Sunday, June 24, 2012

6th best: Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God

"An Essential Book"             

*****     84 + / 5 -

If I were going to pick ten "must read" books out of the two hundred or so I have reviewed for Amazon or in print, this brilliant work would stand near the top. Your education is not complete, and may be defective, until you have come to terms with Stark's arguments.

Stark offers four of them. First, faith in God leads to quarrelsomeness (what someone referred to as the "joy of sects") and to reformations. (Brilliantly contrasting the "Church of Power" and the "Church of Piety.") Stark has some very interesting insights derived from Adam Smith about what happens when a religion has a monopoly, and what happens when (as in the US) a free market of spiritual ideas comes into being. But he somehow manages to spin his sociological theories without impinging on individual human choice.

Second, Stark argues that faith in God encouraged Christians to invent science. Having read other books making the same claim, I think Stark's approach to this question is one of the best. (Though don't miss James Hannam's The Genesis of Science.)  Not only does he go over the development of technology in the so-called "Dark Ages," and show how the "Enlightenment" picture of Copernican era science is a myth, he studies 52 key early scientists, and shows that more than 60 % were "devout," while only two were skeptics. The critic below who asks why Christianity did not produce science in Russia did not read attentively: Stark argues that faith in God was a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of the rise of science. Other factors were also involved. True, he does goes on quite a tangent (10-15 pages; but in a 400 + page book) on evolution. But even there, he finds some interesting things to say -- I didn't know the story of the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce was largely untrue, for example.  (Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman also tells the story in our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, coming out this fall.  Steven Jay Gould also gives in an interesting twist, in Bully for Brontosaurus.)

The third section of For the Glory of God gives a detailed, and I think accurate, explanation of the witchhunts. "Anti-Semitic violence, persecution of heretics, and witch hunts were collateral results of conflicts between major religious forces" (ie, Islam and Christianity). I do not think this "denigrates" or "trivializes" the idea that witchhunting was an act of "social solidarity," as is claimed by at least one reviewer; in fact Stark looks in detail at such community-level causes as well as the "big picture." (See the works of Rene Girard for fascinating insight on "scapegoating" in general, a concept that may help bridge Stark's approach and the "social solidarity" approach.) Stark also points out that the witch hunts claimed less than one in a hundred as many victims as often alleged, that it was not enlightenment figures, but inquisitors and a Jesuit, who first spoke against persecution of "witches," and that early Christians like Augustine thought belief in witches was pure superstition.

Finally, Stark shows how Christians put an end to slavery, beginning in the "Dark Ages." His discussion of this subject is more complete and detailed than any I had yet read. As with his treatment of science, he draws from a wide array of sources, and gives facts and figures when possible. (How much England paid to free slaves, the percent of abolitionists who were pastors, and so on.) Along the way, Stark takes his favorite hobby-horses in the sociology of science out for a handsome trot across the landscape.

Finally, let me offer a rebuttal to recent critism. The Amazon reviewer before myself complained of Stark's many errors. Unfortunately, the only example he gave (