Why God?: Explaining Religious Phenomena

Why God?: Explaining Religious Phenomena

by Rodney Stark


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, January 24

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781599475530
Publisher: Templeton Press
Publication date: 03/30/2018
Edition description: 1
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 894,272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Rodney Stark is the distinguished professor of the social sciences and codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He also is an honorary professor of sociology at Peking University in Beijing, China. He was previously professor of sociology and of comparative religion at the University of Washington, and a research sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. His PhD is from UC, Berkeley. Many of his previous books have won national and international awards, and many have been translated into a total of seventeen foreign languages.
Rodney Stark is the distinguished professor of the social sciences and codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He also is an honorary professor of sociology at Peking University in Beijing, China. He was previously professor of sociology and of comparative religion at the University of Washington, and a research sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. His PhD is from UC, Berkeley. Many of his previous books have won national and international awards, and many have been translated into a total of seventeen foreign languages.

Read an Excerpt

Why God?

Explaining Religious Phenomena

By Rodney Stark

Templeton Press

Copyright © 2017 Rodney Stark
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59947-520-2


The Elements of Faith

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

THE ORIGINS OF RELIGION can never be found through historical or archaeological research. As the distinguished William J. Goode (1918–2003) remarked, "How, under what conditions, [humans] began to believe in divine beings nearly a million years ago must remain sheer speculation [for] the data are irrevocably gone." Consequently, the only feasible way to discover the fundamental sources of religious expression is not to seek data on early humans, but to examine elementary theoretical principles about what humans are like and their existential circumstances. That, too, is a sort of expedition.

Rewards and Reason

Any adequate social scientific theory must begin, even if only implicitly, with thinking, feeling, and behaving human beings:

Proposition 1: Within the limits of their information and understanding, restricted by available options, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans will attempt to make rational choices.

Definition 1: A rational choice seeks to obtain a greater value of rewards over costs.

The first part of this proposition — "within the limits of their information" — recognizes that we can neither select choices if we do not know about them nor select the most beneficial choice if we have incorrect knowledge about the relative benefits of choices. The second part — "within the limits of their ... understanding" — acknowledges that people must make choices based on a set of principles, beliefs, or theories they hold about how things work. These may, of course, be false, but the rational person applies the principles because they are, for that moment, the most plausible assumptions. Finally, it is self-evident that people may only select from among available options, although the full range of choices actually available may not be evident to them.

However, if all humans attempt to make rational choices, why do they not always act alike? Why don't people reared in the same culture all seek the same rewards? Because their choices are guided by their preferences and tastes. This point not only helps us understand why people do not all act alike, but why it is possible for them to engage in exchanges: to swap one reward for another. Of course, not all preferences and tastes are variable — clearly, virtually everyone values some things regardless of their culture or upbringing: food, shelter, security, and affection, among others. Obviously, too, culture in general, and socialization in particular, have a substantial impact on preferences and tastes. It is neither random nor a matter of purely personal taste whether someone prays to Allah or Shiva, or indeed, whether one prays at all. Still, even within any culture, a substantial variation exists across individuals in their preferences and tastes. Some of this variation is also at least partly the result of socialization differences, but a great deal of variation is so idiosyncratic that people have no idea how they came to like or dislike certain things. As the old adage says, "There's no accounting for taste."

Finally, as already mentioned, the phrase "humans attempt to make rational choices" means that they will attempt to follow the dictates of reason in an effort to achieve their desired goals. As implied by the word "attempt," people don't always act in entirely rational ways. Sometimes we act impulsively — in haste, passion, boredom, or anger ("I really didn't stop to think about what I was doing"). Sometimes humans also err because they are lazy, careless, or neurotic. But, most of the time, normal human beings choose what they perceive to be the more reasonable option, and whenever they do so, their behavior is fully rational, even if they are mistaken.

Proposition 1 is a carefully qualified version of the rational actor proposition, because, in my judgment, the form used by most economists — the bare assertion that "people maximize rewards over costs" — is too simplistic to be plausible. But, as Definition 1 makes clear, I do assume that choices tend to involve the subjective weighing of anticipated rewards and costs. However, I do not assume that the choice will attempt to maximize the ratio of rewards to costs, as normal people often settle for less — in keeping with the commonsense saying that "enough is enough." In any event, it needs to be recognized that rewards and costs are complementary in that a lost or forgone reward is a cost, while an avoided cost is a reward. It also must be recognized that rewards and costs vary in kind, value, and generality. A reward or cost is more general to the extent that it includes other rewards or costs. Happiness is a more general reward than having a nice day. Poor health is a more general cost than having the flu. I do not attempt to characterize rewards or costs as to kind, although obviously these include psychic and intellectual, as well as material "commodities." As is obvious throughout, I assume that culture and socialization do substantially account for taste, culture providing the general outlines of what people seek (and seek to avoid), and socialization filling in many of the details. Nevertheless, all normal individuals in all societies retain a substantial leeway for idiosyncrasy, innovation, and deviance. Specifically, religious doctrines and practices do change, and some people are irreligious, not only in modern societies, but in traditional and preliterate ones as well.

