Saturday, February 12, 2005

Book Review: Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity

I thought I'd repost some of my old book reviews.....

The Rise of Christianity

Rodney Stark

The Rise of Christianity offers an examination of early Christian history from the perspective of a sociologist of religion. The result is a work of mixed effectiveness, often interesting and insightful, but also neglectful of crucial social aspects of emergent Christianity.

Stark's theoretical model is based on market-behavior analogues and rational-choice behavior modeling. Writing of martyrs, he states: "Individuals chose their actions rationally, including those actions which concern compensators" (p169), a compensator being a method for explaining how a desired reward is to be achieved. According to Stark, compensators involve rewards that are long delayed and may never appear, for maintaining certain behaviors over periods of time. Stark regards this as a "scientific" antidote to the claim that people perform bizarre acts like martyrdom because religion is "irrational." Stark instead builds a rational and testable model of behavior which shows that it might well be rational to prefer martyrdom.

This theoretical model is in turn based the understanding of religion as a social phenonomen spread by networks of acquaintances. Stark points out that conversion is most common among acquaintances and friends in all religious groups, and most easily achieved when the new religion is related to a local or previous religion. Stark then locates Christianity's spread in this model.

In Stark's view Christianity began by spreading out through the communities of the Jewish diaspora and then into the larger gentile world. The majority of early recruits were female, a point which Stark goes to great lengths to document, reflecting Christianity's superior view of the female. This had numerous advantages for Christianity, for the females not only offered superior fertility because the new religion did not practice infanticide, abortion, or birth control, but also in the form of secondary conversions. Further, Christianity also prized virginity in both sexes, not merely females, and extolled the virtues of marriage, which pagans did not. Although Stark is able to cite numerous references in the literature to the existence of such attitudes, he does not cite any data as to how they were carried out in practice. Another error he makes is extending these attitudes through the first five centuries, though by the middle of the second century women had lost their clout in Christian Churches, if they had ever had it.

This brings us to Stark's first major problem: although he is quick to reject the attitudes of bygone academics, he is entirely too credulous toward his Christian sources. For example, he cites the letter of Dionysus around 260 regarding the great pandemic in the East, which states that Christians showed "unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another." This letter is reproduced in Eusebius and does not exist independently. Stark argues that "it is highly unlikely that a bishop would write a pastoral letter full of false claims about things that his parishioners would know from direct observation" and so it must really be true that the pagans fled the plague. But anyone who knows religions knows that false claims about the reality are stock in trade for preachers of all types, which their parishioners soak up regardless of actual experience. To support his claim he cites Thucydides' claim that the pagans did not care for one another in the plague of Athens, though Thucydides says that he was an exception. One might note, in fact, that the two documents are exactly the same, showing that "we" cared while "they" did not. As accounts of Christian behavior in Black Death show, Thucydides' pagans were not alone in their flight. There is no reason to accept Dionysus' claims as historical fact. A corollary with this is Stark's overreliance for accounts of Christian history on scholars committed to conventional views of said history.

He also gives slanted presentations of his ancient evidence. The letter of Julian to the high priest of Galatia in 362 certainly does complain that Christians are more charitable than the pagan priests. Yet Stark, wishing to show that pagan culture was inferior to Christian, leaves out the admonishment of Julian to the priest to be more charitable, something his culture dictated from the time of Homer. Stark leaves the reader with the impression that the pagan world was utterly lacking in charity, when in fact charitable organizations were common. Stark also ignores any conflicts within the Christian world, though pagans often expressed exasperation at the disagreements and sectarian violence that colored Christian-on-Christian relations.

A second problem of Stark's is his complete neglect of the apparatus of authority control in religion. This stems partly, I think, from a desire to place Christianity in the best light possible, and partly from his use of neoclassical economic thinking in forming his models of human behavior. Neoclassical economic modeling of human behavior simply ignores the sociopolitical level and concentrates on individual choicemaking. Consequently, Stark manages on numerous occasions to compare Mormons and early Christianity without once ever mentioning the apparatus of authoritarian control in either. This is particularly sticky because while it can be argued (for example) that Christianity offered a superior choice for women over paganism, that is simply not true of Mormonism against modern secular culture. Mormonism is inferior to liberal culture on nearly every aspect of its existence. Therefore, to prevent wholesale defections, the Mormon religion has evolved an extensive apparatus of Leninist political control, including broad demands on time, thought control, intense social pressure, cell structures for Mormon society that allow the Church to interpenetrate to every level of society, locating itself in relative geographic isolation, and so forth. Early Christianity shows many of these same features -- a house Church is a cell structure, a bishop a political commissar -- but Stark simply ignores any of these features of early Christianity in his explanatory model.

