Research published by ANI Director of Analytics, Luke Matthews, applies social network analysis to the problem of religious violence. While a research fellow at Harvard University, Matthews studied the personal networks and historical connections among 16th century Anabaptist sects of the “Radical Reformation.” He and his coauthors at Harvard and Boston Universities found that the history of congregational schisms was more predictive of a group endorsing violence than was the personal network of its leaders. This result contrasts with most theological and liturgical traits, which patterned better on the network of which leaders knew one another rather than on the history of schism between groups.
The Anabaptists are a prominent historical case study that parallels contemporary security concerns. Reformation era Anabaptists endorsed radical versions of Christianity that denied any role for secular governance. Interestingly, about half the groups were radically pacifist and rejected any use of violence while the other half advocated violent overthrow of existing governments to establish Christian theocracies.
Matthews and his coauthors show that many pacifist and violent leaders exchanged personal letters, and leaders who exchanged correspondence tended to be more similar in other aspects of their theology than in their positions on violence. Endorsing violence was best predicted by which congregations split most recently from each other, as new congregations tended to have the same view on violence or pacifism as their parent congregation, even if they differed in theological beliefs. This suggests a congregation’s attitude toward violence was somewhat decoupled from the content of its religious belief, and that applied researchers may do well to analyze the historical connections among the members of contemporaneous religious sects as much as the personal connections of sect leaders.