“The eternal gods do not lightly change their minds.”

—Homer, Odyssey

Rodney Stark is considered by many to be the greatest living sociologist of religion.  Generations of English-speaking students have used his textbook Sociology, now in its eighth edition.  Stark was one of the founders of the theory of religious economy, which replaced the earlier theory of secularization as the sociological model for interpreting the status of religion in the West; for several years, however, he has devoted his efforts to a sociological interpretation of the history of religions.

His essay on the origins of Christianity, “The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History” (1996), was translated into 12 languages and has been given a surprisingly favorable reception by experts in ancient Christianity, though he cast doubt on more than one of their interpretations.  With One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (2001), Stark embarked upon a full investigation of monotheism, putting to the test the hypothesis that regards the general principles of religious economy as valid not only for the contemporary world but for the ancient and medieval periods.  This theory postulates, among other things, that the “demand” for religion tends to remain constant over time, so that the variations in the ratio of religiosity—that is, in the percentage of persons who say that they are religious or practicing religion—depend on the quality and quantity of the religion available.  Unless the religious market is distorted by coercive interventions of the state, it behaves like other markets: Monopoly, as time goes by, produces indolence and a lack of enthusiasm among the monopolists and depresses the market, which subsequently is revived and reinvigorated by active and bracing competition.

The most typical comparative case on which the theory of religious economy has been based is the contrast between the monopoly held by the state churches of Scandinavia, which have reduced the number of practicing Christians to a minimum, and the vigorous competition among Christian denominations in America, which has transformed the United States into a country where the number of practicing Christians is three-times higher than the average within the European Union.  This result, Stark declares, holds also for antiquity.  The success of religions protected by the state against competitors was, at first, brilliant; yet, in the long run, triumph proved ephemeral, after the official clergy grew lazy and lost missionary zeal.  Another aspect of the theory of religious economy holds that monotheism, postulating a personal god, has a greater success than polytheistic religions as well as those that venerate an abstract “essence” unconcerned with the problems of human beings.  A unique god who takes care of every aspect of human life is infinitely more attractive.

Naturally, Stark approaches these problems from the sociological point of view, which, on principle, excludes value judgments concerning which theology is “true.”  Yet his perspective is far from indifferent to questions of theology and doctrine since, for him, the doctrinal aspects help to explain why one religion is successful and another disappears.

Although monotheism, by its nature, has difficulty coexisting with other faiths, Stark emphasizes that, in practice, this intolerance is expressed in violent acts only when an external threat makes a reaffirmation of identity seem necessary.  Thus, the face-off between Christianity and Islam determines for each a harsher repression of both Jews and heretics.

For the Glory of God, the second volume of Stark’s study of monotheism, examines four episodes in the history of Western Christianity: medieval heresies and the Reformation, the birth of science, witch hunts, and slavery.  Stark says he expected to find the usual materialist and Marxist bias in the historical literature, but 

what I was not prepared for was how many of the historians I read . . . expressed militant anti-Catholicism, and how few of their peers have taken exception to the litany of contemptuous, anti-Catholic comments, delivered without any trace of self-consciousness.  

Stark adds, “I am not and have never been a Roman Catholic”; and, indeed, some of his conclusions contradict the formal teachings of the Church—e.g., that the Church of England has a valid apostolic succession.  Yet, in examining the historical literature as a sociological interpreter, Stark encounters the obstacle of anti-Catholic prejudice—often extreme—among ancient and modern historians.

The first part of his work, “God’s Truth,” takes up the story of Christian heresies, from Montanism to the Protestant Reformation.  Stark uses these examples to return to a central element of his theory: A monopoly protected by the state generates a lazy clergy that loses its missionary zeal.  From this perspective, the event that others regard as the miracle of Constantine is equally the “curse of Constantine.”  With Christianity guaranteed by the state, Christian zeal, little by little, grows weak.

The theory of religious economy postulates that a central monopoly, when it has grown lazy, generates forms of dissent on the periphery.  These include, on the one hand, the various medieval heresies and, on the other, the reform movements that the Catholic Church manages to keep within the fold.  This is not a small matter: a manifestation of what Stark calls the Church of Piety, represented primarily by monks and religious orders and often critical in its dealings with the Church of Power, which exhibits not only a lack of missionary zeal but immorality, simony, and intrigues.

Stark resolutely rejects the Marxist theory that treats both the Church of Piety and the heresies as primitive manifestations of social protest.  Ascetic and heretical movements, in the overwhelming majority of cases, are led not by the Church of Power but by the rich, while the nobility furnished the Church with the greatest number of ascetic saints in the Middle Ages.  Some Marxist arguments, he points out, are simply ridiculous, such as Engels’ description of the Waldensian movement as the reaction of “patriarchal Alpine shepherds against the feudalism that was advancing toward them”—which ignores completely the reality that the Waldensians were born in big cities, led by burghers, and, to escape persecution, took refuge in the Alps only two centuries later, when feudalism was already in crisis.

Stark argues that heresy tends to be tolerated during periods of relative stability and is persecuted usually when Christianity confronts external threats, principally from Islam.  Despite the attempts to repress it, the Church of Piety ultimately won at the Council of Trent, and both Catholic and Protestant reform became entrenched in large portions of Europe.

Sociological theory, Stark notes, must explain why Protestantism succeeded in some parts of Europe and not in others.  The answer he proposes is that, apart from the interests of sovereigns and the type of government, the decisive factor is the absence of a popular Catholic opposition to Protestantism.  Such opposition was proportionally stronger the earlier and more deeply a geographical area had been Christianized.  Thus, in Scandinavia, which was Christianized relatively late and more or less superficially, Catholics mounted very little opposition when their kings opted for Protestantism.  In Mediterranean Europe, by contrast, Protestantization was opposed, often in arms, by a vigorous popular Catholicism.

The second part of Stark’s book, “God’s Handiwork,” is dedicated to the birth of modern science.  Science is born, Stark notes, as a result of several interrelated causes tied, in part, to economic factors and technological development.  These causes are necessary, but they are not sufficient.  Modern science came into being only under specific religious conditions: Only a culture convinced that the world has been created by a personal god, benevolent and not capricious and whose laws therefore are immutable, will be impelled to try to discover those laws.  Thus, notwithstanding advanced technology, science was not born in China, which lacked the notion of a personal god, and was extinguished in the Islamic world when the prevalent theology began to teach that God is unpredictable and does not operate through constant laws.

Naturally, the idea that Christianity generated modern science is diametrically opposed to the received wisdom that science emerged after a long struggle to free itself from religious shackles.  This view is, according to Stark, a complete myth and derives from anti-Catholic prejudice.  Already in the so-called Dark Ages, “Europe’s technology advanced far beyond anything achieved by the ancients.”

Contemporary historians of science, giving the lie to the black legend that Christianity struggled against science, have shown that the majority of medieval Christian philosophers argued that the world was round, not flat; that anatomical studies progressed through the dissection of human cadavers, which, with certain restrictions, was permitted by the Church; that the heliocentric hypothesis had been formulated without dissension from Christianity well before Copernicus; and that Galileo, far from being “an innocent victim” of the abuse of power, “thoughtlessly placed the whole scientific enterprise itself in jeopardy” by presenting his scientific theories as certainties, instead of as hypotheses, and then deducing theological consequences from them.  Equally false is the idea that the great scientists in the formative period of modern science were principally skeptical free thinkers, or, at least, anti-Catholic Protestants.  Stark constructs a table that includes 52 scientists, all active in the scientific Golden Age (1543-1680), whose biographies appear in various encyclopedias of science.  The tally is 25 Catholics, 25 Protestants, and only two free thinkers.

Stark also confronts the objection that the Church, or at least fundamentalists, have struggled against the theory of evolution.  Examining the image of the Scopes Trial (1925) found in literature and film, Stark points out that the evolutionists were using the trial to test the laws that hindered the teaching of evolutionism.  In fact, the relations between Christian denominations and evolutionist theories are far more complex.  Such theories were originally received with benevolent neutrality by Christian denominations, which reacted only when evolutionism was used to promote atheism and socialism: “The earliest and most militant proponents of Darwinism made up a virtual Who’s Who of socialism.”  On the other hand, Stark observes with a certain coolness that problems related to Darwinism have not been resolved after 150 years.

Despite the difficulties in the theory, Darwinist militants such as Richard Dawkins write sentences like “It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane.”  Such sentences are very interesting to a sociologist, because they display a fundamentalist attitude that cannot substitute for scientific proof.  Stark notes that several colleagues warned him that to criticize evolutionism would damage his career, adding, “This only hardened my resolve to suffer no more this arrogant occultism.”  

In the third part of his work, “God’s Enemies,” Stark takes up the subject of witch hunts.  He considers insufficient the usual explanations offered for them: the theory that the Church was persecuting an underground paganism that She called witchcraft; the theory that the accused were mentally ill (though many defended themselves with an ability inconsistent with madness); the feminist theory of “gynocide,” which points the finger at a male-dominated and patriarchal culture while ignoring the fact that many of the condemned witches were men, whose punishments were more severe than those meted out to women; the theory that accusations of witchcraft were a means of getting hold of the property of the condemned (who were, in fact, often very poor); and the presumed fanaticism of the clergy, who commonly attempted to thwart the anti-witch campaigns.  Stark’s understanding of witch hunts is that they were produced by the diffusion of magical practices that were interpreted as sinister by the prevailing theology; by religious conflict that made the toleration of dissent more difficult; and by the failure of a weak central authority to prevent the persecution of witches.

The fourth part of Stark’s work, “God’s Justice,” takes up the subject of slavery, another field dominated by anti-Catholic propaganda.  Slavery, Stark observes, is an almost universal historical phenomenon, known to exist in its most brutal forms even in such cultures as Greece and Rome, unanimously admired for their high level of civilization, as well as in those (the Amerindians, for instance) admired for their supposed idyllic rapport with nature.  Only a few small communities in the ancient Semitic world found reasons for opposing slavery, and only Christianity abolished it, though pockets remained for many years in the frontier regions most distant from the Christian center.

With the conquest of the New World, the colonial powers, after trying with scant success to enslave the local Indians, began to acquire slaves from African Muslim merchants and to import them into the Americas.  The pontifical reaction was very harsh.  Pope Paul III declared Satan to be the inventor of slavery and absolutely forbade it in every form.  The papal condemnations were regularly reiterated, if only to complain that they were not observed.  Eventually, the continuous pressure of the Holy See led to the promulgation of 18th-century legal codes, such as the French Code Noir and the Código Negro Espanol, regulating the treatment of slaves.

Just as the claim that the Church favored slavery is false, so also the claim that it was the illuminists who worked for slavery’s abolition.  The cream of the Enlightenment intellectuals—Locke, Voltaire, Hume, and Diderot—fully accepted slavery, and many of them even invested in the slave trade.  It was, in fact, the authority of the Catholic Church, together with a powerful Protestant movement begun by the Quakers, which caused the triumph of the abolitionist movement throughout the Christian world (but not the Muslim one, where slavery is still practiced to this day).  The Marxist notion that the religious argument for abolitionism represented a limited economic interest in the institution of slavery is based on the calculations of Adam Smith—who is, paradoxically, the bête noire of the Marxists.  On the contrary, Stark argues, slavery did not die of its own inefficiency, nor was abolitionism a capitalist plot.  The abolition of slavery was simply one of those “extraordinary episodes of faith that have shaped Western civilization.”

Stark appends a methodological discussion that goes beyond the ideas of Durkheim, who restricted the sociology of religion to questions of ritual and of support of the moral order.  In reality, the social consequences of each religion  and its influence on history depend on the type of god or gods that are worshiped.  The Christian religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, have certainly been involved in tragic and questionable episodes.  But they have also written some of the most luminous pages in the history of the West. 


[For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, by Rodney Stark (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 488 pp., $35.00]