Stark's focus on choice and not on structures leads him to neglect other features of Christianity, such as the fact that it is a missionary religion, while the pagan religions were not, and it was an intolerant, exclusivist religion, while the pagan religions were not. Christianity was able to stamp out its rivals because it was a missionary religion operating in an environment without real rival missionary religions, and because later, it was able to secure government support for its operations. One need only look at the contrast between Christianity's success in Europe and its failures in Asia, where there are entrenched missionary religions (Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism) and where it has never had government support. This is despite the fact that Asia shares many features of the pagan Roman Empire, such as low status for women, polyglot cultural environments, poor development of civic society, terribly overcrowded urban infrastructure, and so forth. Though cross-cultural comparisons are always fraught with iffy-ness, it can be seen that the factors identified by Stark as central to Christian success may well be peripheral to it, since not one of them has led to success in Asia. One might also point out that Mormon success has also come without any of those factors -- Mormonism is most popular in the US, where it offers lower status for women than society at large, compels participants to donate additional income over and above US taxes, restricts their social freedom in a society that emphasizes freedom of movement and speech, and reduces their individual expression in a society where individualism is celebrated. Further, information on the completely bogus career of Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, is widely available. Clearly, the success of Mormonism cannot have anything to do with its values or its presentation of reality. And neither does Christainity. The stark fact is that any religion will be successful, so long as it is missionary, manages to maintain a coherent message, and manages to maintain control over the minds and bodies of its converts. Those who doubt that need only consider Scientology, which makes a nice living for its leaders on steady growth in converts.

A third problem of this work is Stark's simplification of the problems and issues. Stark comes very near to building two diametrically opposed and simplistic worlds, one Christian and the other pagan, paying no attention to the complexity of either. Because of this, and because of his neglect of the sociopolitical structures of nascent Christianity, he is able to write a completely fatuous final chapter which argues that the central doctrines of Christianity "prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations." When one thinks of the diversity of social relations in the pagan world, and the iron authoritarianism of Christianity, especially in the later medieval period, one wonders what Stark is talking about.

Ultimately this book, although interesting and sometimes insightful, is simplistic and ignorant of the history it purports to explain. Readers interested in explanations of the growth of Christianity should look to other authors, committed to broader and more inclusive explanatory regimes.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant review. Loved it.

Anonymous said...

my thoughts exactly, brilliant review!

Anonymous said...

Very good critique of Stark's book - a book I like very much. Still agree with his conclusion on Jewish majority membership though.

Anonymous said...

i agree...great review

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review. Saves me the trouble of actually reading the book (got it from amazon last week). I'll look for a more objective historical account.

John said...

A thorough and balanced review that I would agree to mostly. I, too, am skeptical about Stark's use of the positivistic sociological theory, as quite often the book uses generalizations from research among Mormons and other modern religious movements to arrive at conclusions about early Christianity, with inadequate regard to the cultural particularities of the ancient world. The author seems to assume that if a proposition holds true in post-modern America, then it must apply equally well to the societies of the Roman Empire. This is an unconvincing approach to me.

Anonymous said...

Stark claims that the Christians didn't practice infanticide, specifically female infanticide, which led to increase in followers, isn't it ironic then, that the worst sex ratios on earth is currently in.. no not India & China, but Georgia & Armenia, specifically Armenia, the world's oldest Christian nation?

Also Stark claims in his book that the majority of the dead babies in Ashkelon were little girls, but the babies gender have been identified, & it turns out that the majority were little boys.

Stark is an apologist for Christianity, & often twists facts for this purpose.

Anonymous said...

Comparing sociology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day to that of Leninism...? What planet has this idiot been living on his entire life...?a

Michael Turton said...

The one where the Mormons are organized like the Communist Party. Why do you think they hate Communism so much? They have exactly the same structure of thought control.