The Scientist Who Showed Us the Great Good Jesus Has Done for the World
“In your seed,” God told Abraham after severely testing him and his son Isaac on a mountaintop, “shall all nations of the world be blessed.”
Christians recognize this promise as pointing to Jesus of Nazareth, the “seed” of Abraham who would bring salvation to the world. But how much did the life of Jesus really bless humanity?
“Not much,” many young people suppose, after taking history as it is typically taught in modern schools. They come to believe that Christ mainly brought the world trouble, from the so-called “Dark Ages” when the Church supposedly stifled freedom and scientific discovery, to abortion restrictions in red states today.
In novels by Margaret Atwood, atheistic tracts from Richard Dawkins or Bertrand Russell, and even my students’ essays, I see that answer almost everywhere: that Christianity has cursed, not blessed, humanity.
But facts are stubborn things, and the late Rodney Stark, the great sociologist of religion, did as much to reveal the true impact Christianity had as anyone.
Sociology of Religion: Dr. Stark’s Vital Work
Dr. Stark taught sociology at the University of Washington for 32 years. He passed away last summer. In a eulogy on the department website, Ulrika O’Brien wrote: “It’s not too much of an exaggeration to claim that he single-handedly altered the direction, tenor, and importance of the sociology of religion.”
Dr. Stark’s ambition, throughout his short time on earth (88 years), came to be to tell the story of religions better than it had been told before.
Stark’s early work was commonly cited, approvingly, by skeptics, but as he researched, studied and learned, his views changed. He came to be held in high esteem by Christian thinkers like Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Missions and principal creator of the widely-known Perspectives on World Mission course.
Stark saw himself as a careful scientist. But his research drew him to Christ. As he told me late in his career: “It began to make more and more sense, and here I am.”
His work remains vital, especially in these days, when the world is less interested in asking, “Is Christianity true?” than, “Is it good?”
Dr. Stark’s ambition, throughout his short time on earth (88 years), came to be to tell the story of religions better than it had been told before, and to defend western civilization from those he saw as the foes of a noble tradition.
Most Scholars Have a ‘Stark-Shaped Gap’
Scholars are sometimes classified as “foxes,” racing from one field to another, or “hedgehogs,” burrowing deeply into one topic for a lifetime. Stark was a prototypical fox. In his enthusiasm for “the big picture,” he could sometimes overlook details. He has been criticized over details, for example in his work on Christianity’s contribution to early science.
Still, when I read more recent literature on the origin of man and faith, I often find it suffering what you might call a “Stark-shaped gap.” Most secular historians seem blind to the early man’s awareness of the Creator God, which Stark recognized and documented.
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Many scholars have lately abandoned the idea of a “Dark Ages” after the fall of the Roman Empire. Stark went further. He not only showed that people often lived better when the coliseums, pyramids and slave markets of “great empires” crumbled to the ground. He showed how faith in God allowed Jews, then Christians, to begin restoring fractured pieces from the fallen empire, and to build a new and better world from the rubble.
The western world looks like it needs patching up once again! Surely the faith that inspired Gothic cathedrals can teach us more about rebuilding our world than whatever ideology from hell inspired “blobitecture.” So read Stark’s books! Let me recommend five:
1. The Rise of Christianity
The Rise of Christianity first caught my attention from a review in Newsweek. Stark wrote this as a non-believer, but he researched and wrote it honestly. He seemed to show everything from a new perspective, backing his conclusions with a wealth of facts.
No, early Christians were not especially poor. Actually, Jews did not all reject Jesus, but converted in great numbers. Believers cared for the sick, often saving their lives. So the epidemics that periodically wracked the Roman Empire led to a higher survival rate among those who received that care, leading to an expansion of Christianity. Women also played a big role, in part because the Gospel was in fact good to them.
2. For the Glory of God
Stark continued his account of Christianity into the Middle Ages and beyond in several later books, of which my favorite is For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. With a sub-title that long and descriptive, I probably don’t need to say much more about this book except that it is excellent!
Stark’s long, detailed chapters on the role Christianity played in the rise of science and the end of human trafficking are each worth the price of the book. It was not religion in general that “set the captives free”: Islam’s founder, Mohammed, took slaves for himself. And the modern abolition movement was not even the first time Christianity threw off slavery: the institution almost disappeared from western Europe during the so-called “Dark Ages.”
During an interview I had with him, Stark mentioned a book he was then completing: God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. He told me that his books were usually well-reviewed. With a title like that of this new book, I suggested, the favorable reviews might end:
“They might bring back witch-hunting.”
To which Stark replied:
“Yeah, well, I don’t give a d***.”
It’s good that he didn’t. Myths surrounding the Crusades are too many and too powerful to strike down with any hesitant sort of thrust. And indeed, Stark himself took few prisoners. “Muslim or Arab culture was largely an illusion,” he claimed, arguing that even within “Islamic culture,” the innovation came mostly from Christian and Jewish underlings. Claims from Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Edward Gibbon that Christendom of the time was barbaric, were in fact “malicious” and “astonishingly ignorant.”
God’s Battalions is not a book you are likely to find in your local library’s book club. Read it critically, not taking each and every claim for Gospel — but do read it.
4. Discovering God
Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief gives the prehistoric “back story” on religions’ rise. What I found particularly interesting in this book was Stark’s take-down of the Sphinx. Great civilizations left us spectacular monuments, like pyramids, ziggurats, and tombs with terracotta warriors. But they were uninventive, tyrannical, and miserable for the hungry, disease-ridden masses living in subjection to the “divine” Pharaoh or Caesar. In their shadow, even the misnamed “Dark Ages” of Christian civilization, when people ripped off their chains, come out looking surprisingly bright and cheerful.
5. Acts of Faith
Finally, for those who hunger for raw sociological theory from a master, try Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, with co-author Roger Finke. The irony of this book is contained in its first words: “Until quite recently there was very little science in the social scientific study of religion. As a child of the ‘Enlightenment,’ social science was birthed with the conviction that religion was not only false but wicked and best gotten rid of as soon as possible.”
The book is scientific, rational and evidence-based. At the same time it is also fundamentally respectful towards “religion.” Stark (I don’t know about Finke) rejected the common error of confusing the “Enlightenment” with “science.” And he was well able to describe the human side of religion without making another common error: setting aside the possibility of God’s involvement.
The Most Liberating Force in History
Stark came to see himself as a Christian, yet still found some value in what other Christians might call “cults,” explaining to me, for instance, that he was happy if “Moonies” could learn from the principles he taught. But he also threw scare quotes around the word “Enlightenment.” He saw the powerful secular myths about the “Enlightenment,” as the real foe.
He was a happy warrior, facing off against vast secular forces he regarded with disdain, his sharp lance of truth skewering the pagan hoards, like Godfrey taking sacred Jerusalem.
Thus Rodney Stark helps answer the first questions that the world now asks of Christians. “Are your beliefs good? Do they liberate or enslave?” Stark shows that the Gospel of Jesus may be the most liberating force in all human history.
“Rod” Stark, as he signed emails, was also a lively conversationalist. In my next article, I will provide a sample from our interview.
David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia.