least once a month in such communities (Hughes, Fraser and Reid 2012, p.8).

If religion contributes to peace and goodwill in social and personal life, it would seem likely that religion has a positive impact economically on societies. One would expect that it would contribute to a reduction of crime and the costs associated with policing, and the justice and prison systems. One would also expect that it would contribute to greater stability in family life, which itself would have a range of economic consequences. Religious teaching and religious communities contribute to encouraging volunteering for philanthropic purposes and thus contribute to care and wellbeing in the community. This article considers these areas and the possibility of measuring the impact of religion in society through a national survey.

While one might anticipate that people of religious faith were less likely to commit serious crimes, a major difficulty in examining this through a survey is that the proportion of people committing serious crimes which lead to prison sentences in Australia is very small. With only 30,775 people in prison in Australia in 2013 (Hughes and Fraser 2014, p.71), less than 0.2 of the population, and almost one quarter of them Indigenous, one would need a huge survey to begin to see if religious teaching and community had had any impact. In other words, obtaining reliable data would be very difficult.

Rodney Stark in his book America’s Blessings used a question in the General Social Survey to examine the relationship between religion and crime: ‘Were you ever picked up, or charged, by the police for any reason whether or not you were guilty?’ (Stark 2012, loc. 625). In the USA, 11 per cent of the population indicated they had been pick up or charged by the police but that this had occurred significantly less among religiously active people than among those who were not religiously active. Stark noted that the effect was strong for both men and women, for white and African Americans, and religion remained a significant factor after controls for education and income. However, there are three problems with this data.
• The responses did not indicate that people have engaged in criminal activity because it included people picked up even if they were not guilty.
• The chance of people answering this question honestly is low because of the significant ‘social desirability’ factor in this question.
• Most charges would relate to minor driving misdemeanors which are not likely to be greatly impacted by the values of compassion emphasised by religious teaching. One would need to look at the nature of the criminal behaviour as well as whether people had been found guilty or not.

Stark also examined another question in the General Social Survey for evidence of the impact of religion on crime: “Have you ever, even once, taken any drug by injection with a needle – do not include anything you took under doctor’s orders?’. Again, he found highly significant results with religion associated with lower levels of drug taking. (Stark 2012, loc. 641). However, again, the question did not probe the extent of criminality in drug taking. General surveys are blunt and insensitive instruments for that task.

Another approach is to look at positive pro-social behaviours in which there is less likelihood of people answering untruthfully. For example, one might ask about the extent to which people donate blood, are involved in keeping their neighbourhoods clean, or participate in social justice activities and neighbourhood action groups. These might contribute to the development of a picture of the impact of religion, but in themselves would have limited value for the overall thesis that religion has a economically significant positive impact on Australian society.

The results from the 2012 World Values Survey have recently been released and this has a set of questions about how people feel about various activities being justifiable, including:

  • claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled;
  • avoiding a fare on public transport;
  • stealing property;
  • cheating on taxes if you have a chance; and
  • someone accepting a bribe in the course of their duties.

In two of these issues religious attenders responded significantly differently from occasional attenders and those who never attended religious services: avoiding a fare on public transport and cheating on taxes. Religious attenders were more likely to say, in both cases, that such behaviour was never justified. However, this data did not prove that the behaviour of religious attenders was significantly different from others. Nor did it begin to provide a basis for calculating that religious organisations actually make a contribution to society that is measurable economically. It is highly unlikely that a survey would obtain honest results if people were asked directly whether they had actually cheated on taxes or avoided fares on public transport.

Stark also raised another issue which would make it seem less likely that we could obtain valid measurements. Stark suggested

if most of our friends are not religious, then religious considerations tend not to enter into the process by which our moral standards are formulated and adopted. For, even if we are religious, even if we bring up religious concerns vis-à-vis moral matters, these would not strike a responsive chord with most of our associates. In this way, the effect of individual religious commitment is smothered by group irreligiousness and tends to become a compartmentalized component of the lives of the religious (Stark 2012, loc. 681).

Stark noted that this may be different for students in religious schools and with intense religious commitment where most of the friends were religious. Where there is a community in which most are religious, ‘individual commitment is energized by the group’ (Stark 2012, loc. 689).

