Culture Magazine

Searching for the Elusive God Effect

By Cris

Physicists may soon confirm the actual existence of the Higgs boson or God particle. It must exist or their models don’t work and the math is all wrong, which can’t possibly be the case. Or perhaps it can. Stranger things have happened. The elusiveness of the God particle, which is needed for mass to exist, brings to mind a similar kind of search by sociologist of religion Rodney Stark.

Stark was supposed to find, in survey and similar data, that religiosity impacted behavior in all sorts of interesting and predictable ways. But he couldn’t. Stark’s failure to find religiosity effects when he knew they should exist drove him to despair. In his 1983 presidential address to the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Stark reminisced on the problem:

Some of you are aware that I abandoned the sociology of religion in about 1969 and only returned to it several years ago. My inability to discover any consistent or robust religious effects played a major part in my decision to jump ship. Particularly disappointing were my efforts to find any empirical support for the proposition that religion sustains conformity to the normative order. In fact, about the only religious effects I could find were correlations between orthodoxy and opposition to drinking, dancing, and gambling among American Protestants. Whenever I searched for religious effects more remote from religiousness per se, I found little or nothing. If it is true that religion doesn’t influence secular beliefs and activities, our field is of very limited worth.

Stark next recalls a day in the life of a young dweeb, or sociologist. He had a handy data-set on his desk and decided to test the self-evident proposition that religiosity negatively affects delinquency. In other words if a kid believes s/he will go to hell for being a delinquent, s/he will be less likely to steal candy or kick old people. Stark was shocked to find that religious commitment had no apparent effect on hellions. He duly published the results and they were soon replicated. It thus appeared to sociologists that religious commitment didn’t affect delinquent behavior.

Nearly a decade had passed without anyone questioning these results when two studies were published which showed that kids who attended church regularly were much less likely to kick grandpa or hide dentures than their non-churched peers. The baffling results caused Stark to revisit the earlier studies:

Returning to the hunt, I soon discovered that so long as religion is conceived of as an individual trait, as a set of personal beliefs and practices, we can never know when and where religion will influence conformity, for research will continue to produce contradictory findings. But, if we move from a psychological to a sociological conception of religion, clarity leaps from the chaos. I am prepared to argue theoretically and to demonstrate empirically that religion affects conformity, not through producing guilt or fear of hellfire in the individual, but that religion gains its power to shape the individual only as an aspect of groups.

Let me put it this way. It is not whether an individual kid goes to church or believes in hell that influences his or her delinquency. What is critical is whether the majority of the kid’s friends are religious. In communities where most young people do not attend church, religion will not inhibit the behavior even of those teenagers who personally are religious. However, in communities where most kids are religious, then those who are will be less delinquent than those who aren’t.

Stark had re-discovered what sociologists since Durkheim have known but which he had somehow forgotten: human life is social. We conform when those around us — our friends — share similar ideas. If your group of friends is religious, then religion is more likely to influence decision-making. But if you are religious and your friends are not, religion won’t play much of a role in the choices you make.

This kind of network influence extends of course to non-religious beliefs and puts a different twist on “birds of a feather flock together.” It would be more accurate to say that if you want to act or be a certain way, choose your flock wisely.

Searching for the Elusive God Effect

Stark, Rodney (1984). Religion and Conformity: Reaffirming a Sociology of Religion Sociological Analysis, 45 (4), 273-282


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