One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism

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Western history would be unrecognizable had it not been for people who believed in One True God. There would have been wars, but no religious wars. There would have been moral codes, but no Commandments. 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-Roman world 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.

The three great monotheisms changed everything. With his customary clarity and vigor, Rodney Stark explains how and why monotheism has such immense power both to unite and to divide. Why and how did Jews, Christians, and Muslims missionize, and when and why did their efforts falter? Why did both Christianity and Islam suddenly become less tolerant of Jews late in the eleventh century, prompting outbursts of mass murder? Why were the Jewish massacres by Christians concentrated in the cities along the Rhine River, and why did the pogroms by Muslims take place mainly in Granada? How could the Jews persist so long as a minority faith, able to withstand intense pressures to convert? Why did they sometimes assimilate? In the final chapter, Stark also examines the American experience to show that it is possible for committed monotheists to sustain norms of civility toward one another.

A sweeping social history of religion, One True God shows how the great monotheisms shaped the past and created the modern world.

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Editorial Reviews

Associated Press Staff
This intriguing work argues that few if any social forces are as important as monotheism. . . . Stark says monotheism has extraordinary power to unite people and give them purpose.
— Richard N. Ostling
Associated Press Newswires - Richard N. Ostling
This intriguing work argues that few if any social forces are as important as monotheism. . . . Stark says monotheism has extraordinary power to unite people and give them purpose.
Christian Century - Leo D. Lefebure
Stark's discussion is lively, pointed and frequently illuminating. This is an informative, provocative and timely contribution to the study of religion.
From the Publisher

"This intriguing work argues that few if any social forces are as important as monotheism. . . . Stark says monotheism has extraordinary power to unite people and give them purpose."--Richard N. Ostling, Associated Press Newswires

"Bracing, rollicking, startling, belligerent, informative, and guaranteed to provoke second and third thoughts about what readers thought they always knew about religion and the history of the world."--First Things

"Stark's conception of civility as public moderation of particularism is intriguing, and his sociology of religion blends James Madison's analysis of factions and Adam Smith's faith in the market's invisible hand, which calls for a proliferation of 'sacred umbrellas' rather than a 'sacred canopy.'"--Booklist

"A book that is a joy to read. . . . a thought-provoking and heartening book."--Library Journal

"Stark's discussion is lively, pointed and frequently illuminating. This is an informative, provocative and timely contribution to the study of religion."--Leo D. Lefebure, Christian Century

Associated Press Newswires
This intriguing work argues that few if any social forces are as important as monotheism. . . . Stark says monotheism has extraordinary power to unite people and give them purpose.
— Richard N. Ostling
First Things
Bracing, rollicking, startling, belligerent, informative, and guaranteed to provoke second and third thoughts about what readers thought they always knew about religion and the history of the world.
Stark's conception of civility as public moderation of particularism is intriguing, and his sociology of religion blends James Madison's analysis of factions and Adam Smith's faith in the market's invisible hand, which calls for a proliferation of 'sacred umbrellas' rather than a 'sacred canopy.'
Christian Century
Stark's discussion is lively, pointed and frequently illuminating. This is an informative, provocative and timely contribution to the study of religion.
— Leo D. Lefebure
Publishers Weekly
Long established as a leading sociologist of American religion, Stark has in recent years extended his methodology into increasingly speculative territory. Here he follows up his inquiry into the origins of Christianity with an even more ambitious project: a grand theory of the social and political effects of monotheism in every corner of the globe since the time of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. None of Stark's claims is particularly novel or subtle, and many of them seem just plain wrong. People, he asserts, are more satisfied with rational, dependable, authoritative gods than with pantheons of mercurial deities; therefore, Buddhism died out in India because it was too intellectual and did not offer a satisfying divinity (unlike Hinduism, which Stark declares is really monotheistic, despite much evidence to the contrary). Moreover, members of monotheistic faiths send out missionaries because they think their God is true, and all others false, a presumption that has on occasion led to violence; Jews have resisted conversion over the millennia because they have found solidarity in their common oppression and strength in their monotheism; and pluralism results when members of competing monotheistic faiths decide to set aside their differences to maintain public civility. As an armchair historian, Stark is unconvincing, given to sweeping generalizations and glib overstatements. As an armchair ethnographer, he is often startlingly na?ve. His claim, for example, that rituals are infrequent in polytheistic cultures is based on a poor understanding of ritual. As grand theories go, this is shallow stuff. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
There are observable social consequences of monotheism, argues Stark (sociology, Univ. of Washington; The Rise of Christianity). Monotheistic faith can unite people in great or terrible undertakings: to convert others to faith and to struggle for justice or to unite them for crusades and bloody persecutions. It can foster group solidarity, enabling a community to endure centuries as a despised minority amid a hostile society. Is monotheism compatible with civil society? Stark argues that it can be, given plenty of options in a religious marketplace wherein no single religion gains a monopoly. In a book that is a joy to read, Stark firmly sides with the monotheists and the invisible hand of a religious free market. History plays a supporting role, enlisted only to support insights drawn from sociological analysis. Stark is heavy-handed at times, arguing that liberal ministers (who believe in a divine "essence" rather than a personal God) and secularists are the bad guys foes of "authentic" faith. Still, this is a thought-provoking and heartening book; recommended for all collections. Steve Young, McHenry County Coll., Crystal Lake, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An uneven but often provocative assessment of the significance of monotheism as a force in the history of religion. Stark (Sociology and Comparative Religion/Univ. of Washington) sets himself an intimidating task, beginning with his sweeping claims that religions in advanced societies typically evolve in the direction of monotheism, and that "belief in a God of infinite scope . . . maximizes the capacity to mobilize human actions on behalf of religion." Such grand claims, discussed in the first two chapters, can be supported only in the most general terms. Begging the question of how to differentiate between "simple societies" and "advanced civilizations," the second chapter, which attempts to recount the origins of monotheism, is simplistic, giving any religion that might challenge its thesis-Hinduism, for example, or the polytheism of the Roman Empire-short shrift. In contrast, examinations of early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are incisive. Monotheistic religions, argues Stark, are inevitably more sectarian than more flexible polytheistic religions: "From the start," he observes, "all of the major monotheisms have been prone to splinter into many True Religions that sometimes acknowledge one another's right to coexist and sometimes don't." He is both authoritative and entertaining when reporting the squabbles among the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes, and the catalogues of heresies that Christianity produced within its first 200 years. Following a rambling, shallow discussion of the Jewish diaspora, the remarkable final chapter argues that greater sectarianism and factionalism is the strength, not the weakness, of monotheistic religions, inspiring more zeal and intellectualenergy than either nonexclusive faiths or monolithic state religions: "The key to high levels of local religious commitment and of religious civility is not fewer religions, but more." Unconvincing as an all-encompassing theory of monotheism, but refreshing and moving as a plea for pluralism. (24 halftones)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691115009
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/24/2003
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,007,566
  • Product dimensions: 6.16 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Read an Excerpt

One True God

Historical Consequences of Monotheism
By Rodney Stark

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11500-9


The God of the universe is the God of history. -Martin Buber

More than three thousand years ago, somewhere a group of people began to worship One God. Whether they were Jews, Persians, Egyptians, or someone else will probably never be known, but perhaps no other single innovation had so much impact on history. Consequently, while many wonderful books have made the last decade an exciting time for anyone interested in broad assessments of the past, I was prompted by their example to write a reminder that history is not shaped by "material" factors alone. Granted, germs, geography, printing, sailing ships, steel, and climate have mattered, but probably none of them so much as human ideas about the Gods.

All of the great monotheisms propose that their God works through history, and I plan to show that, at least sociologically, they are quite right: that a great deal of history-triumphs as well as disasters-has been made on behalf of One True God. What could be more obvious? Well, one thing more obvious is that writing about the social effects of Gods just isn't done these days. It is widely assumed in scholarly circles that historical inquiries into such matters as the social consequences ofmonotheism are long outmoded and quite unsuitable. Of course, many who hold these views are the same ones who continue to express their certainty that religion is rapidly dying out, while shielding their eyes and ears against the obvious signs of religious vigor all around them (Stark, 1999c). Invincible biases are regrettable, but there is a bright side to this one: It has afforded me the opportunity to reopen a subject that has been neglected for many decades during which a great deal of very important new material has been assembled and more powerful social scientific tools have been developed.

However, rather than just plunge into the tasks at hand, I thought it useful to offer a preliminary sketch of the chapters to come.

Chapter 1 is devoted to a theory of Gods. Why do humans care about Gods at all? What sorts of Gods have the greatest appeal? Why will people accept an exclusive relationship with One God, rather than pursue blessings from a pantheon of specialized Gods? Why has each of the great monotheisms taught not only that the One God is surrounded by a vast supporting cast, but that there exist very powerful evil supernatural beings? In short, what really constitutes monotheism?

Building on this theoretical base, Chapter 2 explores the missionizing imperative. Many faiths spread, but only monotheisms are able to sustain organized efforts by the rank and file to convert others. How has this shaped history? Why did Buddhism die out in India, its land of origin? What was the impact of Jewish missionizing on the Greco-Roman world? Why did medieval efforts to Christianize northern Europe fail? Did Islam really convert most of the people of the Middle East and North Africa in only a few years, or was this an illusion? How did images of God enter into the resumption of Christian world missionizing in the nineteenth century, and do they explain why some denominations have dropped out of the mission enterprise? And what about Hindu missions to the West?

Chapter 3 shifts the focus from conversion to repression. When and why does monotheism generate bloody and brutal conflicts? Having constructed a model to predict when monotheisms will attack or tolerate other faiths, I then apply it to the sudden outburst of fatal attacks on Jews that began in 1096, not only in Christian Europe but also in Islamic societies. I further assess why vigorous efforts by the Church and the State in this era to prevent attacks on Jews were successful in most of Europe but failed in the towns and cities along both sides of the Rhine River. I also seek the reasons for the "rediscovery" of heresy that occurred in Europe at precisely the same time.

If commitment to One True God makes groups militant in their efforts to overcome competing faiths, it makes them equally militant to retain their faith when they are a minority. Thus Chapter 4 attempts to explain how the Jewish diaspora was possible. How were the Jews so often able to withstand all efforts to convert them? Why, on many occasions, did entire Jewish communities commit suicide rather than convert? Here it proves especially useful to explore circumstances in which Jewish communities did assimilate (as in China) or did so to a substantial extent. The chapter concludes with an extended survey of Jewish assimilation in the United States.

Finally, Chapter 5 demonstrates how the potential for conflict can be muffled, even among militant monotheisms, by public norms of civility. Here the emphasis will be on the American experience with religious pluralism.

This is the first of a projected two volumes on the social consequences of monotheism. Both will be very historical, but this volume will be more purely historical, and the second will pay greater attention to slightly more cultural matters such as science, witchcraft, and the Reformation. Both volumes span sociology, history, and comparative religion. Assuming that few readers will be specialists in all three areas, I have written for nonspecialists. An additional reason for my doing so is that I believe writing for the general reader results in better scholarship. Jargon mainly deludes its users into thinking they have said something-if I can't say something in clear prose, I assume it's because I don't understand it.

It is appropriate here that I confess I am not a historian by trade, and no part of this book is based on original historical research. For example, I did not comb medieval manuscripts to demonstrate that Christian missionizing broke down in the fourth century, leaving much of Europe un-Christianized. Instead, I had the pleasure of learning this by reading the work of historians such as Marc Bloch, Jean Delumeau, Alexander Murray, Keith Thomas, and many others. As in that instance, I have depended on the best historians to educate me about any particular historical topic, and I have usually concurred with their interpretations. My contribution consists of assembling these historical pieces into a more comprehensive structure as a test of original sociological theories, which, in turn, are meant to illuminate the history.

It also seems appropriate for me to acknowledge that until very recently, nearly all social scientists who studied religion did so from antireligious motives and premised their work on atheism-and many still do (Stark, 1999; Stark and Finke, 2000). This was evident as far back as when Thomas Hobbes, one of the celebrated "founders" of social science, dismissed all religion as "credulity," "ignorance," and "lies," and Gods as "creatures of ... fancy" ([1651] 1956, 1:98). A century later, David Hume echoed Hobbes, dismissing all miracles as limited to "ignorant and barbarous nations" ([1748] 1962:123). During the nineteenth century antireligious social science was rampant. August Comte coined the word "sociology" to identify a new field that would replace religious "hallucinations" as the guide to morals ([1830] 1896, 2:554). Then, Ludwig von Feuerbach "discovered" that humans create Gods in their own image ([1841] 1957), while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels found God in the economy, busy sanctifying "wage slavery" ([1844] 1964). At the start of the twentieth century, the famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim taught that the fundamental reality is that society itself is always the true object of religious worship: "god ... can be nothing else than [society] itself, personified and represented to the imagination" (1915:206). Next came Sigmund Freud, who explained on one page of his celebrated psychoanalytic exposé of faith, The Future of an Illusion, that religion is an "illusion," a "sweet-or bittersweet-poison," a "neurosis," an "intoxicant," and "childishness to be overcome" ([1927] 1961:88). Even more recently, no reviewer as much as flinched when, on the first page of his book Mystical Experience, Ben-Ami Scharfstein (1973:1) revealed that "mysticism is ... a name for the paranoid darkness in which unbalanced people stumble so confidently," and went on to identify the supernatural as a "fairy tale" (ibid.:45). In similar fashion, Oxford's distinguished Bryan Wilson (1975:81) identified "supernaturalist thinking" as an "indulgence." And from Louvain, Lilliane Voyé and Karel Dobbelaere (1994:95) recently announced that "the successful removal by science of all kinds of anthropomorphisms from our thinking dooms the concept of 'God as a person.'"

Our having access only to the human side of religion does not justify the assumption that religion is but illusion and that the Gods are imaginary products of "wish fulfillment." It is entirely impossible for science to discover the existence or nonexistence of Gods. Therefore, atheistic and theistic assumptions are equally unscientific, and work based on either is equally deficient. One is, of course, entitled to one's private convictions, but it is important to try to minimize their impact on one's scientific work. The appropriate scientific assumption, and the one I have made every effort to observe, is agnostic: scientifically speaking, we do not know and cannot know whether, for example, the Qur'an was spoken to Muhammad by an angel or merely by his own inner voices. And, scientifically speaking, it doesn't matter! Our only access is to the human side of religious phenomena, and we can examine this with the standard tools of social science, without assuming either the real or the illusory nature of religion. The result will be better science, since both the atheistic and the theistic assumptions are faith-driven and often less than responsive to evidence. I suspect this was the point Max Weber had in mind when, after writing that he was "absolutely unmusical religiously," he added, "But a thorough self-examination has told me that I am neither antireligious nor irreligious" (his emphasis, in Swatos, 1998:548).*

Finally, even if they abide by the agnostic assumption, social scientists are unlikely to grasp the human side of phenomena for which they have no empathy. While it obviously isn't necessary that social scientists who want to understand religion be religious, it is necessary that they be able to sufficiently suspend their disbelief so as to gain some sense of the phenomenology of faith and worship. Even Emile Durkheim seems eventually to have accepted this. In remarks made to a meeting of "free thinkers" in 1914, he expressed it this way: "[W]hat I ask of the free thinker is that he should confront religion in the same mental state as the believer ... [H]e who does not bring to the study of religion a sort of religious sentiment cannot speak about it! He is like a blind man trying to talk about color" ([1915] 1995:xvii). This was not Durkheim's view when he was young, nor was it mine. But, just as Durkheim came to a more mature outlook, so have I.

It is in this spirit that I invite you to examine some of the direct consequences of monotheism on our common history.


Excerpted from One True God by Rodney Stark Copyright © 2001 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. God's Nature: A Theory of Gods 9

2. God's Chosen: Monotheism and Mission 33

3. God's Wrath: Religious Conflict 115

4. God's Kingdom: Religious Persistence 175

5. God's Grace: Pluralism and Civility 219

Bibliography 261

Index 303

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