Friday, August 1, 2003

FOR THE GLORY OF GOD by Rodney Stark

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

God has gone missing. Over the past couple of decades, critics and parents have decried the way that school textbooks have been purged of references to the role of religious belief in the shaping of America's major social movements, from William Bradford's "errand in the wilderness" to Martin Luther King's Montgomery bus boycott—all in the name of "neutrality" toward religion.

Earlier this year, God went missing from the proposed wording for the European Union's constitution. There remains a veiled reference to Europe's "cultural, religious, and humanist heritage," but there is nothing to suggest that there ever was a European "Christendom" or that the continent's history was shaped by ideas derived from Christian theology.

And in newsrooms, reporters regularly ignore the religious commitments and understandings that explain why people take risks and make sacrifices for the causes they believe in.

God is also missing in certain sectors of academe. In For the Glory of God, University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark offers a corrective to the work of sociologists and historians who downplay, despise, or dispute the role that belief in God has played in shaping history.

At the hinge-points of history, people take risks or invest their energies in ways that cannot be explained simply in terms of self-interest. Not that certain historians and social scientists don't try—trying to reduce, for example, our understanding of the War Between the States as a form of economic conflict between an agricultural South and an industrial North.

But Stark has lost patience with these scholars, and in this latest book, he takes four major chapters from our cultural history and shows that a belief in God—nay, a belief in the God of Christian theology—was a necessary condition for these developments. "Moral fervor," Stark writes, "is the fundamental topic of this entire book: the potent capacity of monotheism, and especially Christianity, to activate extraordinary episodes of faith that have shaped Western civilization."

Extraordinary episodes
Stark doesn't argue so much the virtues of Western civilization as the fact (yes, fact, not theory) that you cannot understand Western civ without reference to Christian theology and the way that it fertilized the soil in which those "extraordinary episodes" grew. The book focuses on four episodes: (1) the efforts at church reform that culminated in the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, (2) the rise of modern science, (3) the fabled witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, and (4) the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.

In each case, Stark shows that a belief in a great God who makes moral demands and who rewards and punishes in the afterlife is an essential component of what happened. Think about church reform: What if the church had been polytheistic in the manner of Hinduism or perhaps ancient Greece? What if the church had taught then, as Paul Tillich did in the 20th century, that there was a divine principle (but not a passionate personal God) at the base of all reality? Would precursors of the Reformation—Peter Waldo, Jan Hus, John Wyclif, Henry the Monk, and Arnold of Brescia—have taken the enormous personal and political risks they did to bring about change if they had worshiped a philosophical principle or the capricious residents of Mount Olympus?

But Christian monotheism can indeed provide the impetus for such risk-takers, says Stark. "Just as monotheists know the identity of the One True God, they also know the One True Way in which their faith should be practiced." Thus there lies an "urge for monopoly…with all, or nearly all, monotheistic factions." Whether a religious monopoly actually develops depends entirely on the strength of power structures. When no one faction has sufficient power, religious pluralism is likely. But when any one monotheistic faction consolidates power, state churches, with all of the attendant history of repression, are the normal state of affairs.

Stark's analysis of the "Reformation" (he uses quotation marks because the Protestant movement was unsuccessful in its direct attempts at the theological and structural reform of the Catholic Church) focuses on a variety of factors that contributed to the adoption of Protestantism in some areas and its rejection in others. Stark believes that Protestantism's theological appeal "mattered enormously." But that appeal was a constant across Europe. So Protestantism's adoption or rejection in various areas has to be correlated with other, more variable factors:

How responsive was the government to popular pressure? Responsive governments in 16th-century Europe tended to go Protestant. How strong was Catholic influence in a given area? Beyond the Rhine, where evangelization had often consisted of adding a Christian gloss to a pagan culture, there was little popular resistance to the Protestant message. But below the Rhine, where the people had been thoroughly Catholicized, the peasants resisted Protestantism despite its adoption by some élites. What was the economic benefit of adopting Protestantism? What was the degree of royal interest in remaining Catholic? Such information would have helped a dispassionate observer predict whether a country would accept Protestantism.

Orderly God, orderly universe
Starks's second case is the rise of science. The argument that Christian theology provided the framework for the rise of science is a familiar one: Medieval scholastics laid down a philosophical base of belief in an orderly universe created by an orderly God. In the centuries that followed, keen minds observed that order, described it mathematically, and articulated the laws of the physical world. Some of these minds (Isaac Newton, especially) were as occupied with the study of religion as they were of science.

What will be less familiar is Stark's argument that Christian theology was a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for the rise of science. As Stark points out, "science arose only once in history—in medieval Europe" and "science could only arise in a culture dominated by belief in a conscious, rational, all-powerful Creator." Other civilizations with different religious frameworks also produced keen observers of the natural order.

The Chinese, for example, had an advanced civilization and were keen observers of the stars. But neither Chinese philosophy nor grassroots Chinese religion prompted that culture's scholars to ask why things happen and to look for a rational and predictable order.

The Greeks as well were observers of the natural order, but once again their conceptions of the gods prevented them from imagining a conscious Creator, and their animism and polytheism prompted them to attribute motives to inanimate objects rather than to search for physical theories. Islamic philosophy essentially devoted itself to elaborating Aristotle and classical Greek learning, thus missing the opportunity that Christian thinkers took.

Stark thus concludes that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion. Like others before him, he trashes the argument of Andrew Dixon White's two-volume A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) and those who perpetuated White's antireligious smear campaign. He concludes his chapter with the 1969 study that showed a solid majority of scientists are religious and that these scientists attend church more regularly than the general population. An appendix then categorizes the religious commitments of the scientific stars of the 16th through the 18th centuries. Of 52 scientific pioneers, more than half were devout, more than a third were conventionally religious, and less than 4 percent were religious skeptics.

Deducing Faust
The book's third case study is witch-hunts. If church reform and scientific thinking were beneficial plants sprouted in the soil of Christian theology, witch-hunts were decidedly less desirable. But even in this chapter there is good news: While scholarly apologists for Wicca and other feminist religion have claimed that as many as 9 million European women were burned as witches, Stark tots up the work of the more careful scholars and finds that the number of both men and women executed for witchcraft between 1450 and 1750 was closer to 60,000—still a great number and a greater tragedy, but hardly the mythical millions of popular discourse.

Stark loves Christian reason, but in the case of witch-hunts, he sees the power of the false premise. Church leaders tried "to provide a logical explanation of why non-Church magic 'worked.'" This led them to "confuse magic and religion and to deduce that people must be selling their souls to Satan. … People kept doing magic, and the Church kept misinterpreting it as satanism."

The key distinction here is between simple magic (which draws on the reputed powers of natural elements) and witchcraft or Satanism (which draws on the powers of supernatural beings). The church officially condemned magic, but in an era when physicians were dangerous to your health, Christian villagers still sought help from "wise" women whose healing practices were less likely to kill their patients. Because Christians would not give up such magic, the church often provided Christian counterparts to pagan magic, just as Bibleman is a Christian counterpart to DC Comics' pagan superheroes.

However, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, there was substantial conflict among religious groups, and a general withdrawal of tolerance for religious nonconformity. Churchmen and university scholars confused non-church magic with religion and misinterpreted it as Satanism, suggests Stark. In this atmosphere, there arose almost simultaneously a spate of heresy trials, witch-hunts, and anti-Semitic incidents. All of this happened only on Christian soil, because other religious cultures did not construe magic as evidence of a Faustian bargain. Unfortunately, Stark fails to mention that eventual condemnation of the witch-hunts also arose out of Christian theology.

Bathilde's passion
Stark's final case study makes us prouder: the abolition of slavery. "Just as science arose only once, so, too, did effective moral opposition to slavery," writes Stark. "Christian theology was essential to both."

By "Christian theology" Stark does not mean straightforward biblical teaching. Indeed, that teaching condoned certain aspects of slavery and simply tried to moderate its more destructive consequences. But "Christian theology" is sustained, rational reflection on the implications of the Scriptures. And it was such critical pious thinking about God's creation and redemption of human beings that set the stage for the abolition movements.

One common claim is that the Roman Catholic Church did not repudiate slavery until 1890. "Nonsense!" exclaims Stark, as he unfolds the story of Catholic opposition to slavery, beginning with the 7th-century saint Bathilde (wife of Clovis II). Subsequent thinkers such as Anselm and Aquinas made the theological case against slavery, and a series of popes in the 15th and 16th centuries issued bulls condemning the institution.

The true story is not a tale of church indifference, but of papal weakness. Although the Counter-Reformation Pope Paul III issued three condemnations, he was so weak politically that his pronouncements could not be read in Spanish territory without the king's permission. So it was that the economic engines of Spain and Portugal, and not church teaching, determined the course of slavery in the West Indies and Brazil.

The Quakers shine in Stark's account of anti-slavery movements, but the Church of England's record is severely stained.

Christian theologians had to think their way around the biblical materials on slavery to construct an argument against it. Islam's teachings of human equality (which appealed so potently to Malcolm X) should have provided the ground for a similar rejection of slavery. But the historical fact that "Muhammad bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves" effectively blocked Islam's interpreters from reasoning their way to abolition.

Data trumps Durkheim
Stark's analysis is a curious blend of social science and history. One virtue of his social scientific approach is a hunger for data: thus his eager debunking of distortions and exaggerations by religion's ideological enemies.

Social science began with a misunderstanding of religion, and Stark is fighting an uphill battle. Social science pioneer Emile Durkheim believed that religion was not about God or the gods, but was about rituals that bound the individual to society. By putting ritual above beliefs about the supernatural, Durkheim started social science on a road that led from absurdity to absurdity. "Eventually this line of analysis 'bottomed out' in such silliness as Rodney Needham's denial of the existence of any 'interior state' that might be called religious belief and S.R.F. Price's claim that religious belief is a purely Christian invention, so that when 'primitives' pray for things, they don't really mean it."

"So, then," Stark concludes, "let us finally be done with the claim that religion is all about ritual. Gods are the fundamental feature of religions." This is a sociology of religion that takes seriously what people believe. Stark knows that beliefs have consequences. They can even change the course of history. And in the book's final sentence, Stark claims that in the ways he describes, "Western civilization really was God-given."


  1. Sounds like interesting and brave book. I just found the references to Islam shocking. Does not the author know the fact that Muslims developed incredible science during the medieval ages, which was also passed to Europe? Does he not know that Muhammad encouraged freeing of slaves and he freed his slave, and did not have one? Sad that bias taints this book. You need not disparage another monotheistic faith to praise Christianity's effect on Europe.

  2. also reminds me the comment of a Muslim scholar, Said Nursi, who said that all the good things of European civilization is connected to the truths of Christianity...