Stark, Rodney. "Chapter 4: Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion." The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997, 73-94.
Stark, citing major epidemics in the Roman Empire from 165-180, and again in 251, observes that depopulation may have played an important role in the decline of the Roman Empire (Stark 1997, 73). However, he says, while numerous church fathers spoke of epidemics as forces that shaped Christian growth, church historians have generally not been concerned with the issue. Stak, however, thinks the epidemics showed the hopeful message of Christianity as opposed to the pagan and Hellenistic views (Stark 1997, 74). There is also evidence that Christians tended to survive the epidemics at a higher rate than average, then that they had established social networks which others had lost due to the death rates. Christians could then adopt the pagans into their social networks, which made conversion more likely (Stark 1997, 75).
Stark asserts that disasters such as plagues frequently lead to religious conversion. "Typically this occurs because the disaster places demands upon the prevailing religion that it appears unable to meet" (Stark 1997, 77). The religion may not have been an explanation for or a defense against the disaster. Stark further considers that the actual doctrinal claims, the contents of belief, would be able to serve as a motivator to enable different responses to a crisis (Stark 1997, 79). He goes on to describe the relatively unsatisfactory implications of paganism and philosophy. Counter to this, the promises of Christianity provided hope and comfrot. Stak quotes Cyrpian of Carthage and Dionysius of Alexandria whoboth speak of hope in a time of distress (Stark 1997, 81). What is more, the Christian response to the plague was to care for the sick, even if it meant the risk of the caregiver becoming sick as well (Stark 1997, 82). Stark describs a contrast between this behavior and the actions of pagans, described uniformly as abandoning the sick in times of plague, preferring to flee (Stark 1997, 85-86).
Stark asks an important question in regard to the Christian response to plague. Why would the Christians and those they cared for have a greater survival rate (Stark 1997, 88)? basic nursing and provision of food and drink can reduce mortality significantly. For this reason, compared to the pagan population, the Christians would be more likely to survive. Among the survivors cared for by Christians, there may also have been an increased rate of conversion as well (Stark 1997, 89).
Plagues would have a strong influence on formation and sustenance of social networks. Stark notes that a plague breaks down social networks due to flight and mortality. The survival rate of Christians would result in a much greater security of networks (Stark 1997, 91). The nursing care of the Christians would effectively create an attachment network. This is highly likely to lead toward conversion growth of Christianity (Stark 1997, 93).