Picture of author.

Rodney Stark

Teoksen The Rise of Christianity tekijä

55+ teosta 4,788 jäsentä 58 arvostelua 5 Favorited

Tietoja tekijästä

Rodney Stark is the distinguished professor of the social sciences and codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and honorary professor of sociology at Peking University in Beijing. He is the author or coauthor of a number of books in seventeen different languages, näytä lisää including the best-selling The Rise of Christianity (HarperSanFranrisco, 1997). näytä vähemmän
Image credit: courtesy of Prof. Rodney Stark

Tekijän teokset

The Rise of Christianity (1997) 1,218 kappaletta, 10 arvostelua
God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (2009) 556 kappaletta, 12 arvostelua
Discovering God (2007) 246 kappaletta, 2 arvostelua
Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (2000) 97 kappaletta, 1 arvostelu
Sociology (1985) 69 kappaletta, 1 arvostelu
What Americans Really Believe (2008) 65 kappaletta
A Theory of Religion (1987) 43 kappaletta
The Rise of Mormonism (2005) 24 kappaletta, 1 arvostelu
Exploring the Religious Life (2004) 9 kappaletta
Society Today (1973) 4 kappaletta
Social problems (1975) 2 kappaletta
De eerste eeuwen (1998) 1 kappale
Sociology: With Info Trac (1997) 1 kappale
Society Today 1 kappale
Sociology 1 kappale

Associated Works

Merkitty avainsanalla




A profoundly informative book that sums up the reasons behind the Crusades.
Merkitty asiattomaksi
David_Fosco | 11 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Oct 13, 2023 |
Merkitty asiattomaksi
Correaf | Dec 22, 2022 |
In this interesting and provocative book, sociologist of religion Rodney Stark uses contemporary social science to enrich inquiry into why Christian was successful during its first three hundred years, spreading from one thousand followers a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion to six million by 300 CE.

Stark is probably conservative. His bibliography includes titles like “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success” and “God’s Battalions: The Case For the Crusades”. That said, his work seems honest and erudite, combining his own research, theoretical propositions, and data to back them up. Social science in the 20th century is tinged with Marxism, so books like this which don’t try to fit into such narrow ideological concepts are a breath of fresh air.

This book is only 215 pages but it is dense with ideas and references. In each chapter, Stark proposes at least one theory for why Christianity spread and provides evidence and arguments for his claims. Even with my background readings into this subject, it was sometimes hard to keep up. I imagine someone who hasn’t read anything about the early church might have difficulty reading this, as they’d be constantly encountering for the first time new names, concepts, and historical references.

The popular view of early Christian growth is of starry-eyed street preachers and martyrs initiating mass evangelizations. But this viewpoint is only popular because Christians like it. It implies that their doctrine was so appealing that people quickly converted en masse. Stark believes instead that Christianity spread the same way modern New Religious Movements (NRM) usually do: through interpersonal relationships. Researching the modern Unification Movement, a Korean-American NRM, Stark found that only those with family or friends already in the movement converted. The group tried evangelizing to strangers, but continually failed. Many people were interested in the religion and its ideas, but they failed to join unless they already had peers in the movement.

Stark believes generally that conversion is bringing one’s religious behavior in line with friends and family. We get this idea by applying the “control theory” of deviancy, where social scientists ask not why people deviate, but instead why they conform. Broadly speaking, the theory goes that people conform when they believe they have more to lose being caught in the deviant act than they have to gain in it. So, when a new religion is unpopular with one’s peers, conversion is seen as deviant. But when enough of ones’ attachments are part of it, it becomes an act of conformity.

If this theory is helpful in explaining the growth of new religions, how does it help us understand early Christianity? For one, it points to conversion taking place among social networks rather than mass evangelizations. It also implies a regular pace for growth. If there were one thousand Christians a decade after the crucifixion, and six million when Emperor Constantine converted in the early fourth century, that’s a 40% growth rate per decade. Modern day Mormons claim a similar rate, meaning that 40% is not exceptional and unlikely.

Another popular belief that Stark deflates is that early Christians significantly came from the ranks of the poor. This interpretation, about early Christianity and all New Religious Movements, was dominant in the social sciences and popular understanding from the late 1800’s to the latter decades of the 1900’s. Besides citing numerous biblical quotes and explaining inferences we can make from them, Stark brings contemporary social science to his aid. He divvies up religious movements between the categories church, sect, and cult. Churches tend to be tied with secular society, sects are revitalizations of old faiths and are in tension with secular society, while cults are faiths new to a society that violate religious norms, making them the target of considerable hostility from all quarters.

Data from 1989-1990 on educational background for adherents of various religions shows that cult members were 67% college attendees, mainline denomination adherents included 45-76%, and sects had 10-37%. Stark argues that this happens in part because cults carry a new culture, and privileged people have the education to consider and understand new ideas. In contrast, sects appeal to the poor in part because they just drum up old, familiar religious ideas. While this theory could be arguing that poor people are stupid, it could also be saying that people who have been encouraged to evaluate new ideas may be more drawn to do so, which doesn’t mean they’re smarter, only in a different set of habits.

So, do these insights apply for early Christianity? Stark argues that the original Jesus Movement was something like a sect of Judaism. But, with the included emphasis on resurrection, it became something else. Too much new content was added for it to be a sect anymore. Christians were labelled heretics by Jewish authorities in a way that sects like the Pharisees were not. So to Stark, early Christianity was a cult and not a sect, meaning that it probably appealed to the educated. Here, I think he is persuasive and probably onto something, but I doubt that contemporary categorizations fit a culture two thousand years old. I also wonder what Stark thinks of millenarian religious movements. All that said, Stark makes a good point that, if Christianity really did come from the poor, Roman authorities would have treated it as a more serious political threat than they did.

Marx, Engels, Freud, and other founders of modern social science believed religion to be compensation for thwarted desires. The theory goes, because people can’t have a good life, they seek consolation through religion. But the data shows that church attendance doesn’t break down by class that easily, and that there’s no correlation between social class and belief in life after death. This old “deprivation theory” may explain why some people are drawn to religion, but there are other factors as well, some of which arguably draw in wealthier people. Religious organizations can give positive things in the here-and-now including status, income, self-esteem, relationships, and entertainment. It can also promise otherworldly rewards that don’t exist in this world. Some examples of successful religions that started with educated and prosperous adherents include Islam, Mormonism, and Christian Science.

Regarding the Christian mission to the Jews, Stark believes that, contrary the Book of Acts and scholarly consensus, it was actually successful. He argues that, given his theory of social networks and conversion to new religious movements, Jewish networks would have been well-suited for the growth of Christianity. This chapter came off as odd to me. He’s so sure of his theories that he applies them to override a consensus that, to my knowledge, nobody else was challenging. I guess the best defense is a good offense? Nevertheless, it was an interesting argument.

In the chapter “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion,” Stark argues that nascent Christian doctrine helped Christians survive at higher rates than Pagans during major epidemics. In 165 and 251 CE, the Roman Empire was hit by epidemics that each wiped out probably a third or more of the population. The rate of death was so severe and impactful that Stark argues that Rome’s decline was probably caused by depopulation instead of Edward Gibbons’ argument of “moral degeneration.”

Alongside many intellectuals from Antiquity, Stark believes that both epidemics actually helped the spread of Christianity. Crises like these that quickly change everything put a strain on religions to console and meet peoples’ needs. It’s during these times that new religious movements emerge and grow. They revitalize cultures to deal with the crisis at hand, mobilizing people to attempt collective action and form new social arrangements.

The Christian Bishop Dionysus writes that many Christians died while nursing the sick, but doing so enabled Christians to survive at a higher rate than Pagans. Stark agrees, arguing that Judeo-Christian thought inherently links “a highly social ethical code with religion.” Not only are Judeo-Christian holy books rife with such admonitions, other ancient Christian writings explicitly state that deacons were charged with supporting the sick, infirm, poor, and disabled. While Pagans practice charity, it lacked any religious imperative. This was partially because Pagan didn’t have the notion that a deity could love humanity. Pagan Gods issued no ethical demands, one only offended them by neglecting their standards for rituals. In contrast, Christianity teaches that God loves those who love him, and that he isn’t pleased until Christians love each other.

Thus, Christian charity led to something like a miniature welfare state, where sick and poor Christians received basic provisioning and care from each other. Though ancient medicine lacked knowledge of germs and hygiene, historian of epidemics William McNeill argues that “when all normal services break down, quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provisioning of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.” Such services would have led to Christians surviving at a higher rate than pagans. This, plus Christians ministering to everybody, would have been viewed favorably by Pagans. It’s possible that the higher Christian survival rate would actually be seen as miraculous at the time.

Urban chaos in general was probably conducive to Christianity’s growth. Stark writes that cities like Antioch were marked by “extraordinary levels of urban disorder, social dislocation, filth, disease, misery, fear, and cultural chaos.” Health was so poor that average life expectancy probably hovered around 30 years. Constant in-migrations would have led to ethnic antagonism and fear. In this context, Christianity was better suited than Paganism because it offered charity, nursing services, hope for life after death, a new sense of family for orphans and widows, and a novel basis for attachments that cut across ethnic lines. Christianity likely “revitalized life” in these cities by introducing norms and relationships that helped residents cope and adjust.

Regarding women’s roles and church growth, Stark argues that women had it better as Christians. Widows were more respected, the double-standard for extramarital affairs was diminished, and statistics show Christian woman marrying older than Pagans, meaning they had more choice in the matter. Christianity would have been enticing to women, which partially explains why women significantly made up the ranks of early Christian converts.

Also related to gender, ancient Rome had a high male-to-female ratio because infanticide was legal and popular, and Pagans usually didn’t want female babies. Christians prohibited the practice alongside abortion and even mutual masturbation, leading to high fertility rates among Christians. That, and a culture that relatively celebrated marriage in contrast to Paganism led to more Christians being born.

Regarding early Christianity’s infamous martyrs, Stark posits that their actions should be viewed as rational choices. Apparently, social scientists in the past believed that religious sacrifice was irrational pandering to supernatural entities. To defend and understand these actions, Stark sets up two related concepts: rewards and compensators. Rewards are desired things while compensators are proposals for achieving them. For example, living a life in-line with religious ethics is a compensator for the reward of going to heaven in the afterlife.

Religious compensators have unique advantages and disadvantages: they promise supernatural rewards like immortality, but they are also uncertain and risky. How do peoples evaluate the risk involved in them? Stark argues that religions get their reputation from social and cultural promotion. In part, we assess a religion’s value based on the confidence we find in other practitioners. Seeing people speak in tongues or give testimonials claiming that religion healed their alcoholism, infidelity issues, and brought personal regeneration can help bolster a religion’s reputation. When we see religious leaders receiving low levels of material reward for their religious services, we also see them as more credible. The poorer they appear, the more credible they seem, since they seemingly lack ulterior motives. This explains the power and value of asceticism to religion.

Stark proposes that “martyrs are the most credible exponents of the value of a religion, and this is especially true if there is a voluntary aspect to their martyrdom.” Though it involves sacrifice, stigmas and sacrifice can be conceived as individual membership costs that lead to larger religious benefits. For example, religious groups sometimes have a “free rider” problem, where people join for the benefits but give very little. But when there are stigmas, like how Christianity forbade sex outside marriage and expected Christian charity, the uncommitted are screened out. This can have a cascading effect, where the group consists of only high participators, leading to more collective benefits. Martyrdom is just one result of such a situation.

Martyrdom came with many benefits, and not just supernatural ones. In the period before their death, martyrs received adulation and celebrity status among Christians. Imprisoned bishops set to be martyred would receive regular visits in jail which included gifts and food. Additionally, martyrs knew they’ve be memorialized after death.

Another theory Stark has for Christianity’s spread is its exclusive, intolerant nature. Pagan client cults were not exclusive, one could and often did worship multiple Gods. This led to weak organizations, where clients lacked ongoing relationships with the cult. One simply consulted them when they needed something and then left. There were no lasting bonds. You did not “convert” to the cult of Orpheus, you “adhered” to its rituals and requirements. This is not the case with Judaism and Christianity.

Because Christianity required exclusivity, it was more capable of getting converts to do things. It has stronger organization that gives adherents a sense of belonging. Christian clergy didn’t sell you religious goods the way Pagan priests did, they guided you in life. This led to Christianity constituting “an intense community” in Stark’s words.

Stark ends the book with a quick discussion of doctrine. While Christian theologians are known for giving too much credence to Christian doctrine in explaining the religion’s spread, Stark believes the social scientists are too critical. All of the facets that Stark discussed in this book are somewhat an echo of Christian doctrine. The Judeo-Christian God “loved the world,” something that cannot be said for Pagan Gods, which led to the idea that Christians must love all of God’s creation. Christianity vaunted pity and mercy, which classical philosophers rejected as unearned and thus irrational. In many ways, Christianity was a revitalization movement to create a single culture out of an empire composed of many clashing ethnicities. Stark ends the book by pointing out that Pagan Romans regularly organized and attended celebratory events to watch gladiators kill each other or wild animals tear apart criminals. That we allegedly find such activity abhorrent and unfathomable now is a reflection of Christian virtue.

This book contains many ideas fresh and new to me, which may be why I’m drawn to it. This could be because Stark is conservative so I’m not used to hearing these ideas. But, many of his arguments don’t seem conservative. I think that the way historical criticism takes place in radical circles is that we identify a Bad Thing, i.e. Christianity, and then we try to root it out of every tendril it has touched historically. Fredy Perlman, in “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan,” offered a helpful corrective to this rampant negativity, arguing that many Bad Things started out as Good Things.
While narratives of Progress are misplaced in how they assume everything is getting better, I think that rejections of Progress lead to equally asinine sentiments that everything is getting worse. Christianity spread in the Roman Empire for probably good reasons: it was more humane and met peoples’ needs in a way that Pagan cults failed. Further, I believe that Christianity, by vaunting all of God’s creation and humanity itself, led the door in our culture to humanism, animal liberation, and biocentrism.

It’s unfashionable in some radical circles to admire humanism. Instead, we prefer to value biocentrism or animal rights. I’m going to posit that our preference for these ideas are not a rejection of Christian humanism, but an evolution from it. The evolution went something like: State pagan cults with no ethical obligations -> Christianity urging worshippers to value all of God’s children (humanity) -> God replaced by humanism -> humanity replaced by all animals and life in general. Sure, other cultures may never have needed to pass through Christianity to view life as sacred, but we are not those cultures. Pretending that we can undo Christianity’s influence is arrogant and ahistorical. We are simply configurations of what came before us. Christianity is a part of us, no matter how atheistic or egoistic we claim to be.
… (lisätietoja)
1 ääni
Merkitty asiattomaksi
100sheets | 9 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Feb 21, 2022 |
The book had a bit of a chip on its shoulder regarding the modern view of the Crusades as primitive, cruel Europeans colonizing civilized, cultured Muslim. The author keeps coming back to how the Muslims were as cruel as the Europeans and that the Byzantines were backstabbing and two-faced. He is not wrong and this book should be read in conjunction with other histories of the Crusades to even out biases in the other direction. It should not be read alone as the only history of the Crusades.
Merkitty asiattomaksi
mgplavin | 11 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Oct 3, 2021 |



You May Also Like

Associated Authors


Also by
Arvio (tähdet)
Kuinka monen suosikki

Taulukot ja kaaviot