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Thursday, June 26, 2014

30 of the Best SNL Skits Ever

Rolling Stone recently selected the top 50 Saturday Night Live (SNL) skits of all time ("50 Greatest 'Saturday Night Live' Sketches of All Time"). This inspired me to pick (for now) 30 of my favorites, which appear below. There's a definite bias toward older skits since that's when I watched SNL more faithfully. Still, all of these are pretty good. Most of the titles are my own and reflect how I recall them, which may not always be entirely accurate. If you click on the pictures of the sketches, they should link you to the videos.

1. Dead Honky (1975): Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor

2. Bassomatic (1976): Dan Aykroyd

3. Conehead Family Feud (1977): Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin -- the Coneheads are great. Bill Murray is hilarious as Richard Dawson.

4. Samurai Hitman (1977): Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray -- Actually, there are several "Samurai" skits that are quite good. This is just one. Belushi was brilliant. The first of many SNL alums to die too soon.

5. Roseanne Rosannadanna (1978): Gilda Radner: One of many classic Roseane Rosannadanna commentaries on Weekend Update. This one's about smoking, but she quickly strays off on one of her tangents. A reminder of how good Radner was. Too bad she died so young. I don't think Gene Wilder (her husband) ever got over it.

6. The Perfect Circumcision (1977): Dan Aykroyd: Parody of a car advertisement extolling the virtues of its shock absorbers, which allow the cutting of a diamond while driving.

7. Baba Wawa (1978): Gilda Radner and John Belushi (as Henry Kissinger) -- Another one of Radner's great characters. 

8. No Coke, Pepsi (1978): Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner

9. King Tut (1978): Steve Martin -- A classic when Steve Martin was at the top of his game.

10. The French Chef (1978): Dan Aykroyd -- Supposedly, Julia Child loved this skt.

11. Two Wild and Crazy Guys (1978): Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner -- One of many featuring the Festrunk brothers.

12. Jane, You Ignorant, Misguided Slut (1978): Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd

13. Medieval Barber (1978): Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner

14. Killer Bees (1978): Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Dan Aykroyd, Elliot Gould, Jane Curtin, Lorne Michaels -- the Killer Bees sketches were great. I tried to track one down, "The Bad News Bees" (featuring Walter Matthau), but I couldn't find a video of just it. To see it, you have to watch the entire episode (although it's pretty funny).

15. Blues Brothers (1978): Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi -- Before the movie, before the album. Aykroyd's dancing is hilarious. Belushi's is pretty good too.

16. Buh-Weet Sings (1981): Eddie Murphy

17. Mr. Robinson's Christmas (1984): Eddie Murphy

18. Ronald Reagan (1986): Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, A. Whitney Brown, Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn -- Hartman is wonderful as Reagan. Another SNL alum who died too soon.

19. Church Lady (1988): Dana Carvey, Al Franken (Pat Robertson), Phil Hartman (Jimmy Swaggart) -- "That's so special"

20. Hans and Franz (1990): Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, and Patrick Swayze -- We're here to "pump you up!"

21. Chippendales (1990): Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze

22. Living in a Van Down by the River (1993): Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Christina Applegate, Julia Sweeney, David Spade -- Ranked #1 by Rolling Stone

23. The Chanukah Song (1994): Adam Sandler -- One of my favorite "Christmas" songs ("100 of the Best Holiday Songs")

24. Celebrity Jeopardy (1999): Norm MacDonald, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Darrell Hammond.

25. More Cowbell (2000): Will Ferrell, Christopher Walken, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan, Chris Parnell, Horatio Sanz -- if I were to rank them, this would be a candidate for #1.

26. The Bush's Go Hunting (2000): Dana Carvey and Will Ferrell -- Dana Carvey's multiple portrayals of the elder Bush are wonderful, and this is just one of them. However, when you add Will Ferrell as "W," then you have a classic.

27. Katie Couric and Sarah Palin (2008): Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. An instant classic.

28. Dusty Muffin (2010): Betty White, Molly Shannon, and Ana Gasteyer -- some folks prefer "Schweddy Balls," but this is my favorite "Delicious Dish"

29: Pandora Intern (2012): Bruno Mars -- I'm not a huge Bruno Mars fan, but he's amazing in this

30. Boy Dance Party (2013): Bruce Willis, Kenan Thompson, Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah, Beck Bennett. I had to include at least one from the past season.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Temptation of Self-Righteousness

Self-righteousness is a powerful drug. It’s tempting to paint one’s ideological opponents as immoral, stupid, or both. It can make one feel, well, morally and intellectually superior, which is why it’s so tempting. Folks on the left often slam conservatives for being judgmental, but I've found that liberals are just as bad. The issues are different, but the put-downs happen just the same. It’s one thing to take a stand on an issue. It’s quite another to put down others because they take a stand that differs from your own. The former is OK; the latter is not. As Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman put it when he apologized for his rant against 49er wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, “No one has ever made himself great by showing how small someone else is.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Resources for Following the World Cup

The first match of the World Cup is in the books with Brazil winning (ugly) over Croatia, 3-1. The U.S. doesn't play until Monday (6pm EST) when they take on Ghana, the team that has knocked the U.S. out of the last two World Cups. In this post I list a few resources that could enhance your knowledge as you follow the action. The first three are from the FiveThirtyEight website, which is run by the big data expert, Nate Silver, author of "The Signal and the Noise". The first provides a series of interactive graphs that present the odds that a team will advance beyond the group stage, as well as the odds that it will survive the knockout round ("FiveThirtyEight's World Cup Predictions").The second compares FiveThirtyEight's rankings with other sets of rankings ("How FiveThirtyEight’s World Cup Predictions Compare to Other Ratings"). The third compares the results from all of the World Cups graphically ("The History of the World Cup In 20 Charts").

The last is a podcast from the folks at Freakonomics ("Why America Doesn't Love Soccer (Yet)"), which features NFL quarterback Andrew Luck, who is a rabid soccer fan, as well as Sunil Gulati, an economist at Columbia who also is the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and on the FIFA Executive Committee and Jonathan Wilson, a professor at Tufts university who is the author of Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. As the podcast's title suggests, it explores why the U.S. has yet to reach elite status in terms of mens soccer (but already has in women's soccer). You can listen to the podcast at the Freakonomics website ("Why America Doesn't Love Soccer (Yet)") or download it from iTunes. You can also find the audio transcript at the Freakonomics website.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Capitalism and Same-Sex Marriage

It is fashionable among those on the left to rail against capitalism because of how it perpetuates inequality. No doubt that is one of the reasons why Thomas Piketty's new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has become this summer's must read book (although I'm willing to bet that most people who buy it won't finish it -- it does look impressive bringing it with you to the beach, though). And while capitalist economies produce inequalities, there's little evidence that non-capitalist economies (e.g., socialist, communist) perform any better, and quite a bit of evidence they often perform worse, with the economies of the former Soviet Union and China serving as poster children (see e.g., "The Document That Transformed the Chinese Economy"). Capitalism may not be perfect, but its probably better than the alternatives. Or, as Churchill might have put it, "capitalism is the worst form of economy, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (Piketty, after all, remains a capitalist.)

Even if one rejects the argument that capitalism produces fewer inequalities than other forms, there are still other reasons for those on the ideological left rethink its relationship with it. For example, as Steven Pinker has noted ("The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"), the spread of capitalism has probably contributed to the downward trend in violence that we have enjoyed over the last few hundred years. Why? Because there's little incentive to kill others when you have a profitable trading relationship with them.

And then there's the issue of gay and lesbian rights. As a recent (June 2014) editorial in the conservative Roman Catholic monthly, New Oxford Review, notes, one of the primary movers behind same-sex marriage has been big business. Quoting from an article that appeared in the magazine two years before, it notes that
When it was first seriously proposed a decade or so ago, same-sex marriage encountered strong opposition from most Americans. But today, traditionalists find themselves on the defensive, and this is a battle they appear to be losing. While many factors account for this, a major one was the entry of a powerful new combatant into the fray: Big Business. Corporations such as The Home Depot, Target, Microsoft, American Airlines, Bank of America, Citi, Coca-Cola, and Google, to mention only a few, have thrown their weight -- and their capital earnings -- behind the push for same-sex marriage.
The editorial goes on to note that when the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the legalization of gay marriage, some of the loudest voices arguing in support of marriage equality have been Budweiser, Levi Strauss, Expedia, HBO, Kenneth Cole, Smirnoff, Nordstrom, and Kraft Foods (p. 14). Similarly, some of the biggest financial backers of the effort to defeat California's Prop 8 included executives from many of the world's largest hi-tech companies, such as Cisco (e.g., John Morgridge), eBay (e.g., Pierre Omidyar), Google (e.g., Larry Page), and Yahoo (e.g., Jerry Yang).

In short, perhaps the left needs to rethink its relationship to capitalism. It has more in common with it than it realizes.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost: It's Five O'Clock Somewhere (A Repost of Sorts)

The Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) traditionally marks the birth of the church, when after the Resurrection, God's Spirit descended on the disciples, causing them to speak numerous languages and allowing them to spread the Gospel to the world. It symbolically marked the reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) where when people sought to build a great tower, God prevented them by causing them speak in numerous languages so that they couldn't communicate with one another. On the Day of Pentecost, most observers were amazed, but a few thought something else was at work:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken... Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They've had too much wine.” 
Then Peter stood up, raised his voice, and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people aren't drunk... It’s only nine in the morning!
I guess Peter didn't know that it's always 5 o'clock somewhere.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Networks and Religion

For years social scientists have known that when it comes to religion, networks matter. Aside from a handful of studies, however, it hasn't always been clear how, and interestingly most of these have been carried out by folks who do not specialize in social network analysis. Why that is so is unclear. The sociologist Christian Smith (2010) argues that one reason is that social network analysts see religion as a convenient straw man; they like to pit their scientific approach to reality over against the irrationality of religious faith. Smith is probably on to something there, but I suspect it also has roots in the belief that religion is an epiphenomenon (i.e., a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside a primary phenomenon) and thus, ultimately, unimportant.

Be that as it may, in this series of posts, I summarize most of what is known about networks and religion. To wit:
  • Religious groups recruit primarily through their social ties
  • People of faith cluster together just like everyone else: with similar others
  • People on a religious group's periphery are more likely to leave than those at its center
  • Religious ties sometimes coerce people people to attend church (or synagogue, temple, mosque, etc.)
  • Religious ideas and practices can spread across religious networks
  • Religious networks help facilitate volunteerism, civic engagement, and political activism
  • Social networks of theologically conservative groups tend to be denser than theologically liberal groups
  • Denser social networks among a congregation's youth lead to improved life outcomes
  • Religious social networks are positively associated with life satisfaction
  • Religious networks can foster conflict
  • Dense and isolated religious networks are more susceptible to radicalization and violence
These topics are divided into four separate posts, which can be accessed by the links below (or simply by scrolling down the page):

The network at the top of this introductory post is of Anabaptists involved in the Radical Reformation (Matthews et al. 2013). The network at the bottom is of the Noordin Top terrorist network. Both were drawn using the social network analysis software package, Gephi.


  • Matthews, Luke J., Jeffrey Edmonds, Wesley Wildman, and Charles Nunn. 2013. "Cultural Inheritance or Cultural Diffusion of Religious Violence? A Quantitative Case Study of the Radical Reformation." Religion, Brain & Behavior 3(1):3-15.
  • Smith, Christian S. 2010. What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Networks and Religion: Ties That Bind

1. Religious groups recruit primarily through social networks. People are much more likely to join religious groups where they know people than where they do not. Take, for instance, John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s (1963) study of people converting to the Unification Church (aka, the Moonies). Stark later remarked that when he and Lofland first began watching the group, it “had never succeeded in attracting a stranger" (Stark 1996). Everyone who joined already knew someone who was a member. Moreover, Stark and Lofland witnessed a number of people who were sympathetic with the group’s doctrines, but in the end did not join because they had numerous ties with people who disapproved of the Moonies. This led them to conclude that the people who ultimately joined tended to be those whose ties to group members exceeded their ties to nonmembers. Or to put it differently, conversion typically involved aligning one's beliefs and practices with those of one's friends and family.

In another study, Rodney Stark and Bill Bainbridge (1980) looked at the role that social ties play in recruiting people to the Mormon Church. They found that when Mormon missionaries go door to door, their success rate is only 0.1 percent. Referrals provide a somewhat higher rate of success (7 percent for covert referrals and 8 percent for overt referrals), but their highest rates of success occurred when Mormons invited non-Mormon friends and relatives into their homes to meet Mormon missionaries. In those instances, they enjoyed a success rate close to 50 percent. This suggests that the best strategy for conversion is not cold-calling but forming friendships with non-Mormons. Stark and Bainbridge noted that an article in the Mormon Church’s official magazine provided detailed instructions on how to recruit new members, and a recurring theme was the importance of building close personal ties with non-Mormons. It also explicitly instructed its readers that they should downplay or avoid discussing religion while forming these ties. Only later were they to bring up that they were Mormons
Another way of looking at these findings is that missionaries do not serve as the primary instrument of recruitment to the Mormon faith. Instead, recruitment is accomplished primarily by the rank and file of the church as they construct intimate interpersonal ties with non-Mormons and thus link them into a group network (Stark and Bainbridge 1980:1386-87).
At about the same time the Stark and Bainbridge study appeared, David Snow and his colleagues (Snow, Zurcher, and Ekland-Olson 1980) published an article that highlighted the same dynamic: Successful social movements, religious or otherwise, recruit primarily through social networks of friends and families. All of the groups they studied, except the Hare Krishna, recruited over 50 percent of their members through either kinship or friendship networks with several recruiting over 90 percent of their members through such networks. The Hare Krishnas were the lone exception because they demand exclusive participation from their members and require them to sever all extra-movement ties. Thus, they have virtually no social ties outside of the group through which they can recruit, which forces them to recruit from public places. That's why they are so small. The moral of the story? Successful religious groups must maintain open social networks in order to grow.

2. People of faith cluster just like everybody else: with similar others. The phenomenon of homophily, "birds of a feather, flock together," appears ubiquitous to human nature. We tend to befriend similar others, and this is even true between and within religious groups.

For example, in the 1960s Samuel Sampson (1968) spent a year in a Roman Catholic monastery observing the social interactions among a group of monks. During his stay a “crisis in the cloister” occurred that was in reaction to some of the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council, known informally as Vatican II. These changes were an attempt to modernize the Roman Catholic Church and included changes, such as saying the Mass in the vernacular (rather than in Latin) and granting nuns the freedom not to wear habits (à la, Sally Field as "The Flying Nun").

This conflict ultimately resulted in the expulsion of four monks and the voluntary departure of several others. In the end, only four monks remained. While he was there, Sampson coded four types of relational data that he further subdivided into positive and negative ties. He had each monk rank his top three choices for each type of relation, which included esteem and disesteem, liking and disliking, positive and negative influence, and praise and blame. Some of these relations he coded at different points in time, which are captured by the three graphs below (Time 1, Time 2, and Time 3). What they illustrate is how, over time, the monks increasingly clustered into groups, based largely on their opinion regarding the changes from Vatican II.

Sampson's Monks: Time 1

Sampson's Monks: Time 2

Sampson's Monks: Time 3

Sampson's monks are not unusual. Subnetworks form in most large religious groups, and the same is true of religious scholars. They tend to cluster together into like-minded subgroups. One the face of it, this isn't surprising, but it can have profound effects on the conclusions they draw. As we will see below, when like-minded people come together to debate a topic or an issue, the group tends to gravitate to the most radical position held by a member in the group. Thus, we shouldn't be surprised of the conclusions of groups such as the Jesus Seminar, which fall outside the mainstream of even liberal orthodoxy.

3. People on the periphery of a religious group are more likely to leave than those who are located in the center. In the same study in which Rodney Stark and Bill Bainbridge (1980) studied Mormon recruitment, they also examined a "doomsday" group, which had formed primarily along kinship ties, and Stark and Bainbridge found that members who had direct kinship ties to the group's leaders were less likely to defect (i.e., leave the group) than were others. In particular,
Members who were direct kin of the leaders, only 14% quit. Of those who were related to kin of the leaders, but not directly to the leaders (e.g., in-laws), 25% defected. But of those who had no relatives in the group, two-thirds left prematurely. For those who had to abandon their families as well as their faith, defection was rare. But for those without familial ties to the group, defection was the rule! (p. 1383).
Stark and Bainbridge's findings have been replicated in other studies. For example, Pamela Popielarz and J. Miller McPherson (1995) studied voluntary organizations in general (not just religious groups), and found that they lose members located at the edge (i.e., the periphery) of their group faster than they do core members, primarily because members at the edge have fewer ties within the organization and more without than do core members. However, members on the periphery are also more likely to leave because they are more likely to have other groups competing for their time and money.

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith (2000) found that this phenomenon helped explain why a newly-formed Seattle church's attempt to establish an interracial church was unsuccessful. The church was founded by an African-American pastor, who prior to founding the church, visited white and black churches in the area where he told them of his vision of an interracial church and asked for volunteers to be charter members. After a year of preparation, the church held its first public service, and the congregation was almost evenly split between blacks and whites (p. 147). However, as the church grew, the congregation began losing its white members, and within three years of its founding, fewer than 10 whites remained within the congregation. The first few white members (who were charter members) who left said they left because they felt like outsiders, that their voices were not being heard. Regardless of whether this indeed the case, it had a spiraling effect on the church's composition. As Emerson and Smith put it,
there were fewer within-church social network ties to keep white there and recruit new white members. Whites leaving also meant an increasingly great number of social ties outside the church for the remaining whites, making the church less central for them, and making them feel increasingly like outsiders, and that there needs were not being met (p. 149).
4. Religious ties sometimes coerce people to attend church. Our social ties cannot only entice us to join a particular congregation, in certain social contexts they can also coerce us into attending worship services. Chris Ellison and Darren Sherkat (1995) documented this phenomenon in their study of the rural, southern Black church. Before getting to their study, however, a little background is in order.

According to W. E. B. DuBois, after the Civil War, the church became the central social institution in the African American community. It was its primary vehicle of communication, entertainment, and education. Black churches also functioned as mutual-aid societies that helped members survive financial crises, especially when loved ones died or became extremely ill. And for males it became a vehicle of power, upward mobility, and economic success, which is why black churches were often overflowing with aspiring ministers and preachers who literally waited in the wings for a chance to preach and hopefully gather a following for themselves.

The central role of the Black Church was especially pronounced in the rural south, which led some scholars to argue that the southern rural Black church is a semi-involuntary institution. By this they meant that in the rural south, church participation serves as a sign of social legitimacy. In order to be respectable, one needs to go to church, and those who don’t are sanctioned. This differs for Black churches in urban settings because urban settings offer more secular opportunities for achieving personal status and prestige. Thus, there is less pressure for people to attend church.

Ellison and Sherkat tested this thesis using data on church attendance of African-Americans. They expected to find that not only will the rural, southern black church will have the highest overall rate of attendance, but it will also have the highest percentage of people who attend at intermittent levels. Why? Because the highest percentage of people who don't want to attend but feel compelled to do so will be those living in the rural South. However, they won't attend weekly. Only often enough so that they're not sanctioned by the wider community.

Ellison and Sherkat found support for their hypothesis. Moreover, once they broke the analysis down by region and rural differences, they found that the frequency of contact with friends is a statistically significant predictor of church participation among rural southerners but not among non-southerners. This suggests that rural southerners do, in fact, participate in church activities for reasons other than religious ones while non-southerners do not. To be sure, this is not a direct test of the semi-involuntary thesis, but it's results are consistent with it. They suggest that in the rural south peoples’ social networks sometimes force them to attend church when they otherwise would not.


  • Ellison, Christopher G., and Darren E. Sherkat. 1995. "The 'Semi-involuntary Institution' Revisited: Regional Variations in Church Participation Among Black Americans." Social Forces 73(4):1415-37.
  • Emerson, Michael O., and Christian S. Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. "Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective." American Sociological Review 30:862-75.
  • Popielarz, Pamela A., and J. Miller McPherson. 1995. "On the Edge or in Between: Niche Position, Niche Overlap, and the Duration of Voluntary Association Memberships." American Journal of Sociology 101(3):698-720.
  • Sampson, Samuel F. 1968. "A Novitiate in a Period of Change: An Experimental and Case Study of Relationships." Unpublished Dissertation. Sociology Department: Cornell University.
  • Snow, David A., Louis A. Zurcher, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. "Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment." American Sociological Review 45:787-801.
  • Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. "Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects." American Journal of Sociology 85(6):1376-95.

Networks and Religion: Ties that Loose

1. Religious ideas and practices can spread across religious networks. A key assumption of social network analysis is that ties function as conduits for the spread of information and other material and nonmaterial resources. Perhaps, the best known study of this is Mark Granovetter's (1973, 1974) study of how people find jobs, a study that Malcolm Gladwell discusses at length in his book, "The Tipping Point." Granovetter discovered that people were far more likely to have used personal contacts in finding their present job, and most of these contacts were what Granovetter called "weak ties," people whom they saw occasionally or rarely. This led Granovetter to conclude that when it comes to finding jobs, our weak ties are often more useful than our strong ties because our weak ties (i.e., our acquaintances) are less likely to be socially involved with one another than are our strong ties (i.e., our close friends).

Imagine the pattern of social ties suggested by this argument (see the graph below) and take any individual in the network. He or she will most likely have a collection of close friends, most of whom know one another. This same individual will also probably have a collection of acquaintances, few of whom know one another. But these acquaintances, in turn, are likely to be embedded in tightly knit networks of their own. According to Granovetter, weak ties are important because they form the bridges that tie clusters of people together. In fact, if it were not for these weak ties, these clusters would not be connected at all. This suggests that whatever is diffused will reach more people and travel a greater social distance if it passes through weak rather than strong ties.

Not surprisingly, the spread of ideas and practices occurs across religious networks. For instance, the archeologist Anna Collar notes that prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE Diaspora Jews did not overtly advertise their culture and identity:
Jews were given pagan names, Jewish rulers donated to pagan buildings, and Gentiles were interested in Jewish cult. Because Jerusalem was the centre of Judaism in certain absolute and specific religious and fiscal terms, Judaism, with a book and the Temple at its heart, was understood by Jews to be fully formed. Jews engaged with and responded to the circumstances of their life in the Diaspora without losing this sense of attachment to the Jerusalem temple (Collar 2013:229).
This all changed after the Temple's destruction. Collar notes that epigraphy (i.e., the study of inscriptions) indicates that after the Temple's destruction there was a "widespread dissemination and adoption of explicitly Jewish names, symbols, and language" through the ethnic network of the Jewish Diaspora across the Mediterranean world. 
The indicators found on Jewish monuments that reflect an increased awareness of a common Jewish practice, history, and behaviour include specifically Jewish symbols as referents to a universalized ritual and the religious calendar, and the use of Hebrew as a marker of education and a revived knowledge of the sacred texts, Torah, Jewish Law, and Jewish history. In addition, the increasing use of specifically Jewish name forms provides a subtle indication of the universal engendering of a more strongly defined Jewish identity, matched by the trend during the 3rd–4th centuries ad for individuals to define themselves as ‘Jews’ or, more often, as ‘Hebrews’ (Collar 2013:231).
She, however, argues this occurred through strong, rather than weak, ties:
I argue that this should be interpreted as evidence that the new religious authorities in Palestine used the highly influential strong-tie ‘familial’ connections of the ethnic network of the Diaspora to transmit the religious and social discipline of rabbinic Judaism (Collar 2013:230).
Diffusion doesn't occur just between individuals. It also occurs between organizations. As Paul DiMaggio and Woody Powell (1983) and John Meyer and Brian Rowan (1977) have noted, organizations that interact with one another tend to become more like one another over time. That is, the policies and practices of one organization will often diffuse to other organizations with which they have ties.

For example, Mark Chaves (1996) found that Christian denominations that were not currently ordaining women as pastors and priests but had ties to denominations that did were 14 times more likely to start ordaining women than were denominations that did not have such ties. And Luke Matthews and his colleagues (2013) studied how (and if) theological beliefs and practices diffused among denominations associated with the Radical Reformation (primarily Anabaptists). They found that most beliefs diffused between denominations that had ties with one another (specifically, if leaders of the different denominations knew one another). The one notable exception? Violent theologies (ideologies). These tended to be inherited from parent congregations (which, of course, is a type of tie as well).

2. Religious networks help facilitate volunteerism, civic engagement, and political activism. There is overwhelming empirical evidence that indicates that when it comes to charity and volunteering, people of faith contribute far more of their time and money than do their secular counterparts. To be sure, while a large part of this is donated to religious institutions (e.g., churches, synagogues, Habitat for Humanity), people of faith also contribute to secular institutions. In fact, they do so at rates higher than their secular counterparts. This is not to say that nonbelievers don't contribute to secular (and nonsecular) institutions. They do. It's just that, on average, people of faith contribute and volunteer more.

Why this is so is a matter of debate. We do know that people of faith who participate in church activities, attend church regularly, enjoy higher levels of education and income, and those who with ties to others are more likely to volunteer than are others (Park and Smith 2001).

Social ties function in interesting but perhaps unsurprising ways. When volunteering for a church program, then ties to other church members matter, but for volunteering in general, it is ties to neighbors that matter.  Some argue that social networks are all that matter, while one's religious beliefs don't.
Social networks, rather than beliefs, dominate as the mechanism leading to volunteering and it is the social networks formed within congregations that make congregation members more likely to volunteer (Becker and Dhingra 2001:329).
The problem with such an assertion is that religious beliefs help drive the nature of religious networks. As I noted above, the social networks of theologically conservative religious groups tend to be denser than those of theologically liberal groups, and how these networks are structured almost certainly affects the frequency with which people of faith volunteer. Moreover, because seculars, by definition, do not join religious groups, they lack the social ties (or at least have fewer of them) that would otherwise link them to volunteer opportunities, which in turn helps explain why they volunteer their time and money at lower rates than do people of faith.


  • Becker, Penny E., and Pawan H. Dhingra. 2001. "Religious Involvement and Volunteering: Implications for Civil Society." Sociology of Religion 62(3):315-35.
  • Chaves, Mark. 1996. "Ordaining Women: The Diffusion of an Organizational Innovation." American Journal of Sociology 101(4):840-73.
  • Collar, Anna. 2013. "Re-thinking Jewish Ethnicity through Social Network Analysis." Pp. 223-45 in Network Analysis in Archeology: New Approaches to Regional Interaction, edited by Carl Knappett. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • DiMaggio, Paul J., and Walter W. Powell. 1983. "The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields." American Sociological Review 48(2):147-60.
  • Granovetter, Mark. 1973. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of Sociology 73(6):1360-80.
  • Granovetter, Mark. 1974. Getting a Job. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Meyer, John W., and Brian Rowan. 1977. "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony." American Journal of Sociology 83(2):340-63.
  • Matthews, Luke J., Jeffrey Edmonds, Wesley Wildman, and Charles Nunn. 2013. "Cultural Inheritance or Cultural Diffusion of Religious Violence? A Quantitative Case Study of the Radical Reformation." Religion, Brain & Behavior 3(1):3-15.
  • Park, Jerry Z., and Christian S. Smith. 2000. ""To Whom Much Has Been Given...": Religious Capital and Community Volunteerism Among Churchgoing Protestants." Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion 39(3):272-86.

Networks and Religion: Ties That Build Up

1. Social networks of theologically conservative groups tend to be denser than theologically liberal ones. Some years ago, Rodney Stark and Bill Bainbridge (1985) noted that members of theologically conservative churches were more likely to say that more than half of the people they associate with were from their congregation than members of theologically liberal ones; similarly, a far higher percentage of members of conservative churches responded that three or more of their closest friends were members of their congregation than those from liberal churches. This is captured in the table below, which presents some (but not all) of the statistics contained in Table 3.7 in Stark and Bainbridge's book:

Why? Primarily because theologically conservative churches tend to be more strict with regards to how often members are expected to attend and with whom they can associate. Members are expected to attend worship services on a regular basis, and they are often discouraged from marrying outside of the congregation or the faith, associating with secular organizations (except, perhaps, their place of work), and participating in secular activities. With such prohibitions in place, almost by default, members of such congregations will form ties with people from their congregations at a greater rate than will members of more lenient organizations.

This, in turn, causes stricter religious groups to be more dense (i.e., interconnected) than lenient groups. Why? Because of the process that social network analysts refer to as "triadic closure," which is a fancy way of saying that friends of friends tend to become friends (or at least acquaintances). To illustrate, consider the following graph, where "A" is friends with both "B" and "C." Mark Granovetter (1973) referred to this as the forbidden triad because at some point a tie will form between "B" and "C" (i.e.,  triadic closure) since "A" regularly interacts with both and odds are that they will eventually meet:

To be sure, a tie won't always form between "B" and "C," but when one does, the network of which they are a part become more interconnected, which brings us back to why stricter congregations tend to be denser than more lenient ones. Since members of stricter congregations have more ties to members than do members of lenient congregations, the rate of triadic closure simply occurs at a greater rate.

2. Denser social networks among a congregation's youth leads to improved life outcomes. There is increasing evidence that American congregations that provide youth with relatively dense networks of social ties help to link them with people in the congregation (e.g., older adults, youth pastors, parents of friends, etc.) who not only discourage them from engaging in negative life practices (e.g., refraining from drinking, drug use, etc.) but also help parents monitor and supervise their kids' activities (Smith 2003). In particular, Christian Smith found that the more religiously involved American youth and their parents are, the denser are their networks:
Those parents who do not attend church or synagogue regularly and whose children had not participated in a youth group almost invariably were the least likely to know their children's friends' names, to know their parents, to speak with their parents; and to know their children's teachers' names or to have met or spoken with them. Religious participation by either the youth or the parent alone is associated with greater network closure as measured by these five variables (Smith 2003:262).
Moreover, youth who are actively involved in a faith community are much more likely to be active as adults (Iannaccone 1990), and as I note below, people of faith are much more likely to be happier and healthier than secularists. And you have to wonder why some social scientists continue to be puzzled about why religion continues to thrive.

