The Atheist Who Wants More Churches In Australia

23 October 2019

4.5 MINS

Harvard-educated Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh believes Australia could do with more churches. He believes churches are good for society. And yet Leigh is an Atheist.

So why does he hold this view?

Leigh has done research showing churches play a vital role in building this thing called ‘social capital’.

I heard Leigh interviewed by author John Dickson for a new Christian podcast called Undeceptions, which is aimed at uncovering the truth about various topics by interviewing ‘people who know what they’re talking about’. (It’s well worth checking out!)

And when it comes to social capital (and the role churches play), Andrew Leigh knows what he’s talking about.

Leigh became a Professor at 36, and has a PhD from Harvard University. Leigh worked on world renowned sociologist Robert Putnam’s research team while at Harvard. Putnam is one of the big names in social capital research.

It prompted Andrew to come back to Australia, and figure out what’s going on here. His book Disconnected took him 10 years to write because research on social capital in Australia isn’t easy to find.

Here’s what he had to say:

All Things Being Equal, Societies With More ‘Social Capital’ Do Better Than Societies With Less

Leigh says:

Social capital is the idea that the networks of trust and reciprocity that link us together have some inherent value. Economists have long recognised that physical capital like bridges, roads and cars have value. And in the 1960’s we came to agree that human capital – the skills and education that we acquire – also has value.

He continues:

And then in the beginning of the 21st century came the idea of social capital: the notion that the networks themselves matter. That societies can do better when they’re better interconnected, and individuals are more likely to prosper when they have more ties to others.’

So how is social capital doing here in Australia?
Not so well, as it turns out:

Social Capital Is Decreasing In Australia

This bad news for individuals, and Australian society as a whole.

Andrew Leigh again:

I found that the measures for Australia looked to be on the wane. Whether it was church going or union membership, or memberships of the scouts, guides, rotary, Lions, political engagement – all of those things seemed to be on the wane in Australia…We know [that] people who are more socially connected tend to be healthier. It’s been suggested that complete social isolation can be as bad as being a chronic smoker or chronic drinker for your health.

He continues:

We also know that we’ve seen significant declines on a whole range of metrics. One of the ones that worries me is we’ve surveyed Australians on the number of friends and neighbours that they’re close to, and estimated that from 1984 through to 2018, the average Australian had shed 2 or 3 neighbours they knew well, and 5-6 close friends. So we’ve seen this complete collapse in informal socialising, which not only has economic consequences, but also means we’re missing out on one of the wonderful aspects of life.

Here’s a tweet summarising his research:

So where do churches fit into this picture?

Churches Add To the Social Capital Of a Society

By building relationships both inside and outside of Church.

Churches add to the social capital of a society. Andrew Leigh explains:

Traditionally, those who have gone to church have been more likely to volunteer in their local communities, even putting aside their religious volunteering. [They’re] more likely to donate money, even putting aside their religious giving. Church goers are more likely to donate blood – a fact that [Harvard sociologist] Robert Putnam uncovers in his terrific book, American Grace.

He continues:

Putnam sums it up by saying that religious people are just nicer. [But] not because they’re congenitally nicer: they weren’t nicer before they turned up at the church…but being there puts them in a milieu in which people ask them to help out, and in which they become more involved in their community.’

Let’s be clear: when Leigh is talking about church-goers being more likely to volunteer, or being more active in their communities, he does not merely mean within the church community.

We’re not talking about volunteering for the music team on Sunday mornings, or at Friday night Youth group. Rather, Christians are more likely (than non-Christians) to volunteer out in the wider world.

I’ve seen this first hand: in my experience Christians have been over-represented on my kid’s preschool committee, school’s P and C, not to mention our local soccer club (I’ve had the privilege of coaching my son’s team for the last 3 years – but I’m not the only Christian doing that).

But Leigh says that churches give even more benefits to wider society:

Churches Are Effective in Breaking Down Class Barriers

Churches can help build bridges across a divided society. Leigh explains:

People who attend church are more likely to know someone who’s on welfare, and more likely to know a CEO. Churches in Australia have done a terrific job of cross cutting class differences. [They’re] effective in bringing together people who otherwise would not rub shoulders in the streets.

He continues:

[Harvard Sociologist] Robert Putnam refers to two kinds of social capital: bridging and bonding. Bonding is social capital with people who are like you in many dimensions. Bridging is to spend time with someone who is different to you. Churches can be very effective in that bridging social capital sense.

He concludes:

Which is important then we go and generalise that in our broader life. So if you’ve just taken communion next to somebody who’s unemployed, it’s far less likely that you will go out into the world and stigmatise someone who is jobless. It’s much more likely that you’ll see them as a fellow human being, and you’ll build those connections.

Churches Help Reduce The Polarisation Of Australian Society

This is important, especially as our society grows more divided over ideological issues:

The greatest challenge to Australia right now is that we disappear into the corners of the ideological debate. We don’t have a common conversation about the challenges of homelessness, joblessness, climate change, but instead we’re in our little echo chambers, shouting along with people who share our views. The great thing about religious organisations is that they do act as more effective melting pots. And that’s a vital role in a very polarised politics that we have at the moment.

It was a great interview with Andrew Leigh, and well worth hearing for yourself. I didn’t ever think I would hear an Atheist say that churches play a ‘vital role’ in society. But, I couldn’t agree more.


Originally published at
Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash.

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One Comment

  1. Julie 16 November 2019 at 6:21 pm - Reply

    I pray Andrew Leigh would soon no longer be an Atheist. I pray that not only would he know the blessing of being part of the Church but that he would experience reunion with His Heavenly Father through His Son our loving Saviour, Lord of all and soon coming King and that he would understand how blessed life is in a daily walk with and empowered by the Holy Spirit!

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