Friday, March 9, 2012

Rodney Stark's "Discovering God": Book Review

This sociologist of religion favors "divine accommodation" as his model: "God's revelations are always limited to the current capacity of humans to comprehend"--sometimes "baby talk" is needed, as Moses found out when encountering God, or when Jesus spoke down to his disciples in parables. (6) He dismisses those (see my review of Robert Wright's 2009 "The Evolution of God") who endorse a reductive materialistic--cultural, biological, or psychological--explanation for religious invention and elaboration. He minimizes naturism, animism, ghost theory, and totemism proposed by early anthropologists as rationalizations. He downplays class antagonisms and replaces them with doctrinal disputes. He favors a "universal revelation" by the divine power, given from humanity's dawn.

This book differs from his colleagues' works, which tend to marshal neo-atheist and skeptical arguments against divine inspiration as a traceable presence in the history of religions. While many scholars may disagree with his dismissal of their studies, he advances just as many scholarly works in defense of his proposition. The text tends to move quickly, and while accessible for a general audience, it deserves attention for his nuances and his qualifiers.

Stark surveys the progression from Stone Age to early states in the Middle East and the Americas to Rome efficiently. He marshals evidence that rituals and sacrifices to High Gods pleased prehistoric peoples, ushering in polytheists geared for a temple-oriented, sometimes despotically commanded, polity. This imposition of belief with power diversified into a market-niche strategy geared to a very diverse Roman imperial clientele.

Godless religions, Stark cautions, don't last long outside intellectual or monastic elites. Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism soon incorporated older folk gods and elements aimed to please lay followers unable to be comforted by abstractions. While India's definitive faiths downgraded earthly existence and worldly attachments, the ancient Chinese blended folk religion with new beliefs. These appealed to everyday people, as Stark reminds readers, and explain why religions tend to multiply gods and rituals rather than remain stark and committed to perhaps a founder's more detached vision of austerity.

In turn, sects rise when the "high tension" of a bold new faith eases, and a purer or more radical version's needed to spark renewal among the laity, and against a complacent priesthood bent on traditional orthodoxy. The "Yahweh-only" faction in Israel demonstrates the force imposed by a minority, who in exile cast off less fervent colleagues to return to their homeland intent on eliminating polytheism, paganism, and tolerance. While Stark accepts that the Exodus happened at least among a small band of Hebrews, he aligns with mainstream theologians (if not congregants in many pews) who accept how many indigenous peoples allied with the Hebrew hardcore to forge a Jewish identity connecting Yahweh to the rise of Judea and Israel, until a tribal god became a national icon, and then not an international deity but a universal Lord demanding fealty.

Common people need assurances brought by easily placated temple deities, whom families can supplicate and feel blessed by. The ancient city-states and emerging nations knew this, while congregations, in Stark's revisionist view, often threatened a nervous Roman power. Before Christians emerged, followers of Isis, Bacchus, and the Jews already in Rome found themselves persecuted and executed by Romans, who suspected upstart religious groups which signaled subversion. Intensity in belief generates "fear and retaliation from less demanding religious organizations and from governments that favor them." (155)

Stark's best points remind us how families comprise the initial circle of those who trust the new founder of a religion, whether based on revelation or inspiration. It expands by tested social bonds, and then market niches which over time not only retain early adopters but attract converts. "Religious capital" invested by a believer may weaken over time, and a new version of the faith may win him or her to convert, but usually this is more likely when "cultural continuity" smooths the transition between, say, Judaism and Christianity, at least long enough to establish it widely so Gentiles can then join as it expands its franchise.

Similarly, pagans warmed better to a variety of the Good News emphasizing classical concepts or symbols. However, Stark argues that from the start, an historically plausible Jesus was "explicitly acknowledged as divine." He rejects any notions of a New Testament not grounded in reality traceable to eyewitnesses, and he denies any gradual shift from Jewish preacher followed by messianic Jews to Pauline redeemer of Gentiles.

This appeal, all the same, built on Jewish diasporic networks, which already had weaker allegiances to orthodox practices, while incorporating not sudden or mass conversions but social alliances which brought in committed members gradually, thus ensuring a devoted band of Christians. This weakened as soon as it became the state religion, and Stark argues how the seeds of the demise of European Christianity were planted as far back as the later Roman empire, when hereditary benefices encouraged family control. This fits into his model of how state religions stagnate, when cults become organizations. He contrasts this with recent growth of Christianity when state sponsorship's lacking; he wonders if a Muslim Europe and a Christian China might be the case a century from now, as fervent believers spread their faiths apart from state control or historical tradition in these lands. (335)

Islam's rise for Stark comes not from any material longing but a spiritual wish to transform trade networks into religious ones paralleling political paths to power. Muhammad emerges as a prophet ready to take advantage of this regional orientation, as a founder of the Arab State. Stark revises the ameliorative or apologetic versions of the Prophet's life, and includes his episodes of caravan robbing, score-settling by murder, and the massacre of the Jews who resisted his control of Medina. As often in history, religious zeal matters less than fear of non-conformity by religious enforcers, as determined as are tyrants and god-kings.

Unifying Arabia, Islam was able to command wider territory with small but disciplined armies. Conversions ("market penetration" to 50%) took two to three centuries, as they did across the Roman Empire for Christians. Neither faith was particularly tolerant once it gained control. Sects proliferated once more, too. As for Islam's demands, so for Allah: submission is required. He's less approachable than the Jewish or Christian God--incomprehensible and inaccessible.

Stark concludes that the Axial Age introduced the concept of ethical behavior rewarding one in the afterlife, or next life, as salvation for those freed from sin. Sin provides an effective social control, cheaper than policing! As statelets and empires emerged from clans and cities, people began to adapt a (Stark thinks diffusion is possible) notion that they were always if invisibly watched, and their secret as well as visible actions would be judged.

Stark reasons a discovery of God through consistent and gradually more sophisticated revelations at this formative period. He posits an "inspired core" from High Gods (regressing to polytheism) to the ancient Hebrews and Christians-- if God exists. In his too-compressed closing paragraphs, he accepts the Christian search for an intelligent designer (based on Alfred North Whitehead's surprising thesis) as the logical force that impelled theologians and scientists to progress towards a discovery of God. (Amazon US 12-13-11)


Maelstrom said...

Thanks for a very thoughtful overview of this book. Do you think Dr. Stark treats the different religious traditions fairly, or is he biased toward Christianity?

Fionnchú said...

Maelstrom, not as much as I expected--he teaches at Baylor--but although he finds God emerging in many religions, he is open to the ongoing revelation happening beyond Christianity. It's the model of that religion being clearest in its message, of course, but Dr. Stark does not shut out the emerging encounter with the divine through other traditions. He does tilt, however, at the close very much towards an intelligent design analogy. I liked the book more for its application of the market models to early Christianity, but the conclusion makes sense in terms of his perspective, even if many will differ with his final chapter.