The network made me do it: belonging as the cause of believing

Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity is unsettling reading, but really worth the time and a few pots of tea.

Why do people join religious movements? His answer goes against what we would like to say, which is that we heard the truth and decided to believe it.

Having researched new religious movements he suggests the reasons people join are things like:

  • (other things being equal) when they have or develop stronger attachments to the group than they have to non-members (p18)
  • When they are people of no religion, the ‘religiously inactive’ (p19)
  • When the networks remain open, so that new people can continue to join (p21)

It would seem that these assumptions work for any new religion or movement; which is why, as we observe, people do join wacky and diverse groups, and then become arch-defenders of their new beliefs. The buzz they get from belonging outweighs the crazy they are obliged to believe.

The buzz they get from belonging outweighs the crazy they are obliged to believe.

But then, having joined, they argue that it was the group’s teaching all along that made them join.

This is interesting in all sorts of ways.

  • It does chime with my experience. Most of the people I know became Christians in the context of a friendly network. Though it isn’t true of all my friends, and it wasn’t true of me. (I much prefer to lurk on the edge of networks than actually to join them.)
  • it will always be easier for a non-religious person to start believing than for a person with a prior religious attachment. The rapid global rise in the non-religious is thus not the end of religion so much as a vast new opportunity for religions both good and bad.
  • For us Christians, we have to ask, did this process happen to us? Is that how we found ourselves in a church? Is that why we believe what we say we believe? Was it just sociology? If not, why not?
  • How do we know what is or isn’t true after all? I suspect that point is something to do with (a) what happens in the long years after we join a group. How do our beliefs change? What does the weathering of life do to them? (b) the personal experience of the life of faith: how does what we claim to believe chime with what we feel and who we are and what we are becoming? and (c)what is the fruit of the movement we are part of?

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