A nation of volunteers


When the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he was impressed by how much of the work of society was carried on by voluntary organizations.

Americans of that day did not wait for government to authorize them to carry out necessary civic tasks.  They (or at least a critical mass of them) did not hold back because others weren’t pulling their weight.  If they saw something that needed to be done, they went ahead and did it.

What’s interesting to me about this Pew religious survey is not so much that highly religious people do more volunteer work than the non-religious as the fact that the volunteer spirit is still very much alive in the USA.

If you factor out church work, then roughly one-fourth of Americans across the spectrum of religious belief voluntarily do work for the benefit of society.

I myself spend many hours each week doing things to benefit First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., which is part of the eclectic, non-dogmatic religion of Unitarian-Universalism.

I put this in a different category from volunteer work for the general good of the community, because I benefit from my church membership and I want to do something in return.

Arguably I also benefit from being an American citizen, and ought to do something besides paying taxes in return, but it has been many years since I did so.

I don’t know what role volunteer work plays in other countries.   I think we Americans can feel good about ourselves whether we are exceptional in this respect or not.

In recent yeas, I’ve become interested in anarchist philosophy.   I am not a full-fledged anarchist and am not convinced people can do without any government at all.  But I like the idea of people coming together to do good things without compulsion, and without crude economic incentives.  Contrary to neoliberal thinking, this does happen.


How Religion Affects Everyday Life by the Pew Research Center.

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