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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.

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