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Is God Good For Cities?

Milton Friesen, Program Director for Social Cities at Cardus, shares the importance of strong social fabric and the contribution that religious communities make to the health of their cities.

Cities, Culture, Faith
Is God Good For Cities? January 30, 2017  |  By Milton Friesen
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The day after mass murder claimed six lives at a mosque in Quebec City, Canadians are understandably horrified at the reality of worshippers being gunned down while at prayer, and simultaneously frightened by the prospect of religious violence raising its vile face among us.

But for Milton Friesen, director of the Cardus social cities program, beneath the horror and the fear lie deep questions about the human bonds forged by religious faith. At a roundtable discussion Friesen is attending in the U.S. this week, he says, he expects to take part in the “asking of difficult questions and listening to provisional answers from each other.”

The empirical existence of religious communities is an incontrovertible fact. If my objective as a researcher is to understand the social landscape of the communities that make up our cities, I will inevitably encounter religious people and the institutions that they arise from and sustain through their volunteering, donations, and spiritual investments. This is not a political statement; it is an observation. It does not commit me to a particular religious viewpoint or reflect a prejudice.

The interrogation of assumptions is a hallmark of both natural human questioning and the more formalized expression of scientific and rational inquiry. So, it is valuable to ask what contribution religious communities do or do not make to the wider communities they are part of.

Some of us have strong natural tendencies to ask questions and to see beyond the usual answers while others are more oriented to accepting what we have with a small margin available for considering other possibilities. This week in Chicago, a dozen people will gather to interrogate the idea that religion contributes positively to the socio-cultural goods of our cities. 

Among the key questions we will ask are:

  • Do religious communities make cities better places and if so, how does the social generation of common goods work?
  • Where are they faltering or failing and why?
  • What do public contexts like journalism, politics, and education need to know about religious contributions to the common good?
  • Will we experience a decline in religion as a private practice?

Participants in the roundtable discussion have been given the responsibility of asking difficult questions and listening to provisional answers from each other. We know this is a very partial effort in the face of deep and substantial social and cultural changes, but there is a measure of comfort in the knowledge that we will be neither the first nor last to ask these questions. Variations on the themes outlined above are raised at coffee shops, in online forums, classrooms, political offices, boardrooms, and buses.

When we’ve asked such questions before, we’ve discovered interesting answers. Take the Halo Project, for example, which Cardus published. The project examined 10 religious congregations in Toronto, finding that they all make significant common good contributions with remarkable value when measured by traditional economic development tools.

But just how much economic good do those congregations do? The 10 congregations studied spend a little more than $9.5 million per year in their direct budgets. But the actual common good value those congregations produce, through weddings, artistic performances, suicide prevention, ending substance abuse, housing initiatives, job training – and a whole host of other areas that make cities so much more livable – is estimated to be more than $45 million per year.

So, every dollar a congregation spends could be creating $4.77 worth of services a city does not have to provide.

By asking the questions and sticking with the ensuing deliberations, we can enrich our understanding of what has happened historically, how that is changing today, and what that might mean for the future of individual and collective religious practice.

Our long-term well-being will depend on these and other sources of social cohesion. If our social fabric thins and tears, quality of life will decline. There are signs of increasing social poverty that introduce a new form of the divide between haves and have-nots, only this time it isn’t neatly divided along income lines.

As Thomas Homer-Dixon has noted, where we fail to attend to that social ingenuity gap we may expect to find increasing misery and greatly reduced quality of life. In a cultural context where building strong, meaningful, and lasting relationships seems to be getting more difficult, it is worth exploring any and all sources of the common good with an eye toward both preserving what we have and generating what we need. 

Milton Friesen is Program Director for Social Cities at Cardus.

Topics: Cities, Culture, Faith
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