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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Networks and Religion: Tradition, Class, and Networks

Although much of the story concerning the Buddha's enlightenment may be apocryphal, it is fairly well accepted that he came from a princely family. What's less well known is that most of his first converts came from the two upper classes of Indian society: the Brahmins and Kshatriyas (Collins 1998:205), and according to Robert Lester (1987:27), 55 of the first 60 converts were from “prominent families.” Buddhism’s beginning was not unusual. Most new religious movements disproportionately attracted converts from among the privileged (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). For example, although for years many assumed that Christianity began as a movement among the poor and dispossessed, more recent research has laid to rest “the romantic idea of a proletarian Christian community, a religious movement of the lower classes” (Theissen 1982:70). And the same is true for most of today's new religious movements.

To understand why, it's helpful to distinguish between churches, sects, and independent (or new) religious movements (IRMs). Churches are low-tension groups that accept the social environment in which they exist, while sects are high-tension groups that reject the social environment in which they exist (Johnson 1963). Churches tend to be “closely allied with national, economic, and cultural interests,” and their ethics often “represent the morality of the respectable majority, not the heroic minority” (Niebuhr 1929:18). By contrast, sects are generally composed of the poor and disinherited and tend not to be “allied” with the majority’s interests and, thus, often embrace an ethic that's at odds with the dominant culture. That's why they're more likely to not to participate in the government (e.g., Jehovah Witnesses), refuse to fight in wars (e.g., Quakers), and separate themselves as much as possible from American society (e.g., Amish).

The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1929) was one of the first to note that most church-type groups began as sects. In their infancy, groups such as the Congregationalists, Methodists, Northern Baptists, and Presbyterians were sectarian protest movements that split from church-type groups because the latter had become too worldly, too secular. However, over time these same Congregationalists, Methodists, Northern Baptists, and Presbyterians took on a worldliness of their own and became the very type of church their forerunners ran from in the first place. This transformation, in turn, set the stage for the birth of new sects, such as the Conservative Baptist Association, which left the Northern Baptists because it believed the latter had become too liberal (i.e., worldly, secular). Sect-to-church transformations are quite rare, however. Most sects stop growing or die out within a few years because they exist in such a high state of tension with society, they simply are unable to recruit enough people to keep their movement going.

IRMs are similar to sects in that they exist in a high state of tension with the their surrounding environment. Unlike sects, however, they do not have ties to an established religious tradition in their particular society. They “are new faiths, at least new in the society being examined” (Stark 1996:33). Whereas sects leave a “parent body, not to form a new faith, but to reestablish the old one” (Stark and Bainbridge 1979:125), IRMs arise either by being imported from another society (e.g., Zen Buddhism in the United States or Christianity in China) or through cultural innovation, that is, when new religious insights succeed in attracting followers (e.g., Mormonism in the United States or Buddhism in India) (Stark and Bainbridge 1979; Stark 1996).

IRMs differ from sects in another respect: sects tend to attract people of lower socioeconomic status while IRMs tend to attract people of higher socioeconomic status (Stark 1996:39–44). This is because people who join new faiths generally find older, established faiths unsatisfying, and those who are most like to be dissatisfied with established religions are the highly educated. This may seem counterintuitive, but conversion to a new religion generally involves being interested in a new culture and new ideas, and better educated individuals tend to be more capable of consuming and mastering new ideas (Stark 1996:38). That is why in the United States, Zen Buddhism and Mormonism tend to appeal to people with higher levels of education (Stark 1996), while in China it is evangelical Christianity that attracts individuals from the privileged classes (Stark and Wang 2014, 2015).

Consider the table below. It presents the percentage of Americans who attended college by churches, sects, IRMs, and the irreligious. As it indicates, a higher percentage of members of church-type religious groups and IRMs have attended college as compared to sect-type groups. It is also worth noting that, on average, a higher percentage of IRMs (including Mormons) have attended college than have those who identify as irreligious.

All this has implications for the density of church, sect, and IRM networks. For a variety of reasons (you'll have to read my book to learn why), the networks of high tension groups tend to be denser than those of low tension groups. This suggests that the networks of churches should be less interconnected than are those of IRMs and sects. However, there is also a inverse association between a group's average education level and its interconnectedness, suggesting that church and IRM networks should be less interconnected than those of sects. Taken together, this suggests that church networks should be loosely interconnected, sect networks highly interconnected, and IRM networks somewhere in between. And available evidence suggests that they are (it's in the book).

Finally, the tendency for IRMs to disproportionately attract from among the privileged is why when Rodney Stark first came across the discussion of New Testament scholar Robin Scroggs (1980) about how biblical scholars no longer viewed early Christianity as a proletarian movement, his initial response was, “Of course it wasn’t; [IRMs] never are” (Stark 1996:47).


Collins, Randall. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Ehrman, Bart D. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Benton. 1963. "On Church and Sect." American Sociological Review 28(4):539-49.

Lester, Robert C. 1987. Buddhism: The Path to Nirvana. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1929. The Social Sources of Religious Denominationalism. New York: Henry Holt.

Scroggs, Robin. 1980. "The Sociological Interpretation of the New Testament: The Present State of Research." New Testament Studies 26:164-79.

Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. 1979. "Of Churches, Sects and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements." Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion 18(2):117-33.

________. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney and Xiuhua Wang. 2014. "Christian Conversion and Cultural Incongruity in Asia." Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 10(Article 2).

________. 2015. A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

Theissen, Gerd. 1982. The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.

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