Divorce and Stability in Family Life
Mariah Evans and Jonathan Kelley examined the factors that were related to the incidence of divorce in Australia by examining the reports of respondents to the International Social Survey Program surveys as to whether their parents had been divorced. They found that the greatest factor in the incidence of divorce was maternal employment. Where women (mothers in this sample) were employed, there was a greater likelihood of divorce. However, the more frequently the couple attended church, the lower was the risk of divorce. Evans and Kelley found that the impact of this factor had not changed over time. Typical parents who attended church weekly had a 3 per cent risk of divorce compared with a 9 per cent risk for those who never attended. In other words, regular church goers were only a third as likely to divorce as those who never attended. Evans and Kelley concluded that public involvement in religious practices contributes to the stability of family life.

Evans and Kelley found that whether people were Catholic or Protestant made no difference to the rate of divorce. They concluded that denominational differences had no impact, and probably theology or belief systems were not important. What was important was the social activity of attending a church. On the other hand, the study based on the Wellbeing and Security Survey (2002) found that there was only a weak relationship between religious orientations to life and the quality of relationship with partners. Analysis showed that most people had a high quality of relationships with their partners and how people made sense of life had only a small impact on their relational wellbeing. The researchers said that there were some hints in the survey that a reflective Christian approach to life increased the likelihood of high quality committed relationships and friendships, although such relationships were
by no means guaranteed (Kaldor, Hughes and Black, p.119).

Volunteering and Religious Involvement
There is evidence from several studies in Australia that religious faith and involvement in religious communities has an impact on the level of volunteering. A study by Hughes and Black (2002) found the three factors which were most strongly related to higher levels of volunteering in the Australian community (apart from those people describing themselves as being very busy people) were:

  • higher levels of formal education,
  • higher frequency of church attendance, and
  • the importance people placed on helpfulness towards others as a principle for guiding one’s life (Hughes and Black 2002, p.62).

The study also found that the history of religious involvement was associated in significant ways with the level of voluntary involvement as shown in table 1. It measured this in relation to the responses to three questions measuring different kinds of volunteering:

  • In the past twelve months, were you involved in any voluntary activities assisting people who needed help?
  • In the past twelve months, were you involved in any voluntary activities which contributed to the wider community (e.g. coaching a sports team, serving on a school committee, collecting donations)?

Table 1. Types of Voluntary Involvement and History of Participation in Religious Activities Assist others (%)

Source: Hughes and Black (2002), p.67.
  • Were you involved in a community group or organisation? (8 types of organisations were listed).

These findings were consistent with the hypothesis that the greatest impact of religion is through the motivation which comes from the values that their religions teach.

However, it is also likely that religions contribute to volunteering in other ways. They provide opportunities for the development of skills, for example, in organisation and in care giving, which can be used in volunteering. Hence, through skill development, religious organisations contribute to people feeling that they are sufficiently skilled to have something to give through volunteering. They also contribute by providing an environment in which people are engaged in volunteering. Thus, they provide networks in which people ask others to assist them in various tasks and activities. Religious organisations may also provide the opportunity for groups to form to take on welfare tasks together.

Other detailed work on the relationship between voluntary involvement and participation in religious activities has been undertaken in Australia by Mark Lyons and Ian Nivison-Smith (2006). Their research is based on the Commonwealth of Australia’s Giving Australia survey. They found that more people who had higher levels of participation in churches participated in voluntary activities and tended to give more time to them than people who were not involved. However, those who attended a religious organisation weekly or more often tended to be highly involved in religious activities and have less civic involvement. Those who attended churches monthly or more (but less than weekly) tended to have higher levels of civic involvement. These impacts remained when one takes into account
variations in age, gender, education, income, and other factors. The authors suggested that the impact of religion was through committed belief rather than through religiously-formed networks (2006, p.36). On the other hand, they noted that the association between volunteering and attendance at religious services was ‘not a strong one’.

