Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion

Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion

by Rodney Stark

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Finally, social scientists have begun to attempt to understand religious behavior rather than to discredit it as irrational, ignorant, or foolish—and Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have played a major role in this new approach. Acknowledging that science cannot assess the supernatural side of religion (and therefore should not claim to do so), Stark and Finke


Finally, social scientists have begun to attempt to understand religious behavior rather than to discredit it as irrational, ignorant, or foolish—and Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have played a major role in this new approach. Acknowledging that science cannot assess the supernatural side of religion (and therefore should not claim to do so), Stark and Finke analyze the observable, human side of faith. In clear and engaging prose, the authors combine explicit theorizing with animated discussions as they move from considering the religiousness of individuals to the dynamics of religious groups and then to the religious workings of entire societies as religious groups contend for support. The result is a comprehensive new paradigm for the social-scientific study of religion.

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Acts of Faith

Explaining the Human Side of Religion

By Rodney Stark, Roger Finke


Copyright © 2000 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92434-5


A New Look at Old Issues

An immense intellectual shift is taking place in the social scientific study of religion. During the past few years, many of its most venerated theoretical positions—faithfully passed down from the famous founders of the field—have been overturned. The changes have become so dramatic and far-reaching that R. Stephen Warner identified them "as a paradigm shift in progress" (1993, 1044), an assessment that since then "has been spectacularly fulfilled," according to Andrew Greeley (1996, 1).

As is typical in science, the emergence of a new paradigm rests on both an empirical and a theoretical basis (Greeley 1996; Warner 1993). As described in the introduction, there has been a resurgence in research on religious topics and a substantial number of well-established facts have been accumulated. Most of these have turned out to be inconsistent with the old paradigm, and in response to the growing incompatibility between fact and traditional theory, new theories have been constructed to interpret the empirical literature. These incorporate new insights, some of them imported from other branches of social science.

Given that we have played an active part in empirical studies of religious phenomena and have led the way in developing new theories, it seemed appropriate to gather our many scattered works into an integrated and synthetic presentation. What follows is not, however, a collection of our recent essays. Rather, most of the chapters integrate a variety of studies, by us and by others, into what we hope are coherent syntheses reflecting our current positions. Indeed, we caution those most familiar with our publications not to assume that they already know what we have to say here.

This chapter contrasts elements of the new and old paradigms and, in doing so, serves as an overview of the remainder of the book.


In the beginning, religion was a central concern of social scientists. Adam Smith, David Hume, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Herbert Spencer, Edward Tyler, Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, Emile Durkheim, William James, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Carl Jung, and Sigmund Freud each wrote extensively about religious phenomena—a corpus of "theorizing" that was for generations the received wisdom on the subject. Indeed, although these founders of social science disagreed about many things, with the exception of Adam Smith, and to a lesser extent Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, there was remarkable consensus among them on key issues concerning religion.

First, it has been asserted that religion is false and harmful. It is claimed that religion harms the individual because it impedes rational thought and harms society because it sanctifies tyrants.

The introduction reviewed three centuries of claims that the causes of religion reside in abnormal psychology. Chapter 2 conclusively dismisses the thesis that religion is irrational. But of at least equal importance to the old paradigm is the claim that religion must always serve the ruling elite and facilitate exploitation of the masses. According to Marx and Engels, religion "is a great retarding force, is the vis inertiae of history" (1964, 313); as they put it in the Communist Manifesto, "the parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord" (1964, 89). Given the general acceptance of such views, it has been a virtual article of social scientific faith that religious movements typically are reactionary responses against enlightenment and progress. Thus, the recent growth of evangelical Protestant groups is dismissed as a "flight from modernity" by the contemporary heirs of the received wisdom (Bruce 1986; Hunter 1983; 1987)—that people who feel threatened by the erosion of traditional morality are flocking to religious havens. American evangelical Protestant churches "are like besieged fortresses, and their mood tends toward a militancy that only superficially covers an underlying sense of panic," according to Peter Berger (1969, 11).

A corollary of this line of analysis is that, in addition to being harmful, religion serves as a painkiller for frustration, deprivation, and suffering. The influential German sociologist Georg Simmel pronounced religion "a sedative for the turbulence of the soul" ([ca. 1905] 1959, 32). As Kingsley Davis explained:

[T]he ego can stand only a certain amount of frustration.... The culture that drives him to seek goals that he cannot reach also, for the sake of sanity, provides him with goals that anybody can reach. These are goals that transcend the world of actual experience, with the consequence that no evidence to attain them can be conclusive. If the individual believes he has gained them, that is sufficient. All he needs is sufficient faith, and faith feeds on subjective need. The greater his disappointment in this life, the greater his faith in the next. (Davis 1949, 532)

Marx put it rather more succinctly, identifying religion as opium, a view that prompted his collaborator Friedrich Engels to claim that early Christianity "first appeared as a religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated and dispersed by Rome" (Marx and Engels 1964, 316). Hence, the received wisdom: religion appeals most strongly to the lower classes.

The second key element of the old paradigm is that religion is doomed.

As the social sciences emerged in the wake of the "Enlightenment," the leading figures eagerly proclaimed the demise of religion. "The philosophers of the eighteenth century explained in a very simple manner the gradual decay of religious faith. Religious zeal, said they, must necessarily fail the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused," Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America ([1840] 1954, 2: 319).

This came to be known as the "secularization thesis": that in response to modernization, "religious institutions, actions, and consciousness, [will] lose their social significance" (Wilson 1982, 149). Tocqueville, as we shall see, was virtually alone in his rejection of the secularization thesis—perhaps no other social scientific prediction enjoyed such nearly universal acceptance for so long. "The evolutionary future of religion is extinction," Anthony F. C. Wallace, a prominent anthropologist, asserted in an undergraduate textbook. "Belief in supernatural beings and supernatural forces that affect nature without obeying nature's laws will erode and become only an interesting historical memory.... Belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as the result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge" (1966, 265).

A third basis of consensus among the founders of the social sciences was that religion is an epiphenomenon.

Despite imputing so many harmful effects to religion, the founders clung to the claim that religion was not "real"—that it was but a reflection of more fundamental social phenomena. "All religion ... is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men's minds of those external forces which control their daily lives," Marx and Engels explained ([1878] 1964, 16). In Marxist analysis, these external forces are variously the mode of production, nature, and "the forces of history." In similar fashion, in his famous study of suicide, although the topic of religion takes up a substantial portion of the book, Emile Durkheim ([1987] 1951) did not treat religion as something in itself, but only as an elaborate reflection of the more basic reality: degree of social integration (Stark and Bainbridge 1997). Seeking to explain why religious movements arise, Bryan Wilson invoked a litany of secular crises and disturbances:

Change in the economic position of a particular group ... disturbance of normal social relations ... industrialization and urbanization; the failure of the social system to accommodate particular age, sex and status groups.... Particular groups are rendered marginal by some process of social change.... Insecurity, differential status anxiety, cultural neglect, prompt a need for readjustment. (Wilson 1967, 31)

Over the decades, this tendency of social scientists always to seek more "fundamental"— that is, material and secular—causes of all things religious has become such a basic assumption that it is routinely invoked by the news media. Among the more common suggestions as to why evangelical churches grow are repressed sexuality, divorce, urbanization, racism, sexism, status anxieties, and rapid social change. Never do proponents of the old paradigm even explore possible religious explanations: for example, that people are drawn to the evangelical churches by a superior religious product. From their viewpoint, since all religions are false and all gods are imaginary, there can be no point in examining whether some religions are more plausible and satisfying than others. One surely need not be a believer to see the absurdity of this position—imagine applying it to science fiction novels or to horror movies.

Fourth, proponents of the old paradigm rarely examine religion as a social phenomenon, as a property of groups or collectivities; instead, they treat it as fundamentally psychological.

They often talk about religion in collective terms, but in the end they reduce it to mental states and do not use aggregate or group units of analysis. Discussions of sects, for example, typically devolve into studies of sectarian attitudes rather than comparisons of religious groups. Even when the object of study is a group (a specific sect, for example), the usual result is a case study utterly lacking in systematic comparisons with other groups. The founders of the social sciences rarely examined such things as the interplay among religious groups or variations in religious social structures across societies, and their heirs seldom do so either. Even the "obvious" exceptions to this claim turn out not to be very exceptional. Thus, when Durkheim devoted a book to the thesis that religion is, in effect, society worshipping itself, his research focused on the inner life of Australian aborigines, and his conclusions about such things as totemism would not have survived even rudimentary cross-cultural comparisons (Goldenweiser 1915; Runciman 1969; Evans-Pritchard 1981). Even when Max Weber attempted to trace the rise of capitalism to the "Protestant Ethic," he for the most part conceived of that ethic as a psychological property of individuals (Hamilton 1996)—although, quite unlike most of his peers, he did attempt to contrast several societies in terms of the presence of absence of this property. The writings of Marx and Engels on religion are also overwhelmingly psychological, despite their mandatory mentions of modes of production and social evolution. The complete version of Marx's most famous observation on this subject is typical: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people" ([1844] 1964, 11).

This tendency continues in the overwhelming preponderance in contemporary studies of research based on individuals rather than on groups. But no amount of surveys of individual opinions will reveal answers to questions such as why some new religions succeed, while most fail, or why rates of religious participation are so much higher in some societies than in others. These are not questions primarily about individuals and can only be answered adequately by reference to attributes of groups—in these instances, to attributes of new religions or of societies.

Finally, to the extent that the founders of the social sciences did take any interest in religion as part of a social system (rather than of the individual consciousness), their primary concern was to condemn the harmful effects of religious pluralism and to stress the superiority of monopoly faiths.

Only monopolies, it was asserted, can sustain the unchallenged authority on which all religions depend. This was, of course, merely a variant of the old atheistic principle that "all refute all." For, as Durkheim explained, where multiple religious groups compete, religion becomes open to question, dispute and doubt, and thereby "the less it dominates lives" ([1897] 1951, 159). Even with the contrary American example staring them in the face, those committed to the old paradigm continue to express their faith in this doctrine. "[P]luralism threatens the plausibility of religious belief systems by exposing their human origins," writes Steve Bruce. "By forcing people to do religion as a matter of personal choice rather than as fate, pluralism universalizes 'heresy.' A chosen religion is weaker than a religion of fate because we are aware that we chose the gods rather than the gods choosing us" (1992, 170). Like Durkheim, Bruce conforms to the practice of reducing a social phenomenon—competing religious groups—to its presumed psychological effects.


The introduction described the formation of a subfield devoted to the social scientific study of religion. The rapid growth of this subfield during the 1950s and 1960s produced a huge new body of research findings, many entirely inconsistent with the received wisdom. Thus, as early as 1973, Charles Y. Glock and Phillip E. Hammond recognized that the strain between the received theoretical wisdom and the expanding corpus of research findings necessitated a new paradigm, albeit they were rather pessimistic that one soon would be forthcoming. However, slightly more than a decade later, introducing a volume of essays that attempted to explain the failure of the secularization thesis, Hammond recognized that the first fragments of "a new paradigm" were already in view. "Findings may seem scattered ... and theories fragmented, though this is only because the master schemes—the eventual replacements of the secularization model—have not yet come into focus. Obviously, the successor volume to this one is waiting to be born," he concluded (1985, 3).

The new paradigm arrived as predicted, and we offer this book as the awaited "successor volume." The new paradigm not only rejects each of the elements of the old paradigm outlined above, it proposes the precise opposite of each.

Religion and Abnormal Psychology

As to the claim that religion is harmful at the individual level, the new paradigm cites a huge, and growing literature that finds religion to be a reliable source of better mental and even physical health (Ellison 1991; 1993; Pargament and Park 1995; Levin 1996; Idler and Kasl 1997a; 1997b). Two literature reviews, published nearly simultaneously in 1987, each pointed to the positive health effects of religious involvement, regardless of the age, sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, or time period of the population being studied (Jarvis and Northcutt 1987; Levin and Schiller 1987). In a more recent review, Jeffrey S. Levin finds that the relationship still holds and suggests that the results generally point to a "protective epidemiologic effect of religiosity" (1996, 850).

In the field of gerontology, the volume of research on religion and aging has grown so rapidly that a new periodical, the Journal of Religious Gerontology, has emerged, and existing publications have devoted special issues or sections to discussion of the topic. Neal Krause reports that the number of scholarly papers and grant proposals submitted to major journals and funding agencies on this topic has also increased, with the sophistication and high quality of this research making it hard to ignore. "An impressive body of research indicates that elderly people who are involved in religion tend to enjoy better physical and mental health than older adults who are not as religious," according to Krause (1997, S291).

Chapter 2 will show that the data do not confirm claims that religion is often the cause and symptom of psychopathology. Indeed, the new paradigm directly contradicts the postulate that religion is rooted in irrationality.

The Opiate Thesis

That religion is harmful at the level of society is a political, not scientific, claim. Whereas the old paradigm was content to identify religion as the opium of the people, the new paradigm notes that religion is also often the "amphetamine" of the people, in that religion animated many medieval peasant and artisan rebellions (Cohn 1961), generated repeated uprisings among the native peoples of Africa and North America against European encroachment (Wilson 1975), and recently served as a major center of mobilization against the tyrants of eastern Europe (Echikson 1990). Indeed, the whole notion that religion primarily serves to compensate the deprived and dispossessed has become untenable. The consensus among scholars rejects as "imaginary history" Engels's notion that the early Christian movement was rooted in proletarian suffering. The facts force the conclusion that Christianity's greatest early appeal was to the privileged classes (Judge 1960; Scroggs 1980; Stark 1996a). In similar fashion, since the early 1940s, many researchers have attempted to connect religiousness to social class, but their findings have been weak and inconsistent (see chapter 8). Consequently, the need for new theorizing about the role of religion in the political affairs of nations has been recognized (efforts in that direction can be found in Stark and Bainbridge 1985 and [1987] 1996, and we particularly refer the reader to the recent work of Gill 1998.


Excerpted from Acts of Faith by Rodney Stark, Roger Finke. Copyright © 2000 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Rodney Stark is Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington. Among his many books are The Rise of Christianity (1996), The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (California, 1985), and, with Roger Finke, The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (1992). Roger Finke is Professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University.

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