However, I entirely agree with economist Gary Becker (1930–2014) that social scientists must resist the "temptation of simply postulating the required shift in 'preferences' to explain changing patterns." Thus, for example, when Methodism swept through the Church of England during the eighteenth century, resulting in a tumultuous schism, the usual response of historians and sociologists has been to ask, why did people's religious preferences change? The assumption is that events like this occur because people suddenly develop new, unmet, religious preferences or "needs." But a far better explanation of this and other such events can usually be found by postulating changes in "supply," rather than changes in preferences — that is, in religious "demand." When people change churches or even religions, it usually is not because their preferences have changed, but because the new church or faith more effectively appeals to preferences they have always had — as I pursue at length in chapter 5. In fact, even when changes in preferences do occur, this usually is the consequence, rather than the cause, of variations in choices.

In any event, implicit in Proposition 1 is that the religious choices people make are as rational as their other choices. Indeed, the celebrated Max Weber emphasized this point: "Religiously or magically motivated behavior is relatively rational behavior. ... It follows rules of experience ... [and] must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct."

Religion and Irrationality

Even so, Peter Berger thought it a devastating criticism of the "so-called 'rational actor' school in the social sciences, originally associated with the work of Rodney Stark" to note that "a Jihadist contemplating a suicide attack does not sit down and make a cost-benefit analysis; the passions of religion usually follow a different rationale." Of course, the assumption of rationality does not suppose that we sit down and sum up the pluses and minuses of each decision prior to acting; it does assume that we have reasons to suppose that the important actions we take are those that best serve our purposes, which also applies fully to the case of Muslim suicide bombers. From Berger's perspective they are irrational, but from their perspective they are trading this rather mundane life for an eternal life of magnificent bliss. For the men, they expect to spend eternity in a lovely oasis provided with seventy-two virgins and greatly enhanced virility. For the women, they expect to become the fairest of the fair and to be chief among the seventy-two virgins. The Jihadists may be sadly wrong, but they are most certainly acting to truly maximize their rewards, and only a sheltered academic could think otherwise.

Of course, Berger is probably expressing the majority view. The notion that religious choices are rational flies in the face of a host of claims that it is irrational to be religious. In fact, "irrational theories" have dominated social scientific approaches to religion since the so-called Enlightenment. Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), led the way by explaining that religion is merely the result of fear, anxiety, and illusion: "There are certain humours in mankind which of necessity must have vent. The human mind and body are both subject to commotions," and religious enthusiasm occurs "when we are full of Disturbances and Fears within, and have, by Sufferance and Anxiety, lost so much of the natural Calm and Easiness of our Temper. ... And thus is Religion also Panick."

There is an unbroken chain of such claims leading directly to that immensely influential quack Sigmund Freud, whose contemptuous claims about religion were dismissed in the Introduction. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Freud has long been discredited, his views remain influential in the social scientific study of religion. For example, Michael P. Carroll's absurd claim that praying the rosary is "disguised gratification of repressed anal erotic desires" — a substitute for playing "with one's feces" — was published in a leading journal, and the editor (a wellknown psychologist) refused to publish any comments or rejoinders.

The irrational theories are easily refuted one by one, but it is needless to do so because they all fall to this single criticism: it is absurd to propose that something so nearly universal as religious beliefs reflect mental abnormalities. To do so makes nonsense of the idea of normal. And that irrational people often are religious is no more indicative than is the fact that, in the United States, most of the mentally ill are white and far more of them live in California than in North Dakota.


Humans not only reason. As thinking and feeling creatures, we also wonder. We do not blindly repeat actions merely because we have been reinforced for doing so. Rather, humans attempt to understand what's going on. For example, early hunters were not content merely to know that if they approached game from the downwind direction, they would not be able to get very close to their prey; they wanted to know why this happened.

Proposition 2: Humans are conscious beings having memory and intelligence who are able to formulate explanations about how rewards can be gained and costs avoided.

Definition 2: Explanations are conceptual simplifications or models of reality that often provide plans designed to guide action.

Deduction: Because explanations help humans gain rewards and avoid costs, in and of themselves, explanations constitute rewards and will be sought by humans.

