Searching for the Elusive God Effect

Physicists may soon confirm the actual existence of the Higgs boson or God particle. It must exist or their models don’t work and the math is all wrong, which can’t possibly be the case. Or perhaps it can. Stranger things have happened. The elusiveness of the God particle, which is needed for mass to exist, brings to mind a similar kind of search by sociologist of religion Rodney Stark.

Stark was supposed to find, in survey and similar data, that religiosity impacted behavior in all sorts of interesting and predictable ways. But he couldn’t. Stark’s failure to find religiosity effects when he knew they should exist drove him to despair. In his 1983 presidential address to the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Stark reminisced on the problem:

Some of you are aware that I abandoned the sociology of religion in about 1969 and only returned to it several years ago. My inability to discover any consistent or robust religious effects played a major part in my decision to jump ship. Particularly disappointing were my efforts to find any empirical support for the proposition that religion sustains conformity to the normative order. In fact, about the only religious effects I could find were correlations between orthodoxy and opposition to drinking, dancing, and gambling among American Protestants. Whenever I searched for religious effects more remote from religiousness per se, I found little or nothing. If it is true that religion doesn’t influence secular beliefs and activities, our field is of very limited worth.

Stark next recalls a day in the life of a young dweeb, or sociologist. He had a handy data-set on his desk and decided to test the self-evident proposition that religiosity negatively affects delinquency. In other words if a kid believes s/he will go to hell for being a delinquent, s/he will be less likely to steal candy or kick old people. Stark was shocked to find that religious commitment had no apparent effect on hellions. He duly published the results and they were soon replicated. It thus appeared to sociologists that religious commitment didn’t affect delinquent behavior.

Nearly a decade had passed without anyone questioning these results when two studies were published which showed that kids who attended church regularly were much less likely to kick grandpa or hide dentures than their non-churched peers. The baffling results caused Stark to revisit the earlier studies:

Returning to the hunt, I soon discovered that so long as religion is conceived of as an individual trait, as a set of personal beliefs and practices, we can never know when and where religion will influence conformity, for research will continue to produce contradictory findings. But, if we move from a psychological to a sociological conception of religion, clarity leaps from the chaos. I am prepared to argue theoretically and to demonstrate empirically that religion affects conformity, not through producing guilt or fear of hellfire in the individual, but that religion gains its power to shape the individual only as an aspect of groups.

Let me put it this way. It is not whether an individual kid goes to church or believes in hell that influences his or her delinquency. What is critical is whether the majority of the kid’s friends are religious. In communities where most young people do not attend church, religion will not inhibit the behavior even of those teenagers who personally are religious. However, in communities where most kids are religious, then those who are will be less delinquent than those who aren’t.

Stark had re-discovered what sociologists since Durkheim have known but which he had somehow forgotten: human life is social. We conform when those around us — our friends — share similar ideas. If your group of friends is religious, then religion is more likely to influence decision-making. But if you are religious and your friends are not, religion won’t play much of a role in the choices you make.

This kind of network influence extends of course to non-religious beliefs and puts a different twist on “birds of a feather flock together.” It would be more accurate to say that if you want to act or be a certain way, choose your flock wisely.


Stark, Rodney (1984). Religion and Conformity: Reaffirming a Sociology of Religion Sociological Analysis, 45 (4), 273-282

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11 thoughts on “Searching for the Elusive God Effect

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Interesting segue.

    On a related note (to Higgs, not Stark), I am reminded of a paper a colleague peer-reviewed (and forwarded to me) a while back wherein the universe was demonstrated to be the Word of God:

    ‘Quantum mechanics emerges from information theory applied to causal horizons’

    Wherein Lee demonstrates that the equations that define the universe (Quantum Mechanics) can be derived from information theory. In other words the fine structure of the universe looks just like information – ie: words, mathematically encoded.

    Jae-Weon Lee

    Department of energy resources development, Jungwon University, Korea

    (Don’t blame Lee, this was my bad joke – the paper, though, is real)

  2. Cris Post author

    I’ve seen several similar kinds of papers and arguments. Mathematicians sometimes labor under the mistaken impression that the things they perceive and describe with numbers somehow gets at the essence of things or describes “reality.” At bottom, math is tautology. There are assumptions and premises and from these everything perfectly flows because it is a self-defined and self-contained system. This is perfect for mystics. I’m not one of them.

    That aside, I have not the slightest clue what could be meant by “the universe was demonstrated to be the Word of God.” I just looked at the paper and it says no such thing. Is this your interpretation?

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Yes, that was my twist on it, tongue in cheek.
    Lee shows the derivation of the equations of Quantum Mechanics from the equations of Information Theory (ie: how to code data into radio signals). That is the same math that reveals information (as the spoken words/music/videos as broadcast through a wireless) can be used to describe the universe (Quantum Mechanics).

    Consider this paraphrase:
    The universe ‘looks’ (mathematically) like information (words).

    Lee demonstrated the universe to follow a model of information.
    Now, make the all too common mistake (yes, even among scientists) that a model is reality and the second paraphrase becomes: The universe was demonstrated to be information. And what is universe sized information but ‘The Word’?

  4. Cris Post author

    Or Lee simply showed that humans impose informational models on a mysterious universe. I don’t see such models as having any relevance to “The Word.” I don’t know what the so-called “Word” could possibly mean. These are just humanly created symbols which stand in arbitrary reference to one another, with some socially constructed and agreed upon meaning linking them.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    Several cultures have gods, mystics or wizards ‘speaking’ things into existence. Creating structure from information. Lee overlaid a model of ‘structure’ (quantum mechanics) with information for a mathematical ‘fit’, showing that mathematically at least, all structure looks like information – as if it were ‘spoken’ into form. Just thought that an entertaining phenomenon.

    From a practical point, this actually means that physicists now can look at adapting much of the highly developed mathematics from information theory into quantum theory.

  6. Cris Post author

    What is the equation for “Word”? That aside, imperfectly describing the universe using math and calling the equations “information” doesn’t make the universe “word” or “information.” When we characterize something as “information” and perceive it as “information,” this doesn’t mean that our perceptions and/or descriptions somehow constitute the essence or reality of anything other than perceptions and descriptions. Like all math and words used to describe math, it’s tautology. Or metaphysics.

  7. J. A. Le Fevre

    Not: What is the equation for word! You’re asking the wrong question. The Word would be the data, the input to the equation. The equation would then act on the data and what emerges is the structure.
    An appropriate question could be: What equation would turn a word into an electron?

    This is not tautology but modeling, and my rather deliberate error was to substitute invented information (words) for naturally occurring information (the natural/physical laws of the universe).
    The patterns of the universe can be studied and knowledge extracted from the patterns (as Newton’s laws, Einstein’s and etc.) – the laws of physics are also information, though naturally occurring, available for decoding.

    Information theory looks at deliberately coded information (vs. naturally coded information – DNA being another ‘natural’ code).

    In the case of Quantum Mechanics, the math (sorted out to date) is equivalent to the math for deliberately encoded ‘information’ – the math describing human communications encoded in radio waves for example.

    This is really the same mistake ID makes with evolution – conflating intentional with naturally occurring ‘information’.

  8. Pingback: The God Effect « Only Yes

  9. Craig Martin

    Nice post. I don’t like Stark but this seems right. Thanks!

    And sorry I’ve been so slow in catching up on your posts!

  10. Cris Post author

    Stark is an interesting guy; he seems to arouse peoples’ emotions either for good or bad. I like his writing style, which can be abrasive but is always entertaining.

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