Posted by Sen on March 8, 2009
In a discussion on this blog, I referred briefly to Rodney Stark’s work on the dynamics of religious growth. Stark is primarily a sociologist, whose contribution to church history is to employ the statistical and analytic methods used in sociology. His book, The Rise of Christianity (1996, Princeton University Press) deals roughly speaking with the first three centuries of Christianity, and the first century of Mormonism, and offers a lot of food for thought for the Bahais.
Stark begins by estimating that there were 1000 Christians in the Roman Empire in the year 40. He notes that in the middle of the third century, Christians were by their own account few in number (p.5), but by the year 300 there were about 5 to 7.5 million Christians: so numerous that a few years later Constantine found it expedient to embrace the church. This has led the church in its own histories, and some scholars, to suppose that there was a mass conversion event in the late third century. But constant growth of 40% per decade, or 3.42% per year, is enough to explain these results: no mass conversion event is required. This is the same growth picture that Stark had found in his previous work on the Mormon church, which has grown hugely in 100 years without mass conversions, and it is supported by the archaeological evidence of church building sizes.
If there were 6 million Christians in the year 300 (10% of the population) and they continued to grow at 40% per decade, this would give almost 34 million Christians in the year 350, just over half of the population of the empire. To someone living at the time, or looking back, those 50 years would certainly seem like a mass conversion event. But it is in fact the same steady 3.4% per year, achieved through the same means of personal contact: it did not require either the adoption of new methods to win converts, nor new structures to absorb the entering ‘troops.’ Constantine’s conversion did not cause this growth: Constantine was rather bowing to a fait accompli: there were too many Christians to persecute, and their support against Constantine’s rivals, who were still opposing Christianity, was vital.
This picture of steady growth producing massive results, without any change in the basic dynamics of growth, contrasts with the picture presented by early church fathers and historians (Eusebius and Augustine for example) and later scholars such as Adolf Harnack. But it fits with contemporary sociological observations of religious affiliation, which show that it proceeds through social networks. In Stark and Lofland’s study of the Moonies in the USA, public talks and media advertising were completely ineffective: all those who joined the group had interpersonal attachments (friendships) with members, and all of the first cohort of members had been friends or relatives of one another before the first Moonie arrived to spread the message. Stark has similar data for the Mormon church: one per thousand of contacts through door-to-door teaching leads to a conversion, while one in two contacts within a personal network led to a conversion (page 18).
Stark’s first conclusion from this, is:
The basis for successful conversionist movement is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments. Many new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semiclosed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. (Page 20)
The centrality of openness to network growth raises another issue, that of the viability of liberal religion in modern America. It has often been thought that clear community boundaries and a certain degree of tension with liberal and secular society is necessary to the survival of a non-ethnic religious community in contemporary America. This idea is based particularly on the work of Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Luidens, in Vanishing Boundaries (1994, partial text available on google books). In their case study of membership decline among Presbyterians, they showed that liberal theology in a nonsectarian mainline church fosters an openness to the wider culture that, over a generation, diffuses commitment among members and leads to decline, whereas socially conservative Protestant groups grow while (and presumably because) they maintain clear boundaries between belief and non-belief. In the conservative churches, boundaries create a strong sense of membership and thus of participation, which raises the likelihood of passing membership on to the next generation.
These ideas gained a currency far beyond the academy, and became the accepted wisdom. Here’s an example of how they were used by conservatives to exorcise their liberal demons.
I do not know whether Vanishing Boundaries has been consciously taken into account in designing the strategies for the Bahai community, but I can say that a Wilmette staffer I know has alluded to this received wisdom on several occasions. Whether consciously considered or not, the general wisdom in America that liberal theology is a path to decline, and conservative theology and strong boundaries a path to growth, coincides with a conservative turn in the leadership of the American Bahai community and, paradoxically, a sharp decline in growth. Naturally those inclined to a socially conservative stance and theological authoritarianism would attribute the decline to continuing liberalism, making them more resolved to establish boundaries in the community, and to establish the Bahai community’s conservative credentials on the American scene. The Chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly in the United States, for example, has been quoted as telling an interviewer in 1997 that “The Baha’i faith is outwardly liberal but inwardly conservative …It’s a matter of scripture.”
A glance at Vanishing Boundaries suggests to me that its findings are not necessarily applicable to the Bahai Faith in America. The failure of liberal Protestant theologies is not a universal law: it did not apply in American Protestantism until the 1960’s, and the contemporary need for distinctive identity which underlies it is already satisfied for the Bahai Faith in America by its distinctive patterns of community worship, community structure and administration, ritual practices such as fasting, pilgrimage and holy days, and its universal progressive cosmopolitan stance. It is perfectly possible to be a theologically liberal and open Bahai, and still be proud of a distinct identity and know exactly why one is a Bahai and not an indifferent something else, or nothing.
To return to Rodney Stark: he has shown that the growth of a new religion proceeds through open personal networks and depends on the community not becoming a closed network. The research reported in Vanishing Boundaries shows that, at a certain period in America, the way a mainline Protestant church could grow – or rather conserve its membership – was by drawing boundaries and maintaining a degree of tension with society. Clearly a community cannot follow both the open network and strong boundary paths at once, and it is a no-brainer which is the better path for the Bahai community. The question then is, how can the Bahai community keep its network open?