Explanations differ on a number of dimensions. First, they differ in the value and generality of the rewards they aim to produce. Second, they differ in their expected ratio of costs to benefits. That is, there usually are many ways by which a particular reward could be obtained, some more efficient than others. Third, explanations vary in the duration required for them to yield the desired reward. Finally, and most important, explanations differ in terms of their apparent adequacy — their reliability or fallibility. Obviously, "true" explanations usually will be more reliable than "false" ones, but not always. Moreover, truth and falsity are slippery criteria, often impossible to assess. Most of the time, what matters is whether an explanation suffices for the user's needs. For example, some early hunters might have concluded that the spirits of their game always congregated to the windward, and that when hunters approached downwind the spirits saw them and warned the game. Others might have attributed the behavior of the game to scents carried by the breeze, so that when hunters approached downwind their scent preceded them, warning the game to flee. Both explanations would direct hunters to always approach into the wind and thus would work equally well. However, only the explanation based on scent can be expanded to account for the ability of carnivores to track game.

Proposition 3: Humans will attempt to evaluate explanations on the basis of results, retaining those that seem to work most efficiently.

Humans persist in their efforts to find ways to gain rewards, to find procedures or implements that achieve the desired results. Those that don't seem to work will be discarded; those that appear to work, or those that work better than some others, will be preserved. As a result of this process:

Proposition 4: Over time, humans will accumulate increasingly effective culture.

Definition 3: Culture is the sum total of human creations — intellectual, technical, artistic, physical, and moral — possessed by a group.

Other things being equal, through the process of evaluation, over time the explanations retained by a group will become more effective — more capable of producing desired rewards. It must be recognized that it is far more difficult to evaluate some explanations rather than others, and that this also may change as a culture becomes more complex. Lacking microscopes, the ancient Romans could not evaluate Marcus Terentius Varro's (116 BC–27 BC) explanation of disease based on bacteria — "minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, but which float through the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and cause serious diseases."

Proposition 5: Rewards are always limited in supply, including some that do not exist in the observable world.

Proposition 6: Individuals will differ in their ability to gain rewards.

People always want more rewards than they can have, and the supply of any reward (to the extent that it is available at all) will vary by time and place. In addition to variations in the supply of rewards, there exist substantial differences in the relative ability of individuals to gain rewards.

Deduction: Stratification (inequality in the possession of and access to rewards) will exist in all societies.

If all this weren't bad enough, some of the most intensely desired rewards are unavailable, here and now, to anyone. The most obvious of these is the desire to overcome death. A second is for justice to always be rewarded and evil always be punished. In addition, people generally want their existence to have meaning, for there to be reasons behind reality, as I examine in detail in chapter 9. But no such reasons can be verified in this life.

Proposition 7: To the degree that rewards are scarce, or are not directly available at all, humans will tend to formulate and accept explanations for obtaining the reward in the distant future or in some other nonverifiable context, such as the other world.

Such explanations are difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate, and to accept them requires a substantial level of trust or faith. This mention of faith is not meant to suggest that only religious explanations have this unverifiable aspect; in fact, most explanations of this sort that people encounter are not religious at all. When a child wants a bike and a parent explains that the bike can be obtained next year if certain conditions (such as getting good grades) are met, the child must take this explanation on faith. There is no way to verify it, at least not before the applicable date. What distinguishes religious from secular explanations of this variety, aside from the immense value and scope of the rewards that are plausible through religious explanations, is the capacity to postpone the delivery of rewards to an otherworldly context. As I show, religions also offer many rewards here and now, but the truly potent religious resource is otherworldly rewards.

Definition 4: Otherworldly rewards are those that will be obtained only in a nonempirical (usually posthumous) context.

Otherworldly rewards are plausible through religious means because the source is not a parent or an employer, but a supernatural being. However, the significant point here is the context in which the rewards are to be realized — one in which it is at least extremely difficult, if not impossible, for living humans to discover whether the rewards arrive as promised. In contrast, many other rewards that can be sought from supernatural sources, such as miracles, are not otherworldly, inasmuch as they entail delivery in an empirical context. As I show, empirical rewards from the gods play a very significant role in generating and sustaining faith. But the most valuable of all religious rewards are otherworldly.


Excerpted from Why God? by Rodney Stark. Copyright © 2017 Rodney Stark. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Ungodly "Theories" and Scurrilous Metaphors 1

Chapter 1 The Elements of Faith 17

Chapter 2 Monotheism and Morality 49

Chapter 3 Religious Experiences, Miracles, and Revelations 71

Chapter 4 The Rise and Fall of Religious Movements 103

Chapter 5 Church and Sect: Religious Group Dynamics 131

Chapter 6 Ecclesiastical Influences 161

Chapter 7 Religious Hostility and Civility 181

Chapter 8 Individual Causes and Consequences of Religiousness 211

Chapter 9 Meaning and Metaphysics 231

Appendix: Propositions, Definitions, and Deductions 237

Notes 261

Bibliography 267

Index 281

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews