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Rodney Stark's provocative new book argues that, whether we like it or not, people acting for the glory of God have formed our modern culture. Continuing his project of identifying the widespread consequences of monotheism, Stark shows that the Christian conception of God resulted—almost inevitably and for the same reasons—in the Protestant Reformation, the rise of modern science, the European witch-hunts, and the Western abolition of slavery. In the process, he explains why Christian and Islamic images of God yielded such different cultural results, leading Christians but not Muslims to foster science, burn "witches," and denounce slavery.
With his usual clarity and skepticism toward the received wisdom, Stark finds the origins of these disparate phenomena within monotheistic religious organizations. Endemic in such organizations are pressures to maintain religious intensity, which lead to intense conflicts and schisms that have far-reaching social results.
Along the way, Stark debunks many commonly accepted ideas. He interprets the sixteenth-century flowering of science not as a sudden revolution that burst religious barriers, but as the normal, gradual, and direct outgrowth of medieval theology. He also shows that the very ideas about God that sustained the rise of science led also to intense witch-hunting by otherwise clear-headed Europeans, including some celebrated scientists. This conception of God likewise yielded the Christian denunciation of slavery as an abomination—and some of the fiercest witch-hunters were devoted participants in successful abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the Glory of God is an engrossing narrative that accounts for the very different histories of the Christian and Muslim worlds. It fundamentally changes our understanding of religion's role in history and the forces behind much of what we point to as secular progress.
"[Stark] writes with a clarity and concision that make him a pleasure to read. . . . A number of fondly held myths get demolished in this book."—David Klinghoffer, National Review
"This is a sociology of religion that takes seriously what people believe. Stark knows that beliefs have consequences. They can even change the course of history."—David Neff, Christianity Today
"[A] provocative volume—lucid and tightly reasoned."—Booklist
"For the Glory of God . . . is an important book. It is immensely learned, consistently contentious, and filled with brilliant, if sometimes eccentric, insights. . . [F]or those who are open to a very different interpretation of the development of Western Civilization ... For the Glory of God is strongly recommended."—First Things
Uncommon things must be said in common words. -Coventry Patmore
Just as many religions teach that human culture was a gift from the Gods, many social scientists propose that religion is so basic to culture that without it "humanity could not have emerged from its pre- or proto-human condition." Even if one doubts that humans were actually taught by various Gods how to build fires or grow maize, and takes a more limited view of the role of religion in the evolution of culture, it is obvious that ideas about the supernatural have profoundly influenced life in "advanced" as well as in less "sophisticated" societies, and that monotheism may well have been the single most significant innovation in history.
How, when, or even where belief in One God first occurred will probably never be known, but the dramatic results can be seen in virtually every aspect of the cultures and histories of the great monotheisms. Had the Jews been polytheists, they would today be only another barely remembered people, less important but just as extinct as the Babylonians. Had Christians presented Jesus to the Greco-Romanworld as "another" God, their faith would long since have gone the way of Mithraism. And surely Islam would never have made it out of the desert had Muhammad not removed Allah from the context of Arab paganism and proclaimed him as the only God. Having embraced monotheism and the inherent duty to missionize, these three faiths changed the world.
This is not to suggest that the three great monotheisms are essentially the same, or that they have had a similar impact on history. As will be seen, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam differ in many important ways that have produced rather different historical consequences. For one thing, Jews have seldom had the power to directly determine events. As for the two powerful monotheisms, consider that Christianity was able to stimulate the rise of science while Islam could not. On the other hand, Islam produced no witch-hunts. However, even these differences illustrate the larger truth: that religion has played a leading role in directing the course of history.
Unfortunately, in today's intellectual environment, that simple and obvious statement is widely regarded as both unfortunate and false. Proponents of this revisionist claim overcome its inherent contradiction by assigning many of the most unfortunate aspects of history to religious causes, while flatly denying even the most obvious and overwhelming evidence that religion was the basis for any of the "good" things that have come to pass. For example, it is argued that Christianity played no significant role in sustaining the abolitionist cause but was a major factor in justifying slavery.
Of course, most of those who sustain and repeat such historical falsifications do not mean to mislead-they, too, have been misled. Were that not so, it would have been futile to write this book. But I cling to the belief that many readers respect the authority of evidence and will honor my search for what really happened and why.
The overall purpose of this book is to show how ideas about God have shaped the history and culture of the West, and therefore of the world-including both "good" and "bad" consequences. My method is to closely examine four major historical episodes, each of which was sustained by people who believed they were acting for the glory of God. I use the word "episode" to emphasize that this is not a "history of ideas." In every instance, the ideas are treated as a component of human action, of human organizations, or of social movements.
