One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism

Article excerpt

One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism. By Rodney Stark. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2001. Pp. xii, 319. $24.95.)

Stark's fields are sociology and comparative religion. He states honestly that he is not a professional historian but has relied on secondary literature for "historical pieces" as a "test" of his own, original sociological theories. Stark wants to understand why some religions attract not just more adherents but deeper adherency in their followers, why some are regionally bound and why others transcend the boundaries of their origins, often pushing aside other, established religions in the process. The idea of a single, all-powerful, essentially benign, predictable, and just God who can offer not just minor rewards and punishments in the here and now, if properly placated, as did the all-too-human gods of paganism, but lasting fulfillment of human needs after death, fits the necessary criteria that he draws out in the early chapters of the book. Hence the success of monotheism in its ability to inspire its adherents to want very much to share the great comfort of the monotheistic vision with their families, friends, and trading partners.

Stark then takes the reader on a journey through the history of the development and spread of three great monotheistic religions, with comments on Hinduism and Buddhism as parallel and counterpoint. He does not at all shy from the negative side of an exclusive deity, showing that while it can tolerate minorities if they are minor and non-threatening, it will not do so beyond a certain point. Along the way Stark explodes some popular myths, such as the notion that Islam was more tolerant of Jews than was Christianity, noting Islam's frequent recourse to conversion by force and social and economic pressure.

Stark shows that most large-scale violent incidents against Jews within Christendom took place in the relatively ungovernable areas of the Rhineland valley, and that similar large-scale violence against Jews happened in Spain when a more extremist form of Islam took over. …