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Rodney Stark, Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomena, 2017

The Web tells me that Rodney Stark (Baylor University) is a very senior sociologist of religion, whose writings throughout his life have diverged from the mainstream of his profession. Had I realized from the precirculation just how sociological and how controversial this book is, I think I would have felt it should be reviewed by a professional in the discipline. On the other hand, as few ESSSAT members are sociologists, a review by someone like them is arguably more appropriate here.

The key respect in which Prof Stark stands apart from the crowd is in rejecting the thesis of Emile Durkheim that religion is only a social phenomenon, a powerful influence for cohesion, vigorously reinforced by ritual and in turn supporting ideas as to what is moral, but in which concepts of a supernatural being or beings are no more than incidental – that when people believe they are worshipping gods they are really only worshipping their own society. For Stark, by contrast, the god concept is of the essence of religion. He argues that even Buddhism, a key example for Durkheimians, is misconstrued. “Apparently Durkheim confused the Buddhism of a small intellectual élite with Buddhism in general, and seemingly was unaware that popular Buddhism is particularly rich in supernatural beings” [p. 3]. Further downplaying the gods/religion nexus, Durkheim, and the many who have thought like him, considered primitive peoples intellectually incapable of adopting a worshipping stance towards their multitude of very evident deities. By contrast, other significant early anthropologists, such as Edward Tyler, James Frazer and Paul Radin, viewed Primitive Man as a Philosopher – to quote the title of one of their books.

In another respect, also, Stark insists that the Durkheim school were fundamentally wrong: that is in their 1:1 association of morality with religion. He has fun at the expense of the many earlier sociologists and anthropologists whose initial education had been classical, yet who subsequently forgot that the divinities of Greece and Rome were quite devoid of morality, both in their behaviour towards each other and in their expectations of human beings. This leads, however, to the book’s first positive theme – that it is among the monotheisms that the association of religion with morality becomes universal. All the monotheisms present God as the author of commandments, and human failures to observe these commandments as sins. This is possible logically because the single deity is concerned with all human activities, whereas in polytheisms the remit of any one deity is limited; it is acceptable psychologically because there can be no hiding from a universal God; and it was often socially desirable because the monotheisms arose in rapidly expanding societies, where public reputations were of diminishing scope and sanctions not dependent on behaviour being observed by others (and perhaps reported to a ruler) were increasingly helpful in maintaining order.

The beginnings of monotheism were closely associated with what Karl Jaspers called ‘The Axial Age’, in the 6th century BCE. That the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Mahāvirā (founder of Jainism), the principal authors of the Upanishads, Zoroaster, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Second Isaiah all lived in that short period, is one of the most extraordinary features of human intellectual history. To my mind, however, Stark is insufficiently critical in eliding this phenomenon with monotheism: the first three figures in this list – as he is perfectly clear elsewhere – were not theists at all, let alone monotheists.

Where I am sure that he is correct – uncomfortably correct – is in noting that “Absolute monotheism is very rare” [62]. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all recognize angels; mainstream Christianity is even Trinitarian; and all three require a Satan. “In order for a divine being to be rational and benign, it is necessary to admit the existence of other ….. evil supernatural powers” [63- 4]. Theologically, this is less than subtle but, at the level of mass thinking, Stark is obviously right.

The next major theme, indeed one that recurs through the rest of the book, is that for a religious group to grow they need to have an explicit belief in an interactive, responsive, quasi-human deity. The instant corollary is that attempts to soften and modernize the implied theology, with the intention of making it more acceptable to a relatively sophisticated, latter-day, urban mind are always destined to numerical failure. But Stark takes this to the extreme: “The wreckage of the former mainline denominations is strewn upon the shoal of a modernist theology that dominated all the mainline seminaries by early in the 19th Cy” [172]. 19th Cy!! Coming from a man whose researches, outlined in the book, must often have utilized some quite late 20th Cy statistical techniques, I wondered at first if he meant to type “early in the 20th Cy”? On the other hand, when I look at the coldly distant face on the dust jacket, refusing to look the camera in the lens, I am inclined to suspect that Prof Stark really is capable of such intellectual dissonance – that he regards even the most basic textual criticism as modernist. He curtly classifies both Paul Tillich and John Selby Spong quite simply as ‘atheists’; elsewhere he denounces Tillich’s theology as logically inadequate and spuriously profound [173]. And the number of times he dismisses other sociologists of religion, as having ignored or failed to notice findings he himself published decades ago, indicate that we are engaging with a character which has little wish to adapt to consensus views.

