Discovering God

By Rodney Stark, 2007

This is a very nice and readable introduction to the history of religion for those with no prior knowledge of the subject.  Stark discusses the studies of anthropologists on primitive religions, giving particular emphasis to the findings of Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt, which suggest that the most primitive religions include belief in a supreme (“High”) God, and they are neither crude nor amoral.  Stark reviews the major world religions, focusing particularly on the archeological and historical evidence regarding their origins.  Unlike most sociologists of religion, Stark seems to delight in showing ancient scriptures to be more reliable than their ill-informed nineteenth and twentieth century detractors.  So, for example, some used to say, with supreme confidence backed by no evidence whatsoever, that Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad never really existed, or that our records of them are totally unreliable.  Stark marshals the evidence to put these claims to rest.  In discussing primitive, historical, or modern believers, he always questions explanations that assume the people in question to be total idiots.  He also likes to attack popular misconceptions, for example by showing that pagans and Muslims could be just as hostile to Jews as Christians could be.

The limitations of this book come from the ideas Stark does use to explain religious history.  I appreciate his respect for believers.  (Stark seems to be a deist himself.)   One of his recurring claims is that humanity might not be just inventing new conceptions of an imaginary God, but rather discovering better conceptions of a real God; some at least of his subjects, he says, might have had genuine revelations.  The actual explanatory apparatus used in the book, though, suggests that people tend to accept whatever image of God is most psychologically appealing or socially advantageous.  These are the reasons he gives, for example, for the triumphs of polytheism and of Christianity.  Stark is also big on economic models of religion, and he thinks that religions are only healthy in a pluralist environment, where they are forced to compete with rival religions.  Of course, there can be little evidence of this from pre-modern societies, since, for example, the ancient Babylonians and the medieval Catholics didn’t carry out surveys to see if they were really as godless as Stark thinks they were.  More importantly, I think he concerns himself too much with agitation and proclamation, not enough on taken-for-granted belief.  For example, nobody doubts that it’s wrong to eat babies, and so nobody talks about it.  People would only start loudly embracing this belief if other people were to publicly question it.  What established religions have going for them is this sense of being part of the eternal order of the world and being infused in every part of public life.  One objections Stark notes is that Western Europe is today a godless place even though freedom for religious entrepreneurship is officially allowed.  He replies by citing a study by Grim and Finke which rates countries by their degree of religious freedom and lack of favoritism for one religion.  They find most European countries to be no freer or more neutral than Afghanistan.  To me, this suggests that the index being used is crazy.  I could only justify it by claiming that atheism is as established in the EU as Islam is in Afghanistan, and unfortunately establishment doesn’t seem to do any harm to atheism.

2 Responses

  1. […] Discovering God by Rodney Stark […]

  2. […] among Muslims (now impossible to avoid noticing), pagans (see, e.g. Rodney Stark’s book Discovering God), and secular nationalists makes it less […]

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