FOR GENERATIONS IT WAS assumed that religious conversions were the result of doctrinal appeal—that people embraced a new faith because they found its teachings particularly appealing, especially if these teachings seemed to solve serious problems or dissatisfactions that afflicted them. Surprisingly, when sociologist
s87 took the trouble to actually go out and watch conversions take place, they discovered that doctrines are of very secondary importance in the initial decision to convert. One must, of course, leave room for those rare conversions resulting from mystical experiences such as Paul’s on the road to Damascus. But such instances aside, conversion is primarily about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and relatives, not about encountering attractive doctrines. Put more formally: people tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert knows much about what the group believes.
Of course, one can easily imagine doctrines so bizarre as to keep most people from joining. It also is true that successful faiths sustain doctrines that do have wide appeal. In that sense doctrines can facilitate or hinder conversion, but in the normal course of events, conversion primarily is an act of conformity. But then, so is nonconversion. In the end it is a matter of the relative strength of social ties pulling the individual toward or away from a group. This principle has, by now, been examined by dozens of close-up studies of conversion, all of which confirm that social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place.88 To convert someone, you must be or become their close and trusted friend. Consequently, when someone converts to a new religion, then they usually seek to convert their friends and relatives, and consequently conversion tends to proceed through social networks.
The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion by Rodney Stark