Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Keep Your Religion Close And Your Friends Closer

My mother always told me to "choose my friends wisely," a piece of advice that I suspect most parents pass on. But did she--do you--realize how important those friends were? Did she know that choosing the right friends may have been more important than--or at least the same thing as--choosing the right religion?

Rodney Stark's The Rise of Mormonism (2004) is a book explaining why, "If growth during the next century is like that of the past, the Mormons will become a major world faith;" to put that statement in perspective, Stark considers Islam the last religion to "become a major world faith" and we know how important that religious movement is today. Stark is not Mormon; his interest in the church is that of a sociologist who wants to know what has made the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints successful in attracting and retaining converts at a growth rate of 40% per decade (no, that's not a typo). In truth, his book is less about Mormonism per se than it is about discovering general principles that underly successful religious movements--and one of the principles that Stark has discovered reveals exactly what is is that makes individuals convert (switch religious traditions, say from Hinduism to Christianity) or reaffiliate (switch religious affiliations within a larger tradition, say from Prebyterianism to Episcopalianism).

Ask any convert to a new religion why he (or she) converted, and he will tell you that he made the change for doctrinal and/or spiritual reasons. Converts might cite doctrinal concerns such as infant baptism or the restriction of pristhood authority to men as a reason to change religious affiliations; they might narrate a spiritual experience that prompted them to change faiths. But Stark--who spent a significant chunk of time watching individuals move from ignorance of a faith to interest in a faith to conversion in a faith--argues that neither spiritual nor docrtinal concerns are the primary factors of conversion:

"Yes, after people have joined a new religious movement and have fully learned its doctrines and forms of worship, they emphasize the centrality of belief in their conversion. But having observed these same people before and during their conversions, [study co-author] Lofland and I knew better. It was the social connection that led to their conversions, or, as we put it, 'conversion was coming to accept the opinions of one's friends [or relatives]'" (23).

All of this is not to say that individuals who change faiths do not experience a spiritual epiphany or appreciate the new doctrinal tradition they have joined--only that their social connections have made that epiphany or doctrinal appreciation possible. What does this mean? It means that my mom knew what she was talking about when she told me to choose my friends wisely. According to Stark,

"Subsequent studies have shown that, in fact, interpersonal ties, or social capital, are the primary factor in conversion; my more recent work on this phenomenon is based on the proposition that when an individual's attachments to a member or members of another religion outweigh his or her attachments to nonmembers, conversion will occur" (23).

To illustrate Stark's argument in the terms of real life, let me tell a brief story.

As previously mentioned in this forum, my wife and I are ward missionaries, which basically means that we have the responsibility to visit members whose testmionies need a boost or who require some other form of service as directed by the bishop or ward mission leader. Recently my bishop forwarded an email to me from a concerned father in Utah, whose returned missionary son is attending a college here in Raleigh, and who lives in our ward boundaries. This son (we'll call him Peter) had recently informed his parents that he had renounced the church and his (formerly strong) testimony. His father suspected that this decision was the result of influence exercised by a girlfriend with strong anti-Mormon sentiments, and Stark would agree.

Peter is far from all of his (presumably LDS) friends and family that he has in Utah--in other words, he is severely lacking in social capital. This being the case, he has acquired new social capital in the form of his girlfriend and her (likewise anti-Mormon) friends and family. Peter's revelation to his parents that he has lost his testimony has been spurred, I would argue, by the fact that his social capital here in Raleigh has recently begun to overshadow the social capital he left behind in Utah. Now--Peter's father has urged him to read the Book of Mormon, and Peter has agreed to do so--but Stark would argue (I think) that the doctrines of the Book of Mormon are irrelevant unless Peter decides to trade in his anti-Mormon friends for some Mormon friends.

This is where Alana and I come in. Our job is to provide Peter with ready-made social capital--though this will only work if he chooses to make us his friends--and help him regain his testimony.

Peter's father thinks we are the "right friends," largely because we share the beliefs that he wishes to inculcate in his son; he intuits the need for social capital as a prerequisite for Peter's reconversion and subsequent retention.

In many ways, what I am saying is nothing new--Stark's emphasis on social relations as the engine that drives spiritual change is only revelatory inasmuch as it changes the degree to which we appreciate the impact of social relationships.

Few of us, I think, would have guessed that friendships were the primary force driving religious change. We might still disagree with Stark's assertion that social relationships cause change; but his research makes it clear that, at the very least, social relationships precede religious change.

So choose your friends wisely!


Schenewarks said...

Another masterpiece. I'm so glad I have a relation that's able to think, philosophize, and help others of us be wiser. Hats off! Amy Jo

Aaron H. said...

Hey Mr. Verbosity -

Sometimes less is more.

BRT is still the key.

PS. Lose the word verification - don't like it!

Becky said...

I love the way you make me think. Great post today. I will be looking forward to hearing how your "befriending Peter" will hopefully influence him back to his roots.

Anonymous said...

Very well put and great job finding a reference for your arguement. but isn't this afterall just what one might call "peer pressure"?

yes young peter may have begun to doubt the church once he came into contact with an(trusted)outside perspective. like most of us, he has probably lived a rather sheltered life with only a LDS point of view as our foundation to comprehend the world. once he was removed from the "mormon bubble" he is prone to realize that there may be another perspective (or several). this could shake his very foundation.

as an industious young mormon couple, you and your wife are called to contribute some "social capital" (peer pressure) to peter. all the while you give him permission to make his own decisions by writing "though this will only work if he chooses to make us his friends--and help him regain his testimony."
if we as mormons are truley persons of "free agency" then we should let peter find his own way back to the church. we should not lean on him, make him feel pressured, or overtly encourage him to stregthen his testomony. we should not question his motives, his peers, or his doubts. we should not undermine his conceptual maturity by reducing it to social interaction. peter may be at a crossroads in his life. we should treat him with the same love, respect, and adoration that was offered during his most pious state. if he indeed is a true believer, he will find his way back to the gospel.

The Mormon Monk said...

Anonymous, you can find my response to your comment in the November 30th posting on this blog.

The Mormon Monk