Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Rodney Stark: Important Sociological Considerations in The Rise of Mormonism

I have seen Rodney Stark's essays referenced in a number of discussions of sociological considerations related to the growth of Mormonism, but only recently did I finally secure the volume that represents Stark's work as an edited collection of essays. During my final semester of study at Salt Lake Theological Seminary, Terry Muck came out to lead an intensive course on world religious cultures, and one of his public lectures drew upon Stark's work in The Rise of Mormonism, edited by Reid L. Neilson (Columbia University Press, 2005). This lecture was the final experience that led to my eventual purchase of this helpful volume.

Stark's work on Mormonism is perhaps best known for his claim that Mormonism will reach 267 million members by 2080. Reactions to Stark's projections have been mixed, and have included a large dose of skepticism. Skeptics include those like Gerald McDermott, an evangelical scholar, who has written critically of Mormonisms ability to reach Stark's projected number in membership.

But it would be a mistake to reject or embrace Stark's scholarship merely because of his projections on Mormon growth. This collection of essays represents a wealth of social scientific data for reflection by students of Mormonism, new religious movements, sociology of religion, and missiology. In my view, Stark's book is most helpful for evangelicals as theology dialogues with sociology. This results in an understanding of Mormonism and which provides implications for missiology as Stark discusses an alternative understanding for revelations and revelators, the significance of social networks for the spread of religious movements, and the concept of religious capital.

Revelations and Revelators - Stark devotes a chapter to the consideration of how revelations are received by religious leaders, and alternative conceptions of the revelators themselves. Typically two models dominate the literature that attempts to account for revelation, including psychopathology (the notion that the revelators are mentally ill), or the entrepreneur model (wherein the revelator is pursuing conscious fraud for gains in a variety of areas through the creation of a new religion). The third approach is that of subcultural-evolution wherein a revelation grows slowly and is accepted by a religious group over time. In his research of new and world religions, including Islam, Christianity, and Mormonism, Stark finds these options inadequate to account for new revelations and so he proposes a different theory. His point of departure within Mormonism for this is Spencer W. Kimball's 1978 revelation concerning blacks and the priesthood. As Stark writes about this process, "Kimball spoke only of the many hours he spent in the 'upper room of the temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,' not of voices from beyond, burning bushes, or apparitions. He apparently received his revelation by becoming convinced of God's will in the matter." He then goes on to conclude that "If President Kimball's experience can be considered revelation, then it is entirely clear that normal people can, through entirely normal means, believe they communicate with the divine." This theory is related to how the revelator is viewed, and seems to provide alternatives here as well beyond that of psychopathology and fraudulent entrepreneur. Stark's hypothesis will be a difficult pill to swallow for evangelicals used to thinking in either/or theological categories of true vs. false revelations and prophets, rather than sociological categories that attempt to explain data about religious movements. But it might prove helpful to bring theology into dialogue with sociology of religion as twin sources of legitimate knowledge ain order to uncover possibilities for new perspectives on these topics.

Centrality of Social Networks - One of the more interesting, and crucial aspects of Stark's study to the understanding of the growth of Mormonism, and other religious movements, is his discussion of the centrality of social networks to the faith. Stark looks at the early history of Mormonism and its continued expansion to point out that "social networks make religious beliefs plausible." In relation to doctrine and beliefs, he goes on to state that while doctrines are important, "conversion seldom is about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one's religious behavior into alignment with that of one's friends and family members." Stark also discusses the relationship between social networks and doctrine and notes that, "Doctrine matters a great deal when it comes to generating and sustaining commitment and thus, among other things in retaining converts and reaffiliates." However, he goes on to stress that it is the "interpersonal bonds [that] are fundamental support for recruitment. This pattern is not peculiar to Latter-day Saints; it is how all successful movements spread."

While much is made of Mormonism's large volunteer missionary force, Stark points toward research that indicates that "cold calls" and visits by missionaries result in a very low percentage of baptized converts to the faith. It is relationships and connections to Mormonism's various social networks which are then connected to missionary meetings that results in the greatest successes for the LDS Church. In addition, contrary to impressions by many evangelicals, Stark states that, "[r]esearch confirms that converts overwhelmingly are recruited from the ranks of those lacking a prior religious commitment or having only a nominal connection to a religious group." These aspects of his research serve first as a reminder to evangelicals of the significance of social networks and relationships to the communication of faith, and second that perhaps other demographic segments make up the largest pool for potential converts beyond the populations of Protestant churches.

Religious Capital - The final aspect of Stark's study that I found most intriguing is the notion of religious capital. Stark defines this as incorporating two aspects, culture and emotions, and he sets it forth in the following proposition: "Religious capital consists of the degree of master of and attachment to a particular religious culture." Over time people invest more and more of themselves into a religious culture and thus have a high level of religious capital that results. This has ramifications for continued involvement in a given religious culture which leads to two additional propositions: First, "In making religious choices, people will attempt to conserve their religious capital;" and second, "The greater their religious capital, the less likely people are to either reaffiliate or convert." The notion of religious capital, like the other concepts considered above, seems rife with missiological implications. In light of the notion of religious capital evangelicals might be thinking about how their engagement with Latter-day Saints might seek to retain the highest level possible of religious capital as it is invested from one religious community to another.

Conclusion - In the concluding chapter of Stark's volume he sums up with the following:
By applying my general theoretical model of why religious movements succeed to the case of Mormonism, it is easy to understand why the Church of Jesus Christ continues to outpace other American religions, both at home and abroad. Clearly, Mormonism satisfies each of the ten elements of my larger theory, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The Latter-day Saints often retain cultural continuity with the conventional faiths of the societies in which they seek converts; their doctrines are nonempirical; they maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment; they have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective; they generate a highly motivated, volunteer religious labor force, including many willing to proselytize; they maintain a level of fertility sufficient to offset member mortality; they compete against weak, local, conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy; they sustain strong internal attachments while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders; they maintain sufficient tension with their environment - they remain sufficiently strict; and they socialize their young sufficiently well as to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness. How could they not succeed?
From whatever perspective Mormonism is studied it is not complete until it incorporates Stark's body of research. This volume will reward the effort put into its reading and reflection.

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

I am just wondering how the idea of religious capital may apply to everyday Aussies. Most prefer low commitment understated religion, with a somewhat vague and distant idea of God. Committed Christianity can be somewhat against the cultural grain. Yet of course there are some areas where cultural distance can be reduced. Have to think about this more.