3. Religious social networks are positively associated with life satisfaction. As I noted in a recent post ("It's True: Money Can't Buy Us Love"), wealth doesn't guarantee love. Nor does it guarantee happiness. A study conducted by the economist, Richard Easterlin (1995), compared income (adjusted for inflation) with subjective well being (SWB) from 1946 to 1989 and found that although income rose fairly constantly over that period, subjective well being did not (see the graph below, which reproduces Figure 10.1 in Matthew Lieberman's book, "Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect"). In fact SWB actually declined slightly over that period of time. Similar correlations (or lack thereof, rather) have been found in several countries, perhaps the most dramatic in Japan where over roughly the same period of time, income rose over 500 percent but SWB remained unchanged.

Why? Economists have identified a number of factors that contribute to subjective well being, but the one that matters the most is social ties. The more we have (at least up to a point) the happier we are. That is why people who are married are generally happier than those who are not.; and people who regularly socialize with friends, whether sharing a latte at Peats or sipping beers at Deschutes Brewery, are generally happier than those who do not. The same is true of folks who volunteer. Because volunteers regularly interact with others, they are typically happier than those who do not.

And guess what group of people are more likely to be married, socialize, and volunteer? That's right: People of faith. Social scientists have known for some time that people of faith are, in general, happier and healthier than others, and research suggests it's because they are embedded in denser social networks than are secularists.

There does appear to be limits to the benefits of dense networks, however. Research has found that individuals embedded in very dense networks are more likely to embrace extreme beliefs, primarily because they seldom interact with others who don't share their views. We will return to this later when we see how people embedded in dense networks that are isolated from society can sometimes lead them to embrace radical views and engage in violent behavior.


  • Easterln, Richard A. 1995. "Will Raising the Incomes of all Increase the Happiness of All?" Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 27(1):35-47.
  • Granovetter, Mark. 1973. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of Sociology 73(6):1360-80.
  • Iannaccone, Laurence R. 1990. "Religious Participation: A Human Capital Approach." Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion 29(3):297-314.
  • Lieberman, Matthew D. 2013. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Random House.
  • Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Networks and Religion: Ties That Tear Down

1. Religious networks can foster conflict. Network ties are often seen as a good thing, but certain types of ties, and in particular, certain patterns of ties, can just as easily lead to conflict as they can to goodwill. A good illustration of this comes from Benjamin Zablocki's (1980) study of utopian communities in the United States. Zablocki and his graduate students located numerous communes and spent time observing and asking questions at each commune. They eventually collected data on 120 and conducted in-depth studies at 60. Partly because of the time at which Zablocki conducted his study, many operated under the assumption that societies where anyone and everyone could love whomever they wanted would be more stable and peaceful and consequently embraced notions of "free love" or what Bennett Berger (1981) referred to as "indiscriminate promiscuity." A few, however, had more restrictive sexual norms, some going so far as to advocate celibacy. Even these communes, however, emphasized the ideal of mutual love; they just had different ideas about how to achieve it.
One of his first discoveries was that communes differed quite a lot in how fully they achieved the ideal of mutual love. The ideology of commune movement was that everyone should love one another, whether or not the loving relationship involved sexuality. But Zablocki observed that not only were some members of a commune loved more than others but that in some communes a higher proportion of members were linked by loving sentiments than in some other communes. These were not just Zablocki's impressions. He was able to say who loved whom and just how many members loved others and were loved in return. And he did this by diagramming the network of love relationships in each commune (Stark 2007, p. 105).
Zablocki asked each member to rate their relationship with every other member of their group on a number of different characteristics (e.g,. loving, jealous, sexual, hateful, etc.), and he only classified a relationship as loving if both members of a pair indicated that it was. Four of these are diagrammed below (Note: the names are from Stark 2007).

If it were true that "free love" societies would be more stable and peaceful, then one would expect the "Guru Group" and "Love Inn" communes to have been the most successful, but just the opposite was true. Groups such as these were the least stable; they had higher turnover and disintegration rates than the more restrictive groups. Why? 
Where there is love there is apt to be jealousy, and where there is a lot of love, there is apt to be a lot of jealousy... Despite the ideology of "love one another," in practice there wasn't enough time, enough energy, or the inclination to actually love everyone equally. Thus, although communes were based on the ideal that everyone would be equal, and although members tried to share all material things in common, they overlooked the fact that love, too, is a valuable "good" and that it is far harder to parcel it out equally than it is to give everyone the same clothing allowance. Thus, many communes were so "full of love" that they burst, often in a spectacular fashion, leaving many bitter ex-members. In contrast, the groups that were the most durable tended to be those that minimized jealousy and emotional entanglements... In regulating or prohibiting sex, of course, these modern communes followed the pattern of successful religious communes throughout history (Stark 2007, p. 106).
2. Dense and isolated religious networks are more susceptible to radicalization and violence. Religious groups that are internally dense and cut off from the broader society are more likely to embrace radical views and engage in violent behavior than are those that are sparse and connected. This is an example of what Cass Sunstein (2003, 2009) calls the “law of group polarization,” which predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common belief. For example, "in a product-liability trial, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a larger award than the nine would allow on their own. Or, if people who object in varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war” (Bauerlein 2004:B8).

