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If you’re searching for the big society, here’s where you may find it

The tenor of relationships within a religious community makes it the best tutorial in citizenship an

It is the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, the man who ten years ago delivered the bad news, who has now given us the good news. Social capital, once thought lost, has been found again, at least in the US. Putnam is perhaps best known for the phrase he used to describe the individualism afflicting ageing western democracies. Noting that more Americans than ever are going ten-pin bowling, but fewer are joining bowling clubs and leagues, he coined the phrase "Bowling Alone". It summed up an era.

The free market was giving us unprecedented individual choices. Liberal democracy was leaving us freer than ever to decide how to structure our lives. Morality had morphed into a seemingly infinite variety of lifestyles, to be put on and then discarded at will.

Social capital

In the decade since Bowling Alone was published, we've travelled further along the same trajectory. Two generations ago, newspapers, radio and television were configured in such a way that an entire nation was receiving the news at much the same time in much the same way. Now news and information-gathering have fragmented: there are myriad blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages from which to choose those that resonate with your convictions-de-jour, allowing you to screen out all voices with which you disagree.

One way or another, it's been bad news for those associations - marriages, families, congregations and communities - through which we once lived out our biological imperatives as "the social animal". In the endless competition between our selfish genes and our group instincts, self has been winning, weakening, in Robert Bellah's words, "the subtle ties that bind human beings to one another, leaving them frightened and alone".

Now, in his new book American Grace, Putnam sets out the good news. A powerful store of social capital still exists. It is called religion: the churches, synagogues and other places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility. The evidence shows that religious people - defined by regular attendance at a place of worship - actually do make better neighbours.

A survey carried out across the US between 2004 and 2006 showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity. They were also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, donate blood, help a neighbour with housework, allow another driver to cut in front of them, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job.

For some minor acts of help, there was no difference between frequent and non-churchgoers. But there was no good deed that was more commonly practised by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts. Religious Americans are simply more likely to give of their time and money to others, both within and beyond their own communities.

Their altruism goes further than this. Frequent wor­shippers are also significantly more active citizens. They are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, health, arts and leisure, neighbourhood and civic groups and professional associations. Within these organisations they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They play a bigger role in civic and political life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. The margin of difference between them and the more secular is large.

Tested on attitudes, religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance turns out to be the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race. On the basis of self-reported life satisfaction, religious people are also happier than their non-religious counterparts.

The art of association

Interestingly, each of these attributes is related not to people's religious beliefs, but to the frequency with which they attend a place of worship. Religion creates community, community creates altruism and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good. Putnam goes so far as to speculate that an atheist who went regularly to church (perhaps because of a spouse) would be more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than a believer who prays alone. There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious community that makes it the best tutorial in citizenship and good neighbourliness.

So, if we're searching for the big society, this is where we will find it. Politically, it's the idea of the moment, but it's what faith communities have been doing all along. It's their greatest strength and a large part of their raison d'être. They are an ongoing tutorial in the "art of association" that Alexis de Tocqueville saw as our apprenticeship in liberty.

Does this mean that we are about to become more religious as a society, or that charity is an adequate substitute for government spending, or that faith communities are our only source of altruism? No. Britain, relative to the US, is a highly secular society. Philanthropy alone cannot fill the gap left by government cutbacks. And the sources of altruism go deep into our evolutionary past.

My point is simply this. In thinking about religion and society in the 21st century, we should broaden the conversation about faith from doctrinal debates to the larger question of how it might inspire us to strengthen the bonds of belonging that redeem us from our solitude, helping us to construct together a gracious and generous social order.

Lord Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations from 1991 to 2013. His latest book, Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, is published by Hodder & Stoughton

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit