Thursday, October 15, 2009

Discovering God

The book of this title, by Rodney Stark, is peculiar. I read it at the beginning of the summer (which now feels like several years ago), so my comments will be a test both of my memory and of Stark’s power as a writer and scholar.
For a course on world history that I’m currently teaching, I wanted to find a single book that covered all the world’s major religions – and made some argument about their development. Ideally, of course, a convincing one. This is how I stumbled across Stark, whose name I was familiar with, since he wrote an influential book on the rise of early Christianity, explaining it in terms of social networks. Stark has carved out a space for himself in religious studies with his “supply-side” theory of religious change. Namely, he posits that religious demand is constant across all societies, but constant in its variability within each society. That is, all societies show the same pattern: some people are indifferent, others are fanatical, and the bulk fall somewhere in between. Religious changes, then, such as the Reformation or the American Great Awakenings, are caused, not by changes in this constant demand side, but rather by shifts in the supply. Stark believes that religious authorities have tended to establish monopolies, and these religious monopolies, like their economic confreres, have not served the people well. They have settled into routine and calcification, serving their own, not the people’s needs. In turn, this stultification can lead to the people’s “natural” religiosity going underground, for example in the form of sects. (Stark’s argument for the strong, if varied, natural religiosity of the people is one of two positions that challenge the earlier orthodox view in religious studies that modernization equaled secularization. The other is advanced by Thomas Luckmann, who suggests that while religion has, indeed, become less formal and organized, it has by no means weakened. All it has done is become “invisible,” in individuals’ quests for spirituality.)
Stark builds his book around this theme of the supply (usually) being choked off by monopolists. It’s generally convincing, but also, I found, rather repetitive and, in the end, unedifying. Each religion follows almost exactly the same pattern. Perhaps I unfairly compared Stark to Max Weber. I wanted to hear more about the differences and interactions between elite and popular religions, especially in regard to theodicy, “magic,” asceticism, congregational forms, etc. As a good Weberian, I also wanted to find out more about the varied effects of religions on their societies’ secular development.
Stark is a superb writer, who clearly loves to engage in polemics. Even when disagreeing with him, it’s a pleasure to engage with him.
One of the more interesting points he made was that the common notion that archaic (i.e. hunter gatherer and early agricultural) religions were all animistic or, at most, polytheistic is simply wrong. Relying on a survey of several hundred such societies, Stark makes a convincing case that a majority or at least a plurality of them had some conception of a “highest god.” Stark thus suggests that the polytheism of the earliest temple religions (in Sumer and elsewhere) was, in fact, regressive. However, he doesn’t adequately explain why the temple religions opted for polytheism – did it somehow facilitate their monopoly? It wasn’t clear.
The peculiarity of the book, and something that no doubts will rub many readers the wrong way, is that Stark very strongly hints that he thinks at least some religions really were discovering God – i.e. they were not just imagining or inventing him. Such a position is, indeed, quite rare in a scholarly book, although perhaps I’m just unfamiliar with the norms of religious studies. Stark tries to justify his hinted-at position (toward the end, he finally becomes more explicit). He draws up criteria for deciding which religions have truly discovered God, or at least have approached knowledge of Him, and he finds that only two make the cut: Judaism and, even better, Christianity. Q.E.D.! I didn’t find these arguments convincing, though I did enjoy the gusto with which he made his case and – especially – attacked his opponents. Imagining a debate between him and Christopher Hitchens brought a smile to my face.

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