We start at a certain disadvantage, since the Bahai 19-day Feast and Assembly meetings are closed to non-Bahais. This might explain why the community has not achieved the 40% growth per decade that Christianity and Mormonism achieved, at least not in the years since the Feast and Assembly have been the main events on the local Bahai calendar. That can easily be remedied, by placing the devotional meetings, social events and firesides at the centre of community life.
But the kind of network growth that Rodney Stark describes requires not just a low-threshold community life, but also openness in the individual networks that each member maintains. Open devotional meetings will not help, if the Bahais spend all their time with an existing set of contacts, many of them Bahais themselves. So individuals’ willingness to try new things, their freedom from prejudice, and diversity in the community are all important.
Diversity must specifically include having a place in the community for educated, confident, articulate people. Summarising previous research, Stark shows that early Christianity was not made by beggars and slaves: on the contrary, the lower classes were probably under-represented (page 32). This is true of Mormonism and can be generalised: sects, which split off from a conventional religious body, attract members of lower social status, but converts to new faiths (or faiths new to the society) come disproportionately from the more privileged, for whereas a sect usually seeks the more vivid practice of an old religious culture, conversion to a new religion requires the ability to master a new religious culture: new concepts, a new ‘language,’ new institutions. In America, college graduates are several times more likely to say that they are attracted to ‘Eastern’ religions, while the bulk of those who are ‘born again’ Christians are not college graduates (page 41). The overall picture is typified in two figures: 23% of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a 1990 survey had attended college, and 83% of the Wiccans.
In light of this, the centrality of the Ruhi programme to community activities is a definite disadvantage, since it is pitched to those with a grade school education or none, and it keeps the participants busy with one another. The progressive introduction of Ruhi in North America has been accompanied by declining enrollments (see the US NSA’s Ridvan message for 2007 for example).
Open and diverse community networks are however only the mechanisms by which new people will be personally contacted. Whether they then become Bahais, or are on the contrary repelled, depends on the quality of the individual Bahai and the Bahai community that these people encounter.
The Bahai community has many strong positive attractors: its newness, cosmopolitan vision, relatively democratic structure, its Writings, the life-story of the Bab, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha. The Bahai community also can – but need not – have rather strong repellent qualities. Consider this posting from about 6 March 2009:
I was a Baha’i for five years in my confused youth. They homogenize all the world religions into one, with of course, the Baha’i Faith superseding all of them. They belief that civilization will crumble and that their faith will then step in- ta da! – as the solution to all of humanity’s woes.
This person has encountered a triumphalist, end-of-the-world version of the Bahai teachings which, I would argue, is unscriptural (see The Future of Religions and Century’s end) and she is too perceptive to accept such ideas. What the Bahai writings actually say is far more intelligent than this, so it is certainly important to raise Bahais’ knowledge of the Bahai teachings and to clear out the intellectual baggage that western Bahai communities have inherited from early misunderstandings and unauthentic sources (see for example How theocracy happened). But she is also repelled by an attitude of presumptuous self-satisfaction, by a complacency that can claim ‘we have the answers’ without working out just what those answers are.
Part of this complacency is the expectation of imminent entry by troops or mass conversions: the sort of thing which was once supposed to have happened in the early history of Christianity and Islam, but has now been shown to be a myth. The idea is that mass conversion will give the community greatly increased resources, and we will then be able to work out what the Bahai ‘answers’ are. In Entry by troops I pointed to a number of letters on behalf of the Guardian in which he seemed to be responding to Bahais who were expecting a divine, perhaps catastrophic intervention, leading to entry by troops, and cautions them that “only to the degree that they mirror forth in their joint lives the exalted standards of the Faith will they attract the masses to the Cause of God.” He relies thus on character-building, and community-building, and not on a divine intervention or a better teaching plan, or door-to-door teaching, or media advertising. In other words he is relying on network growth of just the kind that Rodney Stark has described.
His time frame for this also seems to be in line with that which Christianity exhibited, and Stark has described. In a letter on his behalf he says that “it is only when the spirit has thoroughly permeated the world that the people will begin to enter the Faith in large numbers,” and in The Promised Day is Come he says that this spiritualisation will follow, rather than leading to, the Lesser Peace
Suffice it to say that this consummation will, by its very nature, be a gradual process, and must, as Baha’u’llah has Himself anticipated, lead at first to the establishment of that Lesser Peace … involving the reconstruction of mankind, as the result of the universal recognition of its oneness and wholeness, [This]…will bring in its wake the spiritualization of the masses,
The Lesser Peace (the establishment by national governments of treaties and institutions that can guarantee global peace) is evidently far away, and was not even on the horizon in Shoghi Effendi’s day, and he must have envisioned many generations being required for “the spiritualization of the masses,” which he regarded as a precondition for conversions “in large numbers.” So it is not surprising that when he writes of entry by troops and mass conversion, in Citadel of Faith, these events take place in a distant future which cannot yet be even dimly visualised. He must have been envisioning something like the revolution in the fortunes of Christianity that occurred between 300 and 350 AD: not because people suddenly began behaving differently, but because the Christians had become so numerous that continuing steady growth through personal networks, at something like 3 or 4 percent per year, entailed the conversion of hundreds of thousands of people every year.
~~ Sen McGlinn ~~