Finally got around to reading celebrated academic Rodney Stark‘s “The Rise of Christianity,” and I’m sorry I waited so long. Give yourself the gift of Stark this Christmas: published in 1996, “Rise” is one of the most influential and exciting studies of early Christianity ever written. It doesn’t address the question of God’s existence, per se, but it does make belief seem entirely rational.
Stark’s goal was to use the tools of modern social science to explain how a movement that at Jesus’ death had a few hundred members could become, within three centuries, the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Good question, right?
First, using available sources and common sense, he quantifies the problem. At the cross, Jesus is deserted. The Book of Acts is unclear on the point, but a generous assumption is there were 1,000 Christians in the years immediately after the crucifixion. By 350, after Constantine’s conversion, there may have been 34 million Christians. Simple math (which had apparently never been done before) shows a required growth rate of 40% per decade from 40 to 350 C.E. Impossible? Stark points out this is the same growth rate enjoyed by the Mormons in the 20th century.
Second, he slips in a surprising quiver of iconoclastic arrows under the guise of showing how the movement grew so fast. To sum up his dazzling counterpunches, each the subject of an essay in the book, Stark’s early Christianity:
- Appealed mainly to the relatively affluent, rather than the poor
- Had a strong appeal to women and proto-feminists
- Drew converts more successfully from Hellenized Jews, rather than gentiles
- Thrived among the urban, transient populations of big cities, rather than in rural areas
- Benefitted from the chaos of the time
- Helped cult members live through epidemics
- Got great PR from the hideous deaths of the early martyrs
- Finally, was turbocharged by the weak, undemanding, pluralistic and optional nature of the reigning pagan cults
Stark’s project is to build a bridge between social science and Christian history, which had been at odds, mainly because religious historians had a triumphalist view of their faith, while social scientists were put off by the apparent “irrationality” of religious types (cf. Freud).
But no more: Stark made his name in the 1980’s showing that religious and cult affiliations can be explained as the reasonable choices of rational economic actors making the best selection they can from available options. As the champion of so-called “Rational Choice Theory,” described in books such as “A Theory of Religion,” written with William Sims Bainbridge, Stark has done much to dispel the myth of the crazy convert.
Setting the stage, Stark describes a field experiment he and a colleague, John Lofland, conducted in the 1960’s among the Moonies of northern California. They observed that converts were almost never total outsiders: most had some social or blood tie to a cult member. And new converts embraced the doctrines of the church only after they joined.
To extend the analogy to early Christianity: People didn’t sign up because they were impressed by the Trinity or the Incarnation, but because their sister-in-law was. Ties to the cult outweighed ties elsewhere. Conversion was social, then theological.
“Conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and family members.”
More on this next time …