SOME IDEAS ARE so potent as to be world-changing. For Rodney Stark, Christianity encompasses just such a set of ideas. In his view, Christian beliefs and images of God shaped the course of Western civilization. And not only that; they changed it for the better.
Stark is a leading sociologist of religion who draws on a formidable body of empirical research to explain how religious beliefs spread and why religious groups flourish or fail. While some thinkers regard belief in the supernatural as incidental to the practice of religion, Stark finds it essential.
He is also convinced that a prejudice against religious belief has distorted modern scholarship and continues to infect academic opinion. He has challenged most of the prominent modern theories of religion, including Marxism (religion is a mask for class consciousness), functionalism (religion serves as a moral restraint or social glue) and psychological reductionism (religion is a form of infantile wish fulfillment).
Stark also dissents from the views of two giants of sociology: Max Weber, who regarded religious consciousness as nonrational, and Emile Durkheim, who contended that ritual, not belief, is the core of religion and that society itself, not God or the gods, is the real object of worship.
Stark offers an alternative theory. His main propositions: religion is a reasonable human activity; beliefs about the supernatural are religions' central and most consequential aspect; beliefs are spread not by cultural flat or coercion, but through networks of family and friends; religious practices and institutions may rise and fall, but the human demand for religion will not wither away.
Looking to broaden the application of his sociological tools, Stark, who recently joined the faculty at Baylor University, has in the past decade turned his attention to history. This work has led to another of his contentions: the most powerful and progressive religions idea is monotheism.
In his two most recent historical analyses, One True God (2001) and For the Glory of God (2003), Stark argues that monotheistic belief not only shaped Western history but ,also cultivated and in some cases gave birth to values that changed the world for the better. In the forthcoming Victories of Reason he will go even further, contending that the most significant advances in knowledge, liberty, human rights and material well-being--what we like to call progress--stem not from Greece or the Enlightenment or modernity but from Christianity itself.
"There comes a time when you have to choose sides," lie observes. "Either you think Western civilization is a good thing and that Christianity has been a major piece of it, or you don't. I do believe, in Western civilization, I make no bones about that. The politically correct doesn't cut it for me."
Much of the debate over Stark's work has focused on his application of "rational choice theory" to religion. Originally derived from economics, rational choice theory is now used across the social sciences to explain human behavior as a self-interested, choice-making affair. Applied to religion, the theory holds that humans will choose and pursue spiritual goods in the same way they pursue material ones--according to their interests and by calculation. When choosing religious affiliation and level of commitment, people will weigh rewards against costs and they will try to get the most for their investment. Religion, by this reckoning, is an exchange of goods with God or the gods.
Rational choice is a presupposition of another sociological model embraced by Stark: the "theory of religious economies," which posits that churches and other religious groups operate in a market in which they must compete for adherents. The more open the market, the stronger the competition will be.
Critics of these approaches worry that the language of "cost" and "risk," and file model of churches as religions "firms" competing for market "share" and of believers as "investors" whose religious preferences and affiliations are likened to "portfolios," reduce religion to yet another marketable product and turn believers into consumers. …