The analysis of the Wellbeing and Security Survey (2002) concluded that a Christian orientation to life was strongly associated with the importance given to the value of ‘helpfulness to others’ (Kaldor, Hughes and Black 2010, p.132). Christians also tended to reject the statement that ‘one should act on one’s individual rights rather than look to the needs of others’ more strongly than most other groups of people in society. The study found that a Christian orientation was strongly associated with higher levels of voluntary involvement, with higher number of hours of voluntary help, with giving to charity, and in some areas of informally helping others (Kaldor, Hughes and Black 2010, p.141).

Giving Money to Charities
The Giving Australia Survey also supported the conclusion in part that religious people both give time and money to voluntary causes. It found that ‘having a religion and attending religious services affects the likelihood that a person will give and dramatically affects the amounts given’ (CACOM 2005, p.22). However, much of that giving is in relation to the religion they embrace. When this giving was excluded from the equations, it was concluded that

having a religion does not affect the likelihood that a person will support non-religious causes or the
amounts that they donate. However, when we look at the level of commitment to their religion, as
demonstrated by frequency of attendance at religious services, the data suggests that the likelihood of a person supporting non-religious causes is inversely related to the frequency of their worship’ (CACOM 2005, p.23).

However, it is not clear that the support of ‘non-religious causes’ has been appropriately identified. For example, many religious people give to welfare groups at times of tragedy but will often give through religious organisations. Church groups spend much time and energy in projects which are conducted for the wellbeing of the community. Hence, it is possible that much of the time and money classifed in the survey as given for religious causes may well have been contributed for community wellbeing.

A National Survey?
While there are a number of hints in previous research, more research needs to be done to show how religious faith may have economic and social impacts on Australian society. In summary, there is a prima facie case for expecting religious faith to reduce negative social behaviour such as crime, although this is not easily measured. Previous research has suggested that religious faith contributes to stability in family life and to people voluntarily contributing time, effort and money to the wellbeing of society. More careful measurement is needed to distinguish how much of this time, effort and money goes into the religious groups themselves and how much goes into benefiting the wider society.

Surveys usually show ‘associations’ between different factors and can rarely do more than point to the possibility that one factor causes another. On the other hand, through the careful development and testing of theoretical models using multi-variate analysis, one can get closer to show that a ‘cause’ is likely. A large-scale survey has been proposed by a consortium of a wide range of religious organisations in Australia. We hope that it will move us closer to identifying and measuring some of the contributions religious faith makes to the wider society through the lives of individuals influenced by religious teachings. Further research will also seek to measure the direct impact of local churches and religious agencies on the wellbeing of communities.

Philip Hughes

Armstrong, K. (2006) The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, UK: Atlantic Books.

Centre for Australian Community Organisations and Management (CACOM) 2005, Giving Australia: Research on Philanthropy in Australia, Canberra: Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Australian Government.

Evans, M.D.R. and Jonathan Kelley, ‘Traditional Lifestyles Protect against Parental Divorce: Effects of Religion, Ethnicity, Rurality and Mother’s Employment in Australia in the 20th Century, International Journal of Sociology of the Family, Spring 2009. This paper is available on the internet on the Social Science Research Network at:

Hughes, P. 2014 (2014) ‘Religion and Public Health’. Pointers, 24 (3).

Hughes, P. and A. Black (2002). ‘The impact of various personal and social characteristics on volunteerism’. Australian Journal on Volunteering 7(2): pp.59-69.

Hughes, P., M. Fraser and S. Reid (2012) Australia’s Religious Communities: Facts and Figures, Melbourne: Christian Research Association.

Hughes, P. and L. Fraser (2014) Life, Ethics and Faith in Australian Society: Facts and Figures, Melbourne: Christian Research Association.

Kaldor, P., P. Hughes and A. Black (2010) Spirit Matters: How making sense of life affects wellbeing, Melbourne: Mosaic Press.

Lyons, M. and I. Nivison-Smith (2006) ‘The relationships between religion and volunteering in Australia’. Australian Journal on Volunteering 11(2): pp.25-37.

Stark, R. (2012) America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone Including Atheists, Conshohocken, PA, USA: Templeton Press. (Quotes from e-version of the book.)

This article was first published in Pointers: the Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol. 25, no.2, June 2015. pp.1-5.