Marc Sageman’s (2004) study of what he calls the global Salafi jihad (GSJ) illustrates this. He found that people who joined the GSJ were often homesick young men who drifted to familiar settings, such as mosques, looking for companionship. There, small clusters of friends formed. They often moved into apartments together where they underwent a long period of intense social interaction in their apartments and developed strong mutual intimacy (i.e., formation of dense networks). As they became closer, they progressively adopted the beliefs of the group’s most extreme members. This distanced them further from their childhood friends and family, leading to increased isolation and loyalty to the group, which in turn intensified their faith, and they were then ready to join the jihad. Other examples of this phenomenon include Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), and the Branch Davidians. Over time each of these groups (for different reasons) became increasingly isolated and radicalized and eventually turned violent.

This suggests that authorities can take certain steps to lower the probability that groups will radicalize. Perhaps the most important thing to do is to keep potentially radical groups tied to the wider society. The State of Oregon successfully did this in its dealings with the Rajneeshpuram, an intentional community that settled in central Oregon in the 1980s. According to Marian Goldman (2011) although the community had the potential for large-scale violence (it had a large cache of semi-automatic and biological weapons), it never did because the State maintained ties with the group.

If a group has already severed its ties with society, then it becomes important to reestablish them. Although this can be accomplished in multiple ways, access to the political system may be the most effective. As Hafez (2003:208) notes, this encourages groups to “become more like political parties and interest groups, and less like social protest movements or revolutionary groups.” Indeed, he argues that the “politics of institutionalization may explain why communist and green parties in Western Europe were willing to make “historical compromises” and abandoned revolutionary strategies, even if some of them did not completely abandon revolutionary rhetoric” (Hafez 2003:209). This may also explain why the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 marked the beginning of the end of the Southern wing of the Irish Republican Party (IRA). Although it did not grant Ireland complete sovereignty, it did provide political access to those who had previously fought for Ireland’s independence, and membership in the IRA fell from 14,541 members in August 1924 to 5,042 members by November 1926 (English 2004:46).

A third course of action is more difficult—minimizing government interference and harassment, as well as media scrutiny and public ridicule—but it can be done. Take, for instance, Oregon’s attorney general’s strategy for minimizing government interference and public harassment of the Rajneeshpuram community:
It limited formal intervention based on stereotyping and general fear of the Ranjeeshees, and it curtailed informal anti-cult attacks proposed by some opposing groups and the local media. Throughout the escalating conflict, the state of Oregon actively pressed for legal solutions to all accusations of criminal activities and violation of civil laws at Rajneeshpuram. This was a principled legal position that also reflected respect for the social and legal skills of the Rajneesh representatives… Throughout [the group’s] sojourn in Oregon, the attorney general’s representatives carefully monitored activities as Rajneeshpuram and at the same time tried to calm insurgent local opponents (Goldman 2011:318, 319).
This is not to suggest that individuals and groups should not be prosecuted for criminal behavior, but it can be done while still respecting religious freedoms. For example, after members of the Aum Shinrikyo (Aum) released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve people and causing hundreds of illnesses, the Japanese government pursued those who were guilty of the crimes but it did not outlaw the group. “Rather than criminalizing the Aum religion, the government allowed it to continue and prosecuted only the individuals who engaged in criminal activities that hurt or aimed to hurt others. This action defused the violent side of the religion without further radicalizing the group (Grim and Finke 2010:213).

This last example highlights one last course of action: policy makers should promote religious freedom. Grim and Finke (2010) have empirically demonstrated that, net of other factors, government restrictions on religious freedom are positively associated with religious persecution and violence, and Hafez (2003:206) has noted that repression did not work in Syria, Tunisia, Iraq, and resulted in higher rates of violence in Algeria, Egypt, Kashmir, the Southern Philippines, and Chechnya.


  • Bauerlein, Mark. "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual." The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12 2004, B6-B10.
  • Berger, Bennett. 1981. The Survival of a Counterculture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • English, Richard. 2004. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. London, UK: Pan Books.
  • Goldman, Marion S. 2011. "Cultural Capital, Social Networks, and Collective Violence." Pp. 307-23 in Violence and New Religious Movements, edited by James R. Lewis. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Grim, Brian J., and Roger Finke. 2010. The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hafez, Mohammed M. 2003. Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
  • Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Stark, Rodney. 2007. Sociology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  • Sunstein, Cass R. 2003. Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sunstein, Cass R. 2009. Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Zablocki, Benjamin D. 1980. Alienation and Charisma. New York: Free Press.