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?