Category Archives: Sociology of Religion

More Stark Truth — or Why Early Christian Women Preferred Not to Marry Greco-Roman Dorks

Before we were interrupted by the Little Baby Jesus, we were closing out a monologue on the socio-religious tour-de-force that is Rodney Stark’s 1996 study, “The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.”

So, how did it? To recap, Stark examines religion as a social phenomenon — because he’s a sociologist, yes, but also because he believes conversion itself is a social act. People don’t join new cults because they admire a dogma but rather “to align their religious status with that of their friends and relatives who already belong.” Early Christianity was more like Facebook than an Evangelical Lutheran Church of Minnesota sermon.

In economic terms, religion is a “collectively produced commodity” that gains in value as members give more. High barriers to entry help eliminate “free riders” and encourage members to contribute. “Sacrifice and stigma mitigate the free-rider problems faced by religious groups,” he says. “Commitment is energy.”

Early martyrs — who could become quite famous as a result of their witness — blasted a furious message in the desert sands that Christianity had the very highest value, at least to a few. What more can we give than our lives?

In its first few centuries, the Jesus movement also benefitted from weak and pluralistic pagan religion, which allowed gods to accumulate without demanding real loyalty (except as a political matter). And its primary appeal, Stark argues, would have been to Hellenized Jews stuck between their own tentative Judaism and a spiritually disappointing Greco-Roman culture.

Stark’s silver bullet is his persuasive appeal to common sense. He’s a radical demystifier. Turns out people join groups, including religions, for pretty good reasons: they know people, they’re not otherwise engaged, there aren’t a lot of freeloaders hanging around drinking their coffee.

And — in a fascinating section — Stark shows how the Jesus movement actually had dramatic health benefits. Plagues were frequent in the absurdly crowded, walled cities of the time, as were natural disasters. Drawing on the work of historians William H. McNeill and Hans Zinsser, Stark shows how basic medical care (washing clothes, providing water, pep talks) alone can raise survival rates 30%. Better neighbors, Christians emerged from chaos stronger than pagans, who tended to be self-centered in dark times:

“When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival.”

Since the 1950s, sociologists such as Anthony F. C. Wallace noted that new religions often emerge from crises, as people watch the vivid failure of what we corporate cogsters call Business As Usual (BAU). Christianity was fresh and had a set of tenets that “made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death.”

Then there were the women. Famously, Stark argues that pre-Constantinian Christianity was actually appealing to women. To understand this point, we must ramjet back to the first- and second-century Mediterranean world. Whoosh. With me?

Greco-Roman families didn’t want girls and treated their YY-chromosomed spares to infanticide (something condoned by both Plato and Aristotle). Men in that world “found it difficult to relate to women,” and didn’t want to marry. (Sound familiar?) Fertility declined, as did the percentage of women in the population. Women who did marry became baby mills, which often killed them. Abortion often killed both mother and child.

Now contrast our early Jesus freaks. Like most Jews, they disallowed infanticide and abortion. Girl babies lived, and fewer mothers (also female) died. Giving oneself to Christ as a virgin — that is, staying happily single — was an acceptable life choice. And women have always had more influence on their family’s social life: when a Christian woman married a pagan man, it wasn’t the woman who changed teams.

Over decades, the proportion of women in the Christian population grew. This had a virtuous effect, as Stark, citing the work of Guttentag and Secord (1983), argues that women have more freedom in cultures where they are not a “scarce commodity,” as they were in the Greco-Roman world.

A final note on Stark’s so-called “Rational Choice Theory” of religion, which is described more fully in other works and is baked into “Rise.”

The late Christopher Hitchens once told The Onion he didn’t think Catholics really believed Jesus’ mother was a virgin, and I think he’s right. I’ve a notion it’s a dirty, silent secret of most believers in God (including myself) that there are specific tenets of our particular creed we do not, in fact, believe. We never admit this; but we know it.

I’m sure many Catholics doubt the virgin birth, as I’m sure many Mormons may doubt that a figure named Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the location of the gold tablets that have disappeared. Yet it’s still entirely rational for us to join the Catholic (or LDS) Church. Why?

As Stark might say, putting things in the balance, the good outweighs the bad. We sign up for a social network from which we get a lot, and give a lot, and that’s worth more than a whisper of hypocrisy. Right?


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.

The Stark Truth

Finally got around to reading celebrated academic Rodney Stark‘s “The Rise of Christianity,” and I’m sorry I waited so long. Give yourself the gift of Stark this Christmas: published in 1996, “Rise” is one of the most influential and exciting studies of early Christianity ever written. It doesn’t address the question of God’s existence, per se, but it does make belief seem entirely rational.

Stark’s goal was to use the tools of modern social science to explain how a movement that at Jesus’ death had a few hundred members could become, within three centuries, the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Good question, right?

First, using available sources and common sense, he quantifies the problem. At the cross, Jesus is deserted. The Book of Acts is unclear on the point, but a generous assumption is there were 1,000 Christians in the years immediately after the crucifixion. By 350, after Constantine’s conversion, there may have been 34 million Christians. Simple math (which had apparently never been done before) shows a required growth rate of 40% per decade from 40 to 350 C.E. Impossible? Stark points out this is the same growth rate enjoyed by the Mormons in the 20th century.

Second, he slips in a surprising quiver of iconoclastic arrows under the guise of showing how the movement grew so fast. To sum up his dazzling counterpunches, each the subject of an essay in the book, Stark’s early Christianity:

  • Appealed mainly to the relatively affluent, rather than the poor
  • Had a strong appeal to women and proto-feminists
  • Drew converts more successfully from Hellenized Jews, rather than gentiles
  • Thrived among the urban, transient populations of big cities, rather than in rural areas
  • Benefitted from the chaos of the time
  • Helped cult members live through epidemics
  • Got great PR from the hideous deaths of the early martyrs
  • Finally, was turbocharged by the weak, undemanding, pluralistic and optional nature of the reigning pagan cults

Stark’s project is to build a bridge between social science and Christian history, which had been at odds, mainly because religious historians had a triumphalist view of their faith, while social scientists were put off by the apparent “irrationality” of religious types (cf. Freud).

But no more: Stark made his name in the 1980’s showing that religious and cult affiliations can be explained as the reasonable choices of rational economic actors making the best selection they can from available options. As the champion of so-called “Rational Choice Theory,” described in books such as “A Theory of Religion,” written with William Sims Bainbridge, Stark has done much to dispel the myth of the crazy convert.

Setting the stage, Stark describes a field experiment he and a colleague, John Lofland, conducted in the 1960’s among the Moonies of northern California. They observed that converts were almost never total outsiders: most had some social or blood tie to a cult member. And new converts embraced the doctrines of the church only after they joined.

To extend the analogy to early Christianity: People didn’t sign up because they were impressed by the Trinity or the Incarnation, but because their sister-in-law was. Ties to the cult outweighed ties elsewhere. Conversion was social, then theological.

Stark says:

“Conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and family members.”

More on this next time …

Durkheim for Dummies

Ponticulating in the pews last Sunday — don’t look it up: I invented that word, — a question occurred. Who, exactly, are we worshipping?

Stick with me here. It gets delirious.

Yes, we’re quite clear it’s the Christ (a title, not a name) who rose on the third day “in fulfillment of the scriptures.” And yes, we’re all pointing forward at a big statue of Mary, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to the tamale-like Salma Hayek.

And yet, Emile Durkheim had a better idea. He’s a sociologist, not a theologian, who sifted through the same reports from aboriginal Australia as Sigmund Freud did to mash up his hilarious Totem and Taboo.

Durkheim was more systematic than Freud, and probably closer to the truth. In fact, his theory of religion is one believers should avoid, because it crawls into your combat zone and makes going to church more ambiguous.

What? Durkheim worked in the late 19th century and emphasized the causal role society plays on individual action. Religion, he said, is “an eminently social thing.” His point seems obvious, probably because he told us: People are far more acted upon than acting.

Two words: Baaa baaa!

Australian religions Durkheim knew worshipped “totems,” or symbolic objects representing animals and plants. In itself, the totem is worthless. It is endowed with sacred qualities by the tribe.

Here’s where it gets weird, bros. The tribe’s totem represented the tribe itself, in sacred form. The “cockatoo clan” identified itself with the cockatoo. The totem is identified with the cockatoo, but sacred.

Can you see where Durkheim’s going? Nobel Prize for you! Make it two — you’re a genius.

Take out the rock (or whatever the particular symbol of worship happens to be), and what are the cockatoo people actually doing?

Well? Ideas?

They’re worshipping THEMSELVES! For Durkheim, religion is an elaborate set of rituals whereby a society imbues ITSELF with sacred value. The particular “theology” behind these acts is so much smoke and mirrors: it has no reality.

Wow. If you’re like me, the moment I heard this bad boy, it was like a lovely explosion of yes. It feels like it could be right.

So back to St. Mary’s Basilica in Minneapolis last Sunday. We R.C.’s are looking at a man we are supposed to emulate. That man became us (human). The congregation is explicitly called the “body of Christ.” And we even have a “totem” in the Eucharist. Take out the packaged wafer with the cross on it and what have you got?

A thousand dour Minnesotans worshipping themselves.