Stark Truth Continues

Rodney "Chuckles" Stark

Continuing our discussion of Rodney Stark’s super-mondo book from the 1990’s, “The Rise of Christianity” — the discussion in which I get to do all the discussing, as is my preferred interpersonal method, — I’ll remind both of you that it’s in some ways an “outsider” work: a sociologist bringing the perspective of modern sociology to the study of the first few centuries of the Jesus movement.

Stark observes that people convert to new cults when they have relatively fewer meaningful social ties outside the cult than within. And converts tend to be “overwhelmingly from irreligious backgrounds.” When Stark studied the Moonies in 1960’s San Francisco, he noticed they had little success converting people away from other religions. Skeptics join cults.

And where do we find the most skeptics, ripe to sign up to some new movement whose members now include some old college bros? Among the affluent. Stark’s method is to write his unfolding argument as a set of propositions, such as: “Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the more privileged.” It’s not skepticism, per se, that makes people ripe for conversion but rather another corollary of affluence and education: interest in new cultures and ideas. In a word, curiosity.

Sociology reminds us just how sheeplike we are. At the moment when I feel I’m making my most bold and original statements, some sociologist shows up to prove I’m doing just what’s expected. Here I am — curator of The God Project Dot Net — a religious skeptic from an affluent background endowed with a natural curiosity, with social ties to the Roman Catholic church, and what do I do? Become a Roman Catholic. Baa baa.

Back to Stark. Using an econo-sociological language that seems odd — and oddly beautiful — applied to spiritual themes, he talks about “religious compensators,” which are analogous to money, i.e., something people want they are willing to pay for. His principles are (paraphrasing): poor people accept religious compensators for things that are scarce (like, say, status and wealth), but anybody may accept them for things nobody gets (like eternal life or justice).

“Regardless of power, persons and groups will tend to accept religious compensators for rewards that do not exist in this world.”

Religions like Christianity reframe death as its opposite: eternal life. To the extent people fear their own non-existence, they may buy into religion regardless of personal wealth. Which fits nicely with my own pet idea that Darwin didn’t cause secularism — antibiotics did. People who don’t fear death aren’t buying what religion offers.

Stark paints a picture of the first-century Roman world as religiously anemic, secular and accommodating. Roman religion was something like mainline Christianity in America today: very undemanding. From whom little is demanded, little is surrendered. People get what they give and religious groups full of twice-yearly non-participants aren’t giving much.

Which leads, of course, to another proposition:

“New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.”

Jews in the diaspora, Hellenized by Alexander’s empire, living in a secular culture untaxed by the pagan gods, were ripe for a new movement that demanded active, full-bodied participation. We might say the same of secular people in the U.S. today being rich targets for conversion to evangelical churches which (believe me) are a lot more demanding/giving than those empty-pewed mainstream parishes.

The sociological proposition is that groups rely on the freely donated efforts of their members to thrive. They also are hurt by “free riders” — that is, people who like the benefits but won’t contribute. Stark’s insight is that it’s actually the most demanding groups that do best by raising the bar for membership so high free riders go away. Think about modern evangelical churches: they demand Sundays, of course, but also want you to do Bible study, prayer groups, personal ministries, job fairs, basketball coaching, member outreach, phone answering, brownie baking, party going with your kids and their friends, set-up and clean-up, donations … it never ends. People who stay in such groups tend to give a lot, which means they also get a lot from the others. So it was, Stark believes, among the early Christians.

And then, of course, we get to the women … next time. Happy holidays.


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