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The Effects of Religion on the Modern World

A review of For the Glory of God

by Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press, 2004

As everyone should know, in logic, a valid argument is one where, if you put true premises in, you will get a true conclusion out. Less people realise that you can just as well put rubbish in and still sometimes get a true conclusion. In other words, just because you get the right answer at the end does not mean that you have started with the right premises.

Rodney Stark’s book For the Glory of God is a bit like this. Its conclusions are true but the data that he has used to reach those conclusions are, in many ways, false. This is unfortunate because the book could have been a very important work and will, instead, simply be a source of mistakes for anyone who finds its conclusions way too uncomfortable. Stark is an agnostic of the sort that thinks religion has played an important and positive roll in human development. He made his name in the sociology of religion by his detailed and sympathetic accounts of modern cults which examined their appeal rather than simply condemning them as evils. Stark quickly realised that these cults were providing a much needed outlet for religious energy that modern society and even the mainline churches were finding hard to deal with. People were religious consumers who made choices about the level of spiritual reward they required and hence the level of commitment they would tolerate. The more intense cults provided a much more heady diet than the bland fare more usually on offer and many people found their palates agreed with this richness.

Next, he stepped back in time and asked about the early growth of Christianity in The Rise of Christianity. He theorised that it started off as a high intensity cult that filled a niche in the relatively free religious market of late antiquity. Using the insights he had gained from modern fringe movements he described the sociological mechanisms by which Christianity became a major force in the Roman Empire. Next, in One True God he showed how it was the nature of any religion that was in position of power to get less intense and tolerate a far greater compromise with the world. This is exactly what happened with Christianity which became an arm of a secular state rather than an outsiders’ religion. He also demonstrated how it was the nature of a monotheistic religion to become intolerant of rivals and to persecute them once it had the ability to do so. When there was no threat, a low level of heresy could be tolerated, but once a threat emerged, toleration was withdrawn even if the threat in question was unrelated to the heretics. All this sounds like an excellent argument for the separation of church and state for everyone’s sake. Both religions and government are better off doing business separately – hence the much higher level of religious practice in America than Europe. It is atheists who should be campaigning for the abolition of First Amendment. Luckily for religious people, few are historically or sociologically savvy enough to realise this.

In his own field, then, Stark is a brilliant and important figure whose easy writing style and objective attitude make for exciting reading. But in the book under review, he starts to tackle a much wider field of issues and asks very general questions about the effects of religion on society. Lacking the historical training, familiarity with the primary or secondary literature or a sound methodology, Stark goes careening of the rails. The book is a valiant effort but the subject matter is too important to allow it to be expounded in this gung-ho manner that leaves an army of hostages to fortune. In three chapters, Stark explains that Christianity was a cause of modern science, witch trials and the abolition of slavery. This is all completely true and except among die hard positivists, the second two are not even controversial. Unfortunately, along the way, he gets so much wrong that said positivists could spend all day undermining his premises so as never to have to come face to face with his conclusions.

So, what are the mistakes? It might be best to take one chapter at a time, starting with the one on science. Stark starts off by having some fun with the myth of the flat earth and those famous nineteenth century polemicists who first invented the mythical conflict between science and religion. This issue is now so well documented by historians David Lindberg, Jeffrey Burton Russell and Edward Grant that Stark’s restatement is not presenting anything new. He has combed through a book by Isaac Asimov, of all people, to determine the religious beliefs of important early scientists and found they were mainly devout and could be Catholic or Protestant. Trouble is, his methodology is hopeless when he takes as his sample a positivistic list of who is important and then declares Paracelsus to be a sceptic! I suppose he needed to find at least one or two but it is hard to justify such a label for a mystic. Stark then goes on to say that Christianity was actually an essential element in modern science and claims this isn’t controversial either. Well, it is. The conflict hypothesis may be dead in the water but very few historians are willing to stick their necks out and pronounce the opposite. Stark’s only witnesses are Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World and that does not stand out as a piece of modern historical argument. Lynn White, Lynn Thorndike, Edward Grant, Toby Huff, John Henry and Colin Russell might all be able to contribute here but Stark shows very little knowledge of the literature beyond undergraduate textbooks.  Stark does not seem to be aware that David Lindberg specifically rejects his thesis on more than one occasion. Important nuances and thinking from Simon Shapin and Anthony Grafton might also form part of this discussion if a competent historian were to tackle it. Furthermore, we have almost no primary sources quoted at all. Given that every medieval and early modern writer on maths or natural philosophy from Roger Bacon to Francis Bacon and Robert Recorde to Robert Boyle (to mention only some available in English) can be relied upon to state that maths is the instrument of God and that the point of astronomy is to wonder at the maker of the heavens, he was spoilt for choice. Stark is better on why science failed in Islam, ancient Greece and China (where he produces a killer quote from Joseph Needham) but this section badly needs input from Huff and Geoffrey Lloyd.

It gets worse though because Stark then proceeds to the subject of evolution and produces a train-wreck of an argument that could have come from the most dyed-in-the-wool Christian fundamentalist. While it is true that you cannot be too rude about Thomas Huxley, Stark seems to believe that the entire neo-Darwinian enterprise is a giant plot against religion. Certainly it has been used as a weapon by militant atheists but I fear Michael Ruse and Kenneth Millar would have a lot to say about the limitations of this section. For the positivists it is a god-send though, because by siding with creationists, Stark torpedoes his own credibility.  That is apart from historical howlers like mentioning Robert Boyle's "limited funds" when the man was actually quite unfeasibly rich.

Moving on to witches, we have the least bad chapter. It reads like a crib from Brian Levack’s The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe but then so does everything else written about this for a general audience in the last ten years. Stark does completely murder Richard Kieckhefer’s research in European Witch Trials by naively assuming that it includes all witch trials that took place from 1300 to 1500 rather than just those for which Kieckhefer could find documentation. But otherwise he allows himself to be guided by competent authorities so the lack of primary material does not matter much. His major sin in this chapter is giving his readers the impression he is suggesting a new theory when is actually says nothing at all original.

Finally we reach the question of slavery. Stark does show some familiarity with the current literature in asserting that slavery is a more efficient economic system than wage earning workers. Slavery started because it worked and ended because societies were willing to make economic sacrifices to abolish it. He also unearths some interesting papal bulls that show the Catholic Church was opposed to slavery even if it could not do much about it. This remains largely unknown, for instance Diarmid MacColluch ignores these bulls in his discussion of New World slavery in his recent magnum opus Reformation. However, Stark tries to twist passages from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica into an unequivocal condemnation of slavery when it actually does not say this. Not quoting the passages and giving unclear references in the endnotes give serious concern that Stark is being altogether too 'whiggish'. While he is right to point to the Christian Quakers and Methodists as stalwarts against slavery, he does not explain why the Church of England had no such qualms or quite come to terms with the New Testament’s highly ambivalent attitude to the question. While it is true that Christians ended slavery because they were inspired by their religion, it is more difficult to maintain Christianity was abolitionist per se.

In short, this book is a lost opportunity. It suffers greatly from being written by a non-historian who is intent on putting only one side of the argument. Those interested in these topics would be better off reading individual monographs and should avoid quoting it if they wish there credibility to remain intact in the choppy waters of argument.

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James Hannam 2004.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009