The first episode is, eventually, the Protestant Reformation. I inserted the word "eventually" here to alert readers that the reforming impulse is an aspect of all religious organizations, and that the Reformations of the sixteenth century had their beginnings as far back as, perhaps, the second century. As is explained in Chapter 1, theological disputes, especially those assuming the existence of One True God, inevitably result in religious sects and reformations. The chapter examines this process in pre-Christian times, in Judaism, in the early Church, and in Islam. Then I trace many centuries of failed efforts to reform the Catholic Church and show how that frequently resulted in the appearance of popular, "heretical" movements. Finally arriving in the sixteenth century, I formulate and test a new explanation as to why Protestantism succeeded in some places and not others. An additional purpose of the chapter is to provide an outline of European religious history that will place the remaining three chapters within a coherent context.
The second episode is the rise of science. Chapter 2 shows that there was no "scientific revolution" that finally burst through the superstitious barriers of faith, but that the flowering of science that took place in the sixteenth century was the normal, gradual, and direct outgrowth of Scholasticism and the medieval universities. Indeed, theological assumptions unique to Christianity explain why science was born only in Christian Europe. Contrary to the received wisdom, religion and science not only were compatible; they were inseparable. Hence the last portion of the chapter demonstrates that the battle over evolution is not a conflict between religion and science but between True Believers on both sides.
Chapter 3 shows that the commitment of Christian theologians to reason, which sustained the rise of science, also resulted in tragedy when applied to the question, "Why does non-Church magic work?" Thus Chapter 3 examines how the answer to this question caused generations of clearheaded, decent Europeans (including some celebrated for their contributions to the rise of science) to engage in witch-hunting. Having dispatched eight popular explanations of why the witch-hunts took place, I propose a new theory to explain the variations in where and when witch-hunts occurred.
As it happened, some of the very same people who were active in witch-hunting played leading roles in declaring that slavery was an abomination in the eyes of God. It was that conclusion, and only that conclusion, that enabled the West to abolish slavery. In fact, slavery was abolished in much of the non-Western world only because of Western pressure and interference-and slavery continues in some non-Christian areas. Chapter 4 shows why Christians reached this profoundly important conclusion and Muslims did not. The chapter also illustrates that it was vital to the subsequent success of the abolition movements that they were able to utilize the resources of the churches.
Although each of these four episodes was of long duration, each is closely associated with the sixteenth century. It was in 1517 that Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In 1543 Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. It was during the latter half of the sixteenth century that the witch-hunts reached their height, and it was in 1510 that King Ferdinand initiated the Atlantic slave trade when he authorized the importation of African slaves to mine gold in the Spanish New World. Consequently, the chapters usefully expand upon one another, and many people make repeated appearances.
Finally, in a brief postscript, I sum up my efforts to create a sociology of Gods, showing that images of Gods, rather than ritual behavior, are the fundamental aspect of religion.
The remainder of this introduction will be devoted to defining and illustrating some key concepts that are basic to the subsequent chapters.
GODLY AND GODLESS RELIGIONS
Religion consists of explanations of existence based on supernatural assumptions and including statements about the nature of the supernatural and about ultimate meaning.
Ultimate meaning concerns the fundamental point and purpose of being. Does life have meaning? Why are we here? What can we hope? Why do we suffer? Does justice exist? Is death the end?
Supernatural refers to forces or entities (conscious or not) that are beyond or outside nature and which can suspend, alter, or ignore physical forces. Gods are a particular form of the supernatural consisting of conscious supernatural beings.
Notice that the definition of religion leaves room for "Godless" religions, such as the elite forms of Confucianism and Taoism wherein the supernatural is conceived of as a supernatural essence-an underlying mystical force or principle governing life, but one that is impersonal, remote, lacking consciousness, and definitely not a being. As explained in the Laotzu, the Tao is a cosmic essence, the eternal Way of the universe that produces harmony and balance. Although the Tao is said to be wise beyond human understanding and "the mother of the universe," it is also said to be "always nonexistent," yet "always existent," "unnameable" and "the name that can be named." Both "soundless and formless," it is "always without desires." Finally, the sage is advised to make no effort to understand the Tao, which is how such an understanding will be achieved. Little wonder that the Tao inspires meditation and mysticism, but not worship.
Religions based on essences are not found only in the East. Many Western intellectuals, including some theologians and even bishops, propose an image of "God" as impersonal and unconscious as the Tao. Supernatural essences may be ideal objects for meditation and mystical contemplation by intellectuals, but Godless religions fail to appeal to the general public, and therefore the popular forms of Confucianism and Taoism include a substantial pantheon of Gods. This split has existed for millennia. The Chinese philosopher Xunzi (ca. 215 B.C.E.) taught that the truly educated know that although religious rituals can be beautiful and inspiring, they are but products of the human imagination: "They are done merely for ornament." However, "the common people regard them as involving the] supernatural."
>Why do most people prefer a Godly religion? Because Gods are the only plausible sources of many things people desire intensely. It must be recognized that these desires are not limited to tangibles. Very often it is rewards of the spirit that people seek from the Gods: meaning, dignity, hope, and inspiration. Even so, the most basic aspect of religious activity consists of exchange relations between humans and Gods; people ask of the Gods and make offerings to them. Indeed, it is believed that Gods, unlike unconscious essences, set the terms for such exchanges and communicate them to humans. Thus while Godless religions rest upon the results of human meditation and speculation-upon wisdom-Godly religions rest upon revelations, on communications believed to come from the Gods. Consequently, the intellectual advocates of Godless religion devote themselves to seeking enlightenment through meditation, while the intellectuals in Godly religions devote their efforts to understanding the full implications of revelations: theology consists of explanations that justify and specify the terms of exchange with Gods, based on reasoning about revelations. That is, theologians attempt to expand understanding of divine concerns and desires, and to extend the range of instances to which they apply, by tracing the logical implications of revelations. Indeed, the authority of the Mishnah rests on the Jewish belief that revelations are granted to scholars through their close study of the Torah. A classic example of the theological process is the evolution of elaborate Christian doctrines concerning Mary despite how little is actually said about her in the New Testament. Many similar results of theological inquiry play important roles in the subsequent chapters.
Not only does religion consist of a certain kind of beliefs about the meaning of life and about the nature of the supernatural; all other aspects of religion are derivative of these beliefs, especially those about the supernatural: the forms and motives of rites, rituals, prayers, sacrifices, and even mystical experiences are determined by the nature of the object to which they are directed. Thus religious practice includes all activities performed for religious motives or purposes; only when we know what religion is, can we distinguish actions and feelings that are religious rather than otherwise. A High Mass and a Nazi Party rally both qualify as rites, and both can inspire deep emotions in participants. Only by noting which is grounded in supernatural assumptions and which is not, can we effectively distinguish them. In similar fashion, William James (1842-1910) rejected the idea of "religious sentiments" or "religious emotions" as having a distinct psychology. Rather, what can be identified as "religious fear, religious love, religious awe, religious joy, and so forth" are nothing more (or less) than natural emotions "directed to a religious object"-objects being religious because they involve "the divine." Hence my references to religious rites, for example, mean rites that are performed for religious motives or purposes. Applying the adjectival form of "religion" as a modifier makes it possible to incorporate all aspects of religion and of the religious life without the use of more complex definitions.
Although I define religion as a set of beliefs, religions exist outside of sacred texts only as social or collective phenomena. Purely idiosyncratic faiths are found only, and then very rarely, among the mad, or (perhaps) singular prophets-even ascetic hermits pursue a collective faith. One reason religions are social is that it is a difficult task to create a plausible and satisfying religious culture, and therefore any given religion (even those attributed to a single founder) is usually the product of many contributors. For this same reason, religions are most effectively sustained by dedicated specialists. The second reason religions are social is that the universal problem of religion is confidence-the need to convince people that its teachings are true and that its practices are effective. Since the ultimate proofs of religious claims typically lie beyond direct examination, it is through the testimony of others that people gain confidence in a religion. Organized religious groups maximize the opportunity for people to reassure one another that their religion is true. Among followers of Godly religions, in addition to asserting their personal certainty about otherworldly rewards, people often enumerate miracles-how they recovered from cancer, how they overcame alcoholism or drug abuse, how they became reliable and faithful spouses, how they survived a catastrophic accident, or how their prayers for a dying child were answered. Thus do people demonstrate that a religion "works," that its promises come true.
While all religions offer answers to questions of ultimate meaning (even if only to say that life is without meaning), magic does not. As Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) noted, magic is concerned not with the meaning of the universe but with "technical and utilitarian ends," and hence "it does not waste its time in speculation." Or, as John Middleton put it, "Magical beliefs and practices are particularly significant in being mainly instrumental, with little expressive content." Thus magic is excluded by the definition of religion since it does not concern itself with ultimate meaning and typically does not offer explanations even of its own mechanisms, let alone of more profound matters. In addition, magic is essentially Godless.
Excerpted from For the Glory of God by Rodney Stark Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations vii
Introduction: Dimensions of the Supernatural 1
God's Truth: Inevitable Sects and Reformations 15
God's Handiwork: The Religious Origins of Science 121
God's Enemies: Explaining the European Witch-Hunts 201
God's Justice: The Sin of Slavery 291
Postscript: Gods, Rituals, and Social Science 367
Posted August 1, 2009
I recently read the above very interesting book that discusses how ideas about GOD shaped history and culture in Western civilization - for both good and bad. While the book is Christian-centric, the "God" being discussed is certainly the Judeo-Christian God and I feel covers the Jewish traditions, as well.
The author, Rodney Stark, covers 4 episodes in the history of Christianity, the first two I found very revealing: the Protestant Reformation and the Rise of Science.
In the introduction, Stark differentiates between "magic" and religion. He also talks about "godless" vs. "godly" religions as well as the rise of monotheism. Our Judeo-Christian God is defined as a conscious being, compared to "essences" found in Tao. Monotheism has tremendous capacity to mobilize human action, far beyond that found in polytheism.
In the first chapter Stark points out three "incorrect claims":
1. That the Medieval period (the "Dark Ages") was an age of faith during which the average person was deeply religious
2. That the great medieval sect movements (various "heresies", Luther, Calvin, etc.) were expressions of lower class suffering
3. That the Church (Roman Catholic) was dominated by religious fanatics
Religious diversity is the norm in society. In the absence of repression, people seek different intensities in their religious behavior. Stark cites the differences between the Jewish groups of the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes in their intensity. That said, religious intolerance in inherent in monotheism. Organized pluralism is the norm, only unless one group has the power to suppress the other groups.
Stark goes on to discuss the history of the fall of the Roman gods and the rise of Christianity, the corruption that ensued, the persecution of the many "heretics" over many centuries, that finally gave rise to "reformations". Stark contends that there were actually two Christian "churches" during Medieval times - the Church of Piety and the Church of Power, the latter being the one causing all the corruption and troubles, and the one killing all not of like-mind, not just Jews but many Christians, as well. (It was considered heretical to translate the Bible into the vernacular - one could be burned at the stake! Only those well-off enough to be educated in reading Latin could read the Word of God for themselves!)
In the second chapter Stark dispels the common misconception that religion and science are at odds. He starts with the Columbus story and states that, contrary to the story we all learned in elementary school, every educated person at the time of Columbus' voyage already knew that the earth was round - as early as the 7th century this was already a popular notion!
Stark contends that Judeo-Christian theology was essential for the rise of science, not its enemy.
What is "science" exactly"? Not merely a technology. "A society does not have "science" simply because it can build ships, smelt iron, or eat off porcelain dishes. Science is a method utilized in organized efforts to formulate explanations of nature, always subject to modification and corrections through systematic observations."
In other words, science consists of theory and research. It is limited to natural reality - it's observable. But just observing is not sufficient. The "why" is important. Stark goes on to say that the early Greeks were not "scientists." They were either onl
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Posted May 11, 2009
I loved this book, and it's very thorough and interesting. Even though you have to concentrate when reading, it's straightforward and understandable. This is the first book I've read on this subject, so I wasn't able to point out errors, but I agreed with his conclusions when he compared his to other historians/sociologists' opinions/conclusions. In fact I found some of his wry comments about his colleagues' views humorous, and his honesty when he critized them was refreshing. If you're interested in early church history that's intellectual but not too difficult to read, this is the perfect book. I can't wait to read his next book, "The Victory of Reason".Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 27, 2007
This is what we have come to expect from Rodney Stark. Thorough research, clear and concise writing, penetrating insight, and a fresh and revealing look at the topic under study. Not to mention the shattering of old and often cherished myths. I have only one negative criticism. In his preface, Professor Stark declares that he is not, and never has been, a Roman Catholic. (An excellent prophylactic - no pun intended - given what is sure to be taken as his approving comments about that church in the body of the book.) His unfamiliarity with Catholicism does, however, twice lead him into error or confusion. To wit, his application at times to the Christian church of western Europe during the first millenium of its existence the name, attitudes, and mode of governance of the Roman Catholic church of the late sixteenth century and after. And his seeming lack of understanding of and failure to explain what apostolic succession is and why the Anglican church might consider it important or desirable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.