Getting pious with a little help from your friends

By Meghan Hendrickson

A Baylor study has found that friendships with fellow churchgoers have the strongest effect on a person’s belief in church doctrine, even more than their gender, geographic location, denominational background, level of education or income level.

The study was completed in August by Samuel Stroope, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. “Social Networks and Religion: The Role of Congregational Social Embeddedness in Religious Belief and Practice” is the name of a study researching the relationship between an individual’s religiosity and their participation in church social groups. Religiosity refers to one’s level of devotion to his or her beliefs.

Stroope said his study showed results significant for Baylor students.

“Many Baylor students are religiously active,” Stroope said. “So if a Baylor student wants to maintain his or her faith during their college years, they might want to think about who their friends are.”

Dr. Kevin Dougherty, associate professor of sociology, said Stroope’s research also has implications for broader church congregations.

“It is not enough to put on big Sunday shows and attract huge crowds,” Dougherty said. “To forge disciples, congregations need to link worshipers to one another in personal, meaningful ways.”

To complete his study, Stroope said he used data from the Baylor Religion Survey, a national survey of adults from various denominations regarding their religious beliefs and practices.

“I analyzed data from the survey and found that when people draw a greater proportion of their friends from their own congregation, that’s associated with higher religiosity,” Stroope said.

Stroope said his interest in this study stems from others’ research on religious cults. In the 1960s and ’70s, society had a fear of religious cults, and sociologists were curious as to why a person would join one, Stroope said.

Stroope said when researchers asked members of religious cults why they joined, people would often say they were drawn to the group’s theology.

“People would talk about how this doctrine about such and such was so attractive,” Stroope said.

However, when sociologists observed the process of how people joined cults, Stroope said a person’s acceptance of theology followed joining the group.

“People first formed friendships, and later they would adopt the theology that was in line with their friends,” Stroope said.

As a young graduate student, Stroope wondered if this discovery would apply to other groups. He never found a national study covering the issue, so Stroope began his own in 2009.

Religiosity can be measured in hundreds of ways, but Stroope focused on five specific criteria: behavioral measures, which were analyzed by participation in both church activities like choir or Sunday school and devotional activities like prayer or scripture reading; the belief component, measured by asking if individuals had absolute belief in supernatural entities like God, heaven, hell, angels, demons or Satan; literary perspective, tested by asking participants if they hold a literal view of the Bible; and religious exclusivity, or “how narrow heaven’s gates are,” Stroope said.

While Stroope’s study ignored causality, meaning he can’t prove a person’s church friends specifically cause them to adopt certain religious beliefs and behaviors, Stroope did find a positive correlation between the two.

Stroope said he found Protestants get a greater return on church friendships and participation than Catholics.

“It makes a lot of sense, because Protestants think of church as more of a social hub, a place to belong and engage in a lot of social activities,” Stroope said. “Wherefore Catholics, they’re more focused on sacrament and liturgy, so friends may not encourage you as strongly to make sure you’re at choir practice.”

Sociology graduate student Aaron Franzen said he was intrigued the difference was significant only between Protestants and Catholics and not between different Protestant traditions.

“This is surprising, because we know that there is a lot of variation in what different Protestant churches do and believe,” Franzen said. “But these smaller differences may matter less than larger differences between Protestants and Catholics on the question of what church, in and of itself, is to begin with.”