Expert Commentary

Effects of social networks on religious belief and practice

2011 study by Baylor University published in Sociology of Religion on social relationships and higher levels of religiosity.

Many religious communities and church congregations create opportunities for social interactions beyond the regular worship services. Youth groups, men’s worship groups, women’s circles, summer camps, and other activities provide a social network of people to connect beyond their shared faith. However, although a “long line of literature reviews the connection between religious phenomena and social bonds in religious congregations,” a scholar from Baylor University notes in a 2011 study, “measurement has often been indirect.”

The study, published in Sociology of Religion, “Social Networks and Religion: The Role of Congregational Social Embeddedness in Religious Belief and Practice,” analyzes national survey data on churches, their membership, the and activities offered beyond worship services, and looks at correlations with levels of individual religiosity.

The study’s findings include:

  • There are “powerful and robust relationships between embeddedness in religious congregations and all indicators of religious activity and belief.”
  • High levels of social embeddedness in religious practices were associated with the following for individuals: 21.4 percentage points more likely to have higher levels of supernatural beliefs; 26.8 percentage points more likely to take the Bible literally; and 23.4 percentage points more likely to feel their religion is exclusively correct.
  • Having some or all of one’s friends of the same religion increases the likelihood of “espousing religious exclusivity.”
  • Being part of a community of like-minded believers, however, correlated more strongly with high levels of religious activity than with fervent belief. One reason may be that “[r]eligious actions such as attending educational classes, reading scripture, volunteering, and musical expression are often behavior subject to friends’ direct surveillance (a person either attends or is absent), and so when participation wanes, network attention is induced, producing more air-tight social pressure when friends are clustered in a single congregation.”
  • The effects of social networks do, however, vary by denomination and sect: “The relationship between embeddedness and church activities is stronger for evangelical Protestants in comparison to Catholics, but not stronger in comparison to mainline or Black Protestants. Although embeddedness’ effects are always positive, Catholic congregations receive diminishing participation returns for the embeddedness of their members in comparison to Protestant congregations.”

The researcher concludes that the study adds “evidence that people who are more immersed in friendships at church also exhibit greater religiosity.”

Tags: religion