Among the most common stereotypes of atheists is that they are selfish and immoral - not constrained by the same values and social connections as you and me, just in it for their own good. More generally, Americans tend to view the non-religious with suspicion, and scholars, too, tend to worry about this group ("Do they not have meaning in their lives?") or to express concern about the social impact of their lack of religious commitment ("What about the important social benefits of religion? If churches decline, what institutions will draw people into civic engagement, or do outreach to the poor?").
New research with Jacqueline Frost at the University of Minnesota, forthcoming in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly and based on American Mosaic Project data, shows that everyone can heave a sigh of relief.
It turns out that atheists volunteer for community groups at the same rates as church-goers do, and they are just as likely to care about politics and community affairs. That's right - atheists are just like church-goers on these measures. I'm not a person who writes with a lot of italics and bold letters, but this cannot be over-emphasized -- the stereotypes of atheists are just flat-out wrong on this.
This research also shows that there's a great deal of variation among the non-religious in community involvement. While atheists, agnostics, and the spiritual-but-not-religious all show some form of robust civic engagement, those who identify as "nothing in particular" are less likely to volunteer and express less interest in politics and community affairs.
This suggests that what matters for drawing people into community life is having a stable identity and value commitments, whether those are religious or secular. Those in the "nothing in particular" category may be indifferent not only to religion, but to a range of other commitments.
We end the paper with the usual call for more research, and in this case, I really hope others follow up on this. We need to debunk these stereotypes and understand the mechanisms that foster community involvement, civic-mindedness, and political awareness. We can no longer use religion as a "proxy" for being a good citizen, a good neighbor, or an involved community member. Our measures and our research have to evolve with the shifting religious/non-religious landscape.