THEORIES & On Theorizing About Religion #ARDA #PennStateUniv

On theorizing about religion:

by ARDA, Association of Religion Data Archives, Penn. State University.

Social scientists observe that the world of religion consists of regularities and anomalies, seeking explanations for both. A theorist suggests a set of ideas to explain one aspect of religious behavior, hopefully in terms of a few clear statements using words that can be defined unambiguously. Ideally, it will be possible to derive logical consequences of the ideas that can be stated as formal hypotheses. The concepts in a hypothesis must be operationalized in terms of specific measures for which data can be collected in an empirical study. Consider this example of a theoretical argument:

1. Religion compensates people psychologically for deprivations they suffer in life.
2. Some people are relatively deprived in terms of wealth and status.
3. Relatively deprived people will gravitate to religious groups that compensate them for their deprivations.
4. The religions of relatively deprived people need to provide more compensation than do the religions of people who are not relatively deprived.
5. The religions of relatively deprived people must provide compensatory social status.
6. Therefore, the religions to which relatively deprived people belong will tend to:

a. Be more emotionally intense than other religious groups.
b. Assert that special honor comes from the mere act of belonging to the particular religious group.
c. Have social relations that are somewhat encapsulated from the wider society.

Of course this argument could be stated in much greater detail. But, given that it is familiar in the social science of religion, consider what is needed to test it. Key terms must be defined operationally, for example so that questionnaire items can be written or selected to represent them in an empirical study:

1. Relative deprivation could be operationally defined as individuals below medium income, or individuals who respond to attitude questions as being relatively powerless or lacking respect in society.
2. Compensatory social status could be measured through questionnaire items about religious exclusivity such as feeling that only members of one’s own groups are saved, or describing their group with terms like “the chosen people,” or rejecting some status-related values of the wider society such as saying that the rich are corrupt.
3. Emotional intensity might be operationalized in terms of specific behaviors, such as expressions of joy during religious services, or subjectively in terms of whether a respondent rates their religious experiences as intense versus peaceful.
4. Social encapsulation can be measured by what proportion of a person’s five best friends belong to his or her own congregation.

CONVERSION & A Sociological Definition Compiled by ARDA: The Association of Religious Data Archives #PennStateUniv

bpc_icon_concept.jpg Conversion


“Conversion refers to shifts across religious traditions” (Stark and Finke 2000:114). This would include changing from Judaism to Christianity or Hinduism to Islam. Religious reaffiliation, changing from one style of a specific religion to another, is commonly confused with conversion. An example of reaffiliation would be changing from Southern Baptist to Methodist within Christianity or from Sunni to Shiite within Islam.

Studies focusing on the growth of cults did the most to shed light on the nature of conversion and the way individuals change their religious beliefs. The popular belief before the studies of Lofland and Stark (1965) and Barker (1984) was that individuals joining religious cults were brainwashed by leaders. These studies disproved this conception of conversion showing that initiates into new religious groups converted due to changes in their social networks. Those who converted did so because they came to a point where they knew more people in the cult or religious group than individuals not a part of the group. It was only until after conversion took place that the actual beliefs of the group were cited as reasons for the conversion.

Some common ways of measuring the concept of conversion is to ask individuals if they have ever experienced what they would describe as a conversion experience. Another avenue for exploring conversion is to compare a respondent’s parent’s religious affiliation with the respondent’s current religious affiliation or stated religious identity. This method assumes that as a child the respondent shared her parent’s religious views. A third possible measure of conversion is religious intermarriage. Over time researchers might find that a spouse converts, not just reaffiliates, to their spouse’s religion.


a.) Barker, Eileen. 1984. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers
b.) Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.” American Sociological Review 30: 862-875.
c.) Stark, R. and R. Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
d.) Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. “Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects,” American Journal of Sociology 85: 1376-1395.

Related Measures
The following are possible measures of Conversion that can be created using data from

arrow.jpg Conversion Experience
Respondent identifies with undergoing a religious conversion experience of some kind.

Q13A: Variable 28 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 midline_dotted.jpg

arrow.jpg Parent’s Religious Affiliation
Asks respondents what religious tradition their parent’s ascribe to. Allows researchers to investigate why individuals maintain or change from the religious tradition they were exposed to when younger.

Q31A: Variable 121 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 Q31B: Variable 122 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 MARELIG: Variable 403 from General Social Survey, 1988 PARELIG: Variable 408 from General Social Survey, 1988 MOMS RELIG: Variable 637 from General Social Survey, 1998 POPS RELIG: Variable 639 from General Social Survey, 1998 PRELIGN: Variable 797 from National Study of Youth and Religion, Wave 1 (2003)


THEORIES & Religious Research Theories Listed & Defined by ARDA: Association of Religious Data Archives

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: The ARDA is the best place to find a compilation of theories and research on the church compiled by scholars. It is compiled by my colleague Roger Finke and his colleagues Penn. State University.

Religious Research Theories

Learn about other theories of religion:
arrow.jpgChurch/Sect Cycle
arrow.jpgCivilization Theory
arrow.jpgCognitive Theories
arrow.jpgConversion Theory
arrow.jpgCyclical Theory
arrow.jpgDemographic Transition Theory
arrow.jpgModernization Theory
arrow.jpgRational Choice/Religious Economies
arrow.jpgSocial Network Theory
arrow.jpgSub-Cultural Identity Theory of Persistence and Strength

Theories bpc_icon_theory.jpg

In the social sciences generally, as well as in the social science of religion, the term theory is actually used in a multitude of applications. In a sense, every specific theory embodies a somewhat different idea of what theory means, so it is not surprising that this word tends to confuse people. For example, fully 93 articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have “theory” in their titles, yet they approach it from almost as many different directions.

Citing the work of Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, we offer the following general definition of a theory:

A theory is a set of statements, or hypotheses, about relationships among a set of abstract concepts. These statements say how and why the concepts are interrelated. Furthermore, these statements must give rise to implications that potentially are falsifiable empirically.


a) Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New York: Toronto/Lang, 1987), p. 13.

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