Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion

Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion

Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion

Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Until quite recently there was very little science in the social scientific study of religion. As a child of the “Enlightenment,” social science began with the conviction that religion was not only false but wicked and best gotten rid of as soon as possible. Of course, there was nothing new about atheism: many ancient Greek philosophers rejected the gods, as did various schools of Indian and Chinese philosophy (Collins 1998). Indeed, according to Clifford Geertz (1966), atheists exist in preliterate and “primitive” societies, making it likely that there were atheists even in Neanderthal times.

What Thomas Hobbes and his friends began more than three centuries ago was, however, something quite original. Not only were they the first to use the tools of a developing social science to attack religion, but they tried to make a religion out of their science—an intellectual tradition that reached full flower more than three centuries later in Carl Sagan’s recent popularizations, in which the “Cosmos” is the proper object of awe and “Nature” is always capitalized (Barbour 1990; Ross 1985). In one paragraph of his enormously influential work Leviathan, Hobbes dismissed all religion as “credulity,” “ignorance,” and “lies,” explaining that although the gods exist only in the minds of believers, and are but “creatures of their own fancy,” humans “stand in awe of their own imaginations” ([1651] 1956, 1: 98). Two centuries later, there had been a considerable evolution in academic jargon, as demonstrated by the German philosopher Ludwig von Feuerbach when he made a similar claim in his book Das Wesen des Christentums: “Man—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject…. God is the highest subjectivity of man

An earlier version of this chapter appeared as Rodney Stark, “Atheism, Faith, and the Social Scientific Study of Religion.” Journal of Contemporary Religion, (1999) 14:41–62.

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