A common assertion in the ongoing debate over religion and atheism is that the religious – in particular Christians – are far more likely to engage in charitable activity and generally be far better citizens than the pesky non-believers. Indeed, it's one of the reasons the government is so keen to involve religious groups in the provision of public services as part of the Big Society (something James Gray takes a look at in his piece in our current issue).
But are Christians really so much more benevolent than atheists? While the government continues to extol the virtues of religion in the Big Society, its own statistics suggest that the godless are just as charitable as the godly. The Citizenship Survey: April 2010 - March 2011, produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government, found that atheists were only marginally less likely to participate in volunteer work than Christians, with 56 per cent of non-religious respondents saying that had done so at least once in the least year, compared with 58 per cent of Christians. Hindus and Muslims showed the lowest levels of participation, with 44 per cent in both groups having volunteered in the last year.
This is a debate that's likely to continue, so it's worth remembering those statistics next time it comes up.