Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Networks and Religion: Social Networks and Attracting New Members

C. S. Lewis, who is probably best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956), was also a popular Christian apologist whose books, such as Mere Christianity (1942a), The Screwtape Letters (1942b), and The Problem of Pain (1940), became best-sellers. In fact, Lewis’s Christian writings became so popular that he was featured on the September 8, 1947, cover of Time magazine with the caption “His Heresy: Christianity.” Lewis didn't come by his Christian faith willingly, however. Although Lewis had been born into a religious family, by the age of 15 he considered himself an atheist. He later remarked that when he “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed ... that night [he was probably] the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”  (Lewis 1966 [1955]: 228–229).

Lewis attended Oxford, where he won a triple first, that is, highest honors in three areas of study (in his case, Greek and Latin literature, philosophy and ancient history, and English). He was “elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he worked... from 1925 to 1954,” and then moved to Cambridge in 1954 where he remained until his retirement in 1963 (Wikipedia). Lewis’s interest in Christianity was rekindled, in part, by his reading of the works of the Scottish author, poet, and minister, George McDonald, but it was primarily his discussions with his close friends and fellow Oxford colleagues J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson that eventually brought him back to the faith. In fact, it was after a long discussion and late-night walk with Tolkien and Dyson that he became England’s “most dejected and reluctant convert.”

Lewis's experience is not unusual. Social scientists have known for some time that people are far more likely to join, convert, or be recruited by groups (religious or otherwise) if they have a social tie with someone who is already a member of the group. The first study to highlight the link between social ties and conversion was John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s 1965 study of people converting to a Bay Area congregation of the Unification Church (more commonly known as the Moonies). The congregation was founded by Young Oon Kim, who was a university professor in Korea before coming to the United States as a missionary. When she first arrived, she spoke at a number of public events, but these yielded no converts. Instead, her first converts were women who she got to know after she became a lodger with one of them. Next, some of the women’s partners joined, who were then followed by their friends from work. The next converts “were old friends, relatives, or people who first formed close friendships with one or more members in the group." As Stark later noted, when he and Lofland began observing, the group “had never succeeded in attracting a stranger” (Stark 1996:16).

Lofland and Stark observed a number of people who were sympathetic to the group’s doctrines, but ultimately they did not join because of their numerous ties with people who disapproved of the Moonies. They also observed others who initially found the group’s doctrines unappealing but later became full-fledged members. Stark recalls one who was genuinely “puzzled that such nice people could get so worked up about ‘some guy in Korea’ who claimed to be the Lord of the Second Advent. Then, one day, he got worked up about the guy too” (Stark 1996:20). In the end, Lofland and Stark concluded that the people who ultimately joined the Moonies tended to be those whose ties to group members exceeded those to non-members (Stark 1996:16).

The figure below illustrates the role of social ties in the conversion process identified by Lofland and Stark. Imagine that individuals A and B have ties to both members (M) and nonmembers (N) of a particular religious group. However, A has ties to six nonmembers and only two members, while B has ties to six members and two nonmembers. According to Lofland and Stark, B is more likely than A to join because B’s ties to group members outnumber his or her ties to nonmembers, while A’s do not.

Subsequent studies have yielded similar results. For example, Rodney Stark and Bill Bainbridge found that 50 percent of the people who joined the Mormon faith did so through social ties (less than 1 percent joined because they were randomly approached by a missionary), leading them to argue that it was the laity not the missionaries who were the primary means by which new people joined:
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 1980:1387–1388)
At about the same time David Snow and his colleagues examined several social movements and found that all of them, save one, recruited more than 50 percent of their current members through either of friendship and kinship networks. Several, in fact, recruited more than 90 percent. The lone exception was the Hare Krishnas, which only recruited 3 percent. Why? Because they demanded that members sever all non-member ties. Thus, it had few, if any, social ties outside of the group through which to recruit, which led them to focus their efforts in public places (Snow, Zurcher, and Ekland-Olson 1980). Studies of the Civil Rights movement (McAdam 1986), left-wing Italian militant groups active in the 60s and 70s (della Porta 2013), and contemporary terrorist groups (Sageman 2004) have found essentially the same dynamic.

Conversion and recruitment are the topic of the 3rd chapter in my forthcoming book, Networks and Religion. There, I explore in more detail these and other studies, along with others that have helped clarify the dynamics involved.

A takeaway for any group or movement, but in particular faith communities, is that if you want to attract new members, take a cue from the Mormons (rather than making fun of them): the most effective way to grow is through your current members' social ties. Invite your members to invite their friends and family, perhaps not to a worship service, but maybe to a church-sponsored event (e.g., musical, speaker, etc.) that's less threatening. The goal should be to form interpersonal ties with non-members and link them into the church's network. With a little luck, you may discover yourself growing and not just hanging on. Of course, getting people through the door is just the first step. Holding on to them is the next. Social ties can help there too, but that's a topic for a future post.


della Porta, Donatella. 2013. Clandestine Political Violence. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univesity Press.

Everton, Sean F. 2018. Networks and Religion: Ties the Bind, Loose, Build-up, and Tear Down. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1966 (1955). Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. London: Harvest Books.

Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. "Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective." American Sociological Review 30:862-75.

McAdam, Doug. 1986. "Recruitment to High Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer." American Journal of Sociology 92:64-90.

Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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.

Who's Your Hero? William Jennings Bryan or H. L. Mencken?

Typically when people tell the story about the Scopes trial, Clarence Darrow emerges as the hero, the one who defended science in the face of religious anti-intellectualism, and William Jennings Bryan is seen as a religious conservative who ultimately lost the battle in the fight against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. Our source for much of how we retell the story of the trial come from the journalist and cultural critic, H. L. Mencken, who covered the trial and was the one who dubbed it the Monkey Trial.

The contrast between Bryan and Mencken is interesting. Bryan was a three-time nominee for the Democratic Party, an outspoken critic of crony-capitalism, an advocate for socialism, and a pacifist who resigned as Secretary of State because of the U.S.'s entry into World War I. It's doubtful that he could secure a nomination for President in today's Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter). Bryan objected to evolution on two grounds: (1) one was that he believed it contrary to the account of creation in Genesis; (2) the other was the popularity of social Darwinism, which embraced the idea of the survival of the fittest, the implications (e.g., eugenics) of which Bryan found appalling.

Mencken, by contrast, had no issues with social Darwinism. He was an admirer of Nietzsche, an advocate of eugenics, an opponent of representative democracy, a racist, and an anti-Semite (some have excused the last two points, noting that Mencken didn't like anyone). In short, apart from his rapacious wit, Mencken had few redeeming qualities (unlike Bryan). Thus, I find it curious that today many continue to mock Bryan's life while celebrating Mencken's. I'd like to think that if they actually took the time to compare the two, they'd change their minds. My sense is that few actually will (or even want to). It's so much easier to hold on to our prejudices than hold them up to the light.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Is Sport the New Opium of the People?

The recent passing of Erin Popovich, wife of the San Antonio Spurs' head coach, Gregg Popovich, has led many to remark that it puts the game of basketball (and other sports) in perspective. As the Mercury News sports writer, Dieter Kuertenbach, observed ("‘Bigger than basketball’ — Erin Popovich’s death puts the game in perspective for the Spurs, Warriors"):
Sports are an escape, a distraction, and, for us lucky ones, profession. Sports might be a prism into the human condition, but the ballgames are inherently unimportant.
At the same time, the sporting world has so many layers and wrinkles — so much hype and exposure — that it’s easy to become entangled. At this juncture in the season, playoff time, it’s easier than ever to find yourself in that web — to think that the game is bigger than anything else.
But it isn’t.
Unfortunately, for some, it is. Some take sports way too seriously, not just in the U.S., but everywhere. In fact, the British literary critic, Terry Eagleton, has remarked that as traditional sources of "meaning" in the UK have declined, people are increasingly identifying with their favorite football (soccer) teams and putting the "fanatic" back into "fan."
In our own time, one of the most popular, influential branches of the culture industry is unquestionably sport. If you were to ask what provides some meaning of life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you could do worse than reply 'Football'. Not many of them, perhaps, would be willing to admit as much; but sport, and in Britain football in particular, stands in for all those noble causes - religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honour, ethnic identity - for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. Sport involves tribal loyalties and rivalries, symbolic rituals, fabulous legends, iconic heroes, epic battles, aesthetic beauty, physical fulfilment, intellectual satisfaction, sublime spectators, and a profound sense of belonging. It also provides human solidarity and physical immediacy which television does not. Without these values, a good many lives would no doubt be pretty empty. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people. (The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, p. 26)
As someone who has played a lot of sports and still loves to watch the Giants, Warriors, and Niners, I wish I could disagree with Eagleton, but I can't. In so doing, I'm not thinking of those fans who like watch their favorite sports teams play, either on TV or at the ballpark, but rather about those who turn on ESPN to watch programs like the college combine, the NFL draft, and (just yesterday) the unveiling of next year's schedules for NFL teams. Really? The unveiling of next season's schedule is must-see TV? Obviously, enough people watch these shows (and shows like them) so that it's worth ESPN's time and money to broadcast them. I'd like to think folks had better things to do. Evidently, some do not.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Can the Warriors Repeat?

Can the Warriors repeat as NBA champs? Yes. Will they? Probably not. Why? Ever since they experienced a rash of injuries in the second half of the season to their four key starters -- Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green -- not to mention those to two of their best players off the bench -- Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston -- the Warriors have been unable to regain any rhythm to their play. All but Curry have returned, but they aren't playing (together) up to the level that one would expect.

Some believe that once Steph Curry returns (which won't happen until the second round of the playoffs), all will be right with the world. That's possible. Curry brings a level of "fun" to the game that is infectious to those around him. Plus, his passing abilities are among the best in the league, so it's not unreasonable to believe that if the Warriors survive the first round, they have a good shot at repeating.

Still, I am skeptical. When Curry was injured early in the regular season, the Warriors managed to win most of their games without him. That was not the case late in the season when he was reinjured. Over the last few weeks of the season, they have looked lost and out of sync, and I'm skeptical as to whether Curry's return will right the ship in time. Eventually they will rediscover their rhythm, but it might not happen until next season.

The one hope I have for this year's playoffs is that they rediscover it before Curry returns. If they do that, then they might discover a way to win the 3rd championship in 4 years. Put another way, they need to do more than survive the series against the Spurs. They need to be hitting on all 8 cylinders by the time Curry returns. This is not an unreasonable hope. After all, they do possess an incredible amount of talent, and they have one of the best coaches in the NBA. We'll just have to wait and see if they can pull it off, or rather, pull it together before it's too late.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Progressive Christianity and Religion's Cultured Despisers

Back when I attended Vanderbilt University's Divinity School, our softball team toyed around with the idea of putting the names of "famous" theologians on the backs of our jerseys. Jerseys with names like "Rauschenbusch" and "Schleiermacher" would certainly attract attention although I think it's unlikely that few people knew (or know) who Walter Rauschenbusch and Friedrich Schleiermacher were. The former was a Baptist minister who was a leader of the social gospel movement (e.g., see his Theology of the Social Gospel) that thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in New York City's Hell's Kitchen where Rauschenbusch was a pastor. The latter is considered by many as the father of liberal Protestantism and is probably best known for his book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, in which he addressed the intellectuals of his day who found deriding Christianity and its adherents to be great sport. (In other words, the glee with which Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris attack religion in general and Christianity in particular is not a new phenomenon.)

Schleiermacher's legacy is still with us. Liberal Protestants still find it necessary to defend the faith against today's cultured despisers of religion. Unfortunately, in so doing, we often water the faith down to such an extent that it's indistinguishable from the latest secular trends. Such watering down is unnecessary, however. We can still embrace "liberal" causes without abandoning central Christian beliefs. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson (for her novel, Gilead) is an example of this. She holds relatively traditional Christian beliefs but ascribes to what most would consider progressive political views ("Marilynne Robinson: Traditional Christian, Political Liberal"). As she notes:
I have spent all this time clearing the ground so that I can say, and be understood to mean, without reservation, that I believe in a divine Creation, and in the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the life to come. I take the Christian mythos to be a special revelation of a general truth, that truth being the ontological centrality of humankind in the created order, with its theological corollary, the profound and unique sacredness of human beings as such (The Givenness of Things, p. 222).
Robinson is more the exception than the rule, however. At times it seems that progressive Christians are more concerned about appearing intellectually respectable than they are Christian. In fact, at times progressive Christian seem reluctant to talk about Jesus, which is curious because Buddhists don't seem to be shy about quoting the Buddha, and Muslims frequently hold up Muhammad as an example to follow.

Perhaps my favorite example of this is when in the 1990s we were pastoring a church in Bend, Oregon, a group of conservative Oregonians succeeded in placing an anti-gay rights measure (proposition) on the ballot. In response, our local Mainline Protestant ministerial association chose to draft a statement opposing the measure. I remember receiving a copy of the first draft and liking it. However, when I showed it to the Associate Minister at the local Methodist Church, he immediately pointed out that there was nothing remotely Christian about the statement. And he was right. It could've been written by the local chapter of the ACLU. Afterward I often quipped that progressive Christians are more likely to cite Jefferson than we are Jesus. (Note: we did amend the draft so that our final statement did refer to Jesus's life and teachings.) Which is unfortunate because a wealth of sociological research has demonstrated that people who are looking for a church (or synagogue, mosque, or temple) want something different from what's available in the secular world.

Another way to put all this, is that there's a difference between being intellectually responsible and appearing intellectually respectable. The former employs reason and is willing submit its assumptions to critique. By contrast, the latter often embraces the latest intellectual fad without thinking through it's potential implications (theological and otherwise). I think it's important to recall that it was secularists (e.g., H. L. Mencken) and Mainline Protestants, not conservatives, who initially embraced eugenics in the U.S., and in the lead up to WW I, it was liberal theologians such as Adolf von Harnack who enthusiastically supported the Kaiser and German aggression. I'd like to think that if Schleiermacher had still been alive, he would've opposed the war. I am skeptical, however. I am happy to report that Walter Rauschenbusch did, though.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Networks and Religion: Changing Our Religion

In the opening chapter of my forthcoming book ("Networks and Religion: Ties that Bind, Loose, Build-up, and Tear Down"), I explore the "surprising" persistence of religion in spite of predictions in recent centuries by philosophers (e.g., Voltaire, Karl Marx), social scientists (e.g., Sigmund Freud, Anthony Wallace), and other intellectuals (e.g., Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris) that religion's death was all but inevitable and soon to be realized.

These predictions appear to be no more than wishful thinking, however. As I've noted previously, the world is more religious than ever ("Is The World More Religious Than Ever?") and will probably continue to be ("Trends in World Religions: More, not Less"). Moreover, although there has been a recent decline in religious affiliation in the U.S., church membership rates are still higher today than they were in 1776 ("Religion's Surprising (at least to some) Persistence"). And finally, even among those who no longer claim a religious affiliation, they are often still quite religious. For example, of the 20% of Americans who in 2012 claimed no religious affiliation, 18% considered themselves religious, 30% had had a religious or mystical experience, 33% said they believed that religion is somewhat or very important, 37% considered themselves to be spiritual but not religious, 41% prayed weekly or more, and 68% said they believed in God. European "nones" display similar patterns (although you'll have to pick my book up to see how).

What I find interesting, and which I spend less time on in my book, is an observation made by Rodney Stark and Bill Bainbridge back in the 1980s ("The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation") that when people leave a religion, they seldom stop believing. Instead, they usually trade in one belief for another. This led to their prediction that where traditional forms of religion are weak, less traditional forms of belief and practice will flourish (or at least be more prevalent). One of Stark's students, Chris Bader later teamed up with Stark in order to test this hypothesis by comparing the rate of astrologers (per 10,000) by state with state church membership rates, and as expected, they found a strong, negative correlation between the two. That is, where church membership rates were high, the rate of astrologers was low, but where church membership rates were low, the rate of astrologers was high.

I decided to update their study, using search data from Google Trends, which has been used by other social scientists to explore a number of social phenomena (e.g., see "Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are"). The data are indexed, which is preferable to raw counts, because it makes them comparable. Here, I compared (from 1/1/2013 to 12/31/2017) the proportion of searches (by state) for "Churches" with "Astrologers," "New Age," "Yoga," and "Zen" and found strong negative correlations between all four (see the note on correlations below):
"Churches" & "Astrologers" = -0.670
"Churches" & "New Age" = -0.213
"Churches" & "Yoga" = -0.711
"Churches" & "Zen" = -0.684
As with all tests of hypotheses, this doesn't "prove" that Stark and Bainbridge are right. However, the results are consistent with their prediction and highly suggestive. I'll stop here for now, but on a closing note, these results are also consistent with the sociologist Christian Smith's claim that human beings are "moral, believing animals" whose primary drive in life is the quest for meaning, and one that we often satisfy by joining (traditional and nontraditional) communities of faith. In other words, people may leave a faith tradition (e.g., one in which they were raised), but they typically will search for some other community that satisfies their quest for meaning. I'll return to Smith's argument in a later post ("Moral, Believing, and Storytelling Animals").

Note: Correlation coefficients range from -1.00 to 1.00. A correlation of 1.00 indicates perfect positive correlation, while a correlation of -1.00 indicates perfect negative correlation.