However, our author’s predispositions aside, his book convinces me that the majority of human beings do, deep down, need simplistic creeds. My own experience sadly coincides. “Give me that old-time religion” is the song which it seems that every proselytizer should sing. As myself a life-long modernizer, I hate to recognize that the ‘happy clappy’ religious groups, often with names indicative of very recent foundation, are the ones which are expanding, while friends, who hear that I’ve recently switched my main participation from very liberal, undogmatic Anglicanism to Unitarianism, which has no dogmas at all, say “That sounds interesting; I think I’d be comfortable there” – but they don’t actually come along. Whether or not truly 18th Cy, Stark’s own theology is clearly very conservative. But the unequivocal conclusions from his sociological surveys are disquietingly convincing.

However, he continues that “one’s beliefs do matter, but in more subtle ways than has been assumed. …. Religious capital has two parts, which can be identified as culture and emotions. …. [A] fully participating Christian must know not only a set of beliefs but the words to liturgies, standard prayers, many passages of scripture …. when to stand or kneel”, etc [109]). (These are the kinds of feature which Tim Crane, in The Meaning of Belief – reviewed next in this issue – refers to as “‘identification’: belonging to a historical tradition, and making sense of the world through ritual and customs as an expression of this tradition.”) However, just as much as the content of creeds, these practices are integral parts of old-time religion. And although Stark here refers specifically to Christianity, elsewhere he often extends his account to Judaism, and occasionally also to Islam.
On p. 137 he plots a “Hypothetical Distribution of Tension across Religious Niches”. ‘Tension’ is his word for severity of demand and cost of commitment.

Initially referring to narrowness of creed, it inescapably spreads to rigidity of moral code. ‘Very low tension’ characterizes “Unitarian Universalists, various New Age groups, and at the extreme outer edge, Ethical Culture … also … most faculty at the liberal Protestant seminaries …. who conceive of god as a purely psychological phenomenon” [138]. At the other extreme, that of highest ‘tension’, are groups who “attempt to focus on the supernatural to the fullest extent possible”, and “are notable for their degree of separation or encapsulation from secular society … as, for example, Amish, Hare Krishnas, or Hasidim” [139]. These latter groups maintain their numbers, despite significant rates of apostasy, by high birth-rates; almost all that the women are expected to do is marry young, and bear many children. Between the extremes are placed all the main groups of the various religions. The hypothetical plot places the numbers of these on a normal distribution. And here Stark’s proclaimed stance as a strictly scientific student of society is at its weakest. At the beginning of the book [7-8] he has paid convincing tribute to Karl Popper’s criterion of the scientific – the making of explicit, objectively falsifiable, predictions, and challenging them by observation. Membership figures of the various sects and denominations, though doubtless far from reliable, would surely have enabled a crude, first-approximation check of the claimed normal distribution in at least one country – viz, the USA? Regrettably, Stark does not bother. He would doubtless argue that the broad idea rings true: exactitude of fit to a particular distribution is an academic detail.

Yet this weakens his claim to scientific rigour. Overall, I found this book, though flawed, and often arrogant, nevertheless rich in fascinating information, both historical and current, and an uncomfortable but persuasive challenge to several hopes and assumptions which I suspect I share with the majority of ESSSAT members.
Neil Spurway
University of Glasgow
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 28:3-4 (September-December 2018), pp. 24-27.