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Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief
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Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief

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by Rodney Stark

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Discovering God is a monumental history of the origins of the great religions from the Stone Age to the Modern Age. Sociologist Rodney Stark surveys the birth and growth of religions around the world—from the prehistoric era of primal beliefs; the history of the pyramids found in Iraq, Egypt, Mexico, and Cambodia; and the great "Axial Age" of Plato, Zoroaster,


Discovering God is a monumental history of the origins of the great religions from the Stone Age to the Modern Age. Sociologist Rodney Stark surveys the birth and growth of religions around the world—from the prehistoric era of primal beliefs; the history of the pyramids found in Iraq, Egypt, Mexico, and Cambodia; and the great "Axial Age" of Plato, Zoroaster, Confucius, and the Buddha, to the modern Christian missions and the global spread of Islam. He argues for a free-market theory of religion and for the controversial thesis that under the best, unimpeded conditions, the true, most authentic religions will survive and thrive. Among his many conclusions:

Despite decades of faulty reports that early religions were crude muddles of superstition, it turns out that primitive humans had surprisingly sophisticated notions about God and Creation.

The idea of "sin" appeared suddenly in the sixth century BCE and quickly reshaped religious ideas from Europe to China.

Some major world religions seem to lack any plausible traces of divine inspiration.

Ironically, some famous figures who attempted to found "Godless" religions ended up being worshiped as Gods.

Most people believe in the existence of God (or Gods), and this has apparently been so throughout human history. Many modern biologists and psychologists reject these spiritual ideas, especially those about the existence of God, as delusional. They claim that religion is a primitive survival mechanism that should have been discarded as humans evolved beyond the stage where belief in God served any useful purpose—that in modern societies, faith is a misleading crutch and an impediment to reason. In Discovering God, award-winning sociologist Rodney Stark responds to this position, arguing that it is our capacity to understand God that has evolved—that humans now know much more about God than they did in ancient times.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Stark (social sciences, Baylor Univ.) offers a fresh look at the history of religions with the characteristic style he developed in such works as The Rise of Christianityand Cities of God. He brings this new perspective to the discussion of religion in primitive societies, ancient civilizations, and modern times, considering Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions. Many current treatments of the history of religion focus on its development as a result of human invention (see Todd Tremlin's Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion). Stark examines the benefits/disadvantages religions engender within society, but his groundbreaking premise is the sincere consideration that revelations could originate with a higher being or power. In this way, he takes seriously the beliefs of religious founders and adherents throughout history. Written in an engaging style yet retaining scholarly integrity through an elaborate system of endnotes, charts, time lines, and a glossary, this work would serve well as an introduction to the history/sociology of religion. Recommended to public, academic, and seminary libraries.
—Dann Wigner

Stark’s retelling of the origins of the world’s great religions is fascinating and excellent.
“[A] wide-ranging investigation...serious students of religion will recognize this as an essential sourcebook.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Discovering God
The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief

Chapter One

Gods in Primitive Societies

Much has been said about the religious life of primitive1 humans, despite the fact that very little is known about it with any certainty. We do know that for thousands of years, some human burials have included grave goods, which may be taken as evidence that our distant ancestors believed in life after death. Deep inside caves we also have found structures that might have been altars, and some caves contained collections of such things as bear skulls that might have had religious significance, too. In early Neolithic (New Stone Age) sites such as Çatalhöyük in Turkey,2 there is some evidence that bulls may have been sacred, and here and there archaeologists have found small figurines that might have represented a very ample mother goddess, or not.3 Beyond that, all is conjecture.4

These conjectures take two forms. The more reasonable of these is based on the assumption that recent observations of surviving primitive cultures can be taken as representative of those long gone. But is that true? If these cultures are not significantly different from those of early times, why did they not keep up? A common answer has been that most human progress is the result of diffusion, not independent innovation, and these particular groups failed to keep up because they were too isolated to benefit from the spread of innovations that carried other cultures forward. On these grounds it is claimed that survivingprimitive cultures present a reliable image of the past. Although I am among those who regard this as a somewhat "unsound" assumption,5 I agree that the ethnographic accounts of the religions of these groups deserve careful analysis.

The second conjecture proposes that not too long ago humans lacked sufficient intelligence and consciousness to entertain such things as religious notions, having very little mental life of any kind. Granted that if we accept as human those creatures lacking not only stone tools, but even language, the assertion probably is justified. But many scholars have made this claim about the humans who lived during Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) times and from this have assumed that the earliest religions were extremely infantile. Surprisingly, the primary basis for claiming that Stone Age humans were dim brutes is not comparative physiology based on skulls and brain capacity, these being much less diagnostic of intelligence than might be supposed. Instead, the biology is inferred from culture—from the fact that during the Paleolithic period, "technological progress was extraordinarily slow,"6 ergo people in those days were of low intelligence and their religions, if they had any, must have been very rudimentary.

These biological inferences are very doubtful because the technological gap between modern cultures and those of surviving "primitive" cultures is about as great as between modern cultures and those of the Neanderthals, despite the fact that the biological differences at issue no longer exist—today all humans are Homo sapiens. Nevertheless, the notion that even "modern" primitives are biologically inferior was an article of faith among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars, and variations on that theme persist in some current attempts by biologists and evolutionary psychologists to predict the end of religion, claiming that faith is incompatible with the greater mental capacity of modern humans.

The first portion of this chapter examines efforts by early social scientists to use ethnographies of recent primitives to characterize and classify primitive religions of long ago. While their reconstructions differed substantially, there was consensus on two points: religion is a universal feature of human cultures, albeit primitive religions were very crude. Consequently, the chapter summarizes, compares, and evaluates three major kinds of explanations offered as to why religion is universal: biological, cultural, and theological. Next, the characterization of early religions as crude and infantile will be reconsidered in light of an abundance of later ethnographic evidence showing that many of these religions were far more sophisticated than had been supposed. Both the social-scientific and the theological implications of this discovery are considered.

Reconstructing Primitive Religions

With the advent of the Age of Exploration, many Europeans began to return with reports of the exotic religious beliefs and practices of "backward" people around the world. Some of these were pure fantasy. Some were extremely biased. Some were very unreliable, having been written by a person who could not speak the local language and who devoted little time to the study. But many were remarkably accurate, and a few were magnificent works of scholarship, such as the detailed, sixteenth-century study of Aztec religion based on careful interviews with actual priests and observations of many rites by the Franciscan missionary Bernardino Ribeira de Sahagún (c. 1500–1590), which, sad to say, lay unnoticed in a Spanish library until 1830.7

As these reports piled up, some European scholars tried to use them to learn what primitive religions were actually like. Others simply mined them for examples that supported their preconceptions, and a few paid very little attention to this literature, preferring to not let facts inhibit their theorizing about primitive religions. The major pioneering efforts to reconstruct the religions of primitives fall into four approaches or "schools" of thought: Naturism, Animism, Ghost Theory, and Totemism. Although each of these approaches has many shortcomings, they serve as an effective way to begin an exploration of primitive religion and are especially useful to set the stage for a remarkable later breakthrough.


Max Müller (1823–1900) popularized the comparative study of religions, in part by editing good English translations of Eastern scriptures. Müller was only marginally interested in primitive religions, but he proposed that all religions, primitive or otherwise, arise because from earliest times humans have always been awed by the grandeur of nature. Naturism proposes that religions have their origins in the personification of natural forces and objects and the "myths" that arise from these personifications. Hence, Müller is considered the leader of the Naturism "school."

Although most Naturists were Germans, Müller spent most of his adult life at Oxford, rising to be a Professor and Fellow of All Souls. He was perhaps "the first 'celebrity' academician,"8 who lectured far and wide and gave many newspaper interviews—today he would be a regular on the talk shows. Much of his public prominence came from his editorship of a massive project known as The Sacred Books of the East, a set of fifty volumes that appeared between 1879 and 1910, most of which are still in print. The first volume in this series was Müller's own translation of the Upanis¸ads.

Discovering God
The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief
. Copyright © by Rodney Stark. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Rodney Stark is the Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University. His thirty books on the history and sociology of religion include The Rise of Christianity, Cities of God, For the Glory of God, Discovering God, and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

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Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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Rodney Stark doesn¿t reveal himself as a proponent of `Intelligent Design¿ right until the end of the book. Any body looking for an informative book on comparative religion should go else where. Since 99% of the book gives a rudimentary glance at all the major and minor religions, it is quite disappointing read, unless you are a believer in `Intelligent Design¿, and want to validate your belief. Borrow it from the library, or sit in a book shop and read just the last chapter, conclusion. Just to prove my point, I quote a few lines from the book which will give you a general feel of what Mr. Stark is trying to convey. He writes : ¿at least in their initial forms, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism can be excluded from the category of inspired faiths.¿ ¿later faiths will tell us more about God than will earlier faiths.¿ ¿Christianity epitomizes revealed religion¿.¿ ¿I think it inappropriate to include Islam in the inspired core of faiths.¿ ¿Real science arose only once: in Europe, not in China, Islam, India, Ancient Greece, or Rome.¿ By quoting selectively, Mr. Stark makes dubious assumption that can be easily refuted by anybody who is willing to go the extra mile, and find out the truth about the inter-mingling of religious concepts through the ages. How religion evolved, sometimes parallel and many times borrowing concepts from each other, thus we get overlapping ideas, and beliefs. Devine revelation should not be a pre-requisite to an inspired faith. The study of cultural anthropology should be part of this endeavor. There are others who have done a better job on comparing religion with out infusing their writing with their own personal opinion. It is rather sneaky and deceptive of Mr. Stark not to tell his personal opinion until the last 5 paragraphs.