Bums on pews

Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomena, Rodney Stark, Templeton Press

As religion supposedly declines in the West, those on the outside increasingly want to understand why belief persists. Rodney Stark’s book is not a work of apologetics. It doesn’t aim to explain why God must exist (this isn’t Stark’s immediate concern), but rather why exactly people might come to believe in God. It is a work of sociology, refreshingly free of jargon, which will still illuminate much for those of us within the walls of churches.

In summary, he argues that religions are not fundamentally irrational. We all want explanations for the way the world works, and historically there has been a supernatural element to this. If we are convinced of the supernatural it then makes some sense to interact with this other world, to gain favour for this worldly experience, as well as for a possible next world. We gain these rewards through worship and obedience.

As religions develop, mediators (priests) become needed, and there is an inevitable ritualization and organisation. Pluralism of gods whittles down to monotheism, which provides the best explanation and commands more loyalty, which in turn leads to moral control. Close relationships, especially familial, are important for recruitment and growth of the religion. Miracles help to legitimise the claims of religions’ founders.

In time, religions become more liberal, initially to attract more members, but it is actually the stricter (to use Stark’s term) religions that are growing. Breakaways happen, religions are reinvigorated, or new religions created. There is a tendency to try and monopolise religion (as in the Middle Ages or Revolutionary France) but this is usually counterproductive. Counterintuitively, even for sociologists, our own pluralistic society might be healthy for getting bums on pews, because of the competition involved in attracting followers.

Much of this is sound reasoning, and is confirmed by a reading of the Bible. But no doubt some of this will be disputed, and Christians too might feel the need to debate Stark, at least in their heads, particularly when it comes to his conflation of rigidity of theology and degree of passion. One can be lazily conservative, just as one can be passionately concerned with liberal causes. It also can’t be true that ‘most’ Christians don’t think Jesus is coequal to God, especially when the growth of Christianity is happening in conservative, non-first world settings. And, despite his professed best intentions, his conservative personal ‘preferences’ seep through. He has a typically conservative American aversion to suggestions that justice might be relevant to society’s economic structures too.

Stark has an admirable passion, bordering on the combative, for correcting past sociologists of religion, including his younger self. It may seem oxymoronic, as Stark notes, but there has been a long-lived fashion in the field for talking of religion without reference to God, or gods and the supernatural, in favour of evolutionary or Freudian theories. Stark aims to put God back into the centre of religion. Even most Buddhists admit the supernatural, he says, despite folklore that suggests they are atheistic. This is a particular emphasis of Stark’s, but the book roams much wider.

I do wonder where Jesus fits into Stark’s theorising. It is not quite true, as is often suggested, that Jesus was dismissive of religion; it was rather that he criticised ossified religion. But Jesus often gives categorisations the slip. Stark suggests miracles and visions are often key to attracting followers of religion, but Jesus, rather than espousing mystical theology, talked in riddles and favoured practical applications of faith, such as clothing and feeding the poor. He was a miracle worker, according to scriptural and even non-Christian sources, but didn’t seem to want to publicise the fact. And what might Stark say about Jacques Ellul’s assertion that Jesus was entirely unconcerned with morality? Jesus seems to dismiss ritual, societal standing and detailed explanations of why the world is as it is, largely because these tend to get in the way of compassion.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church’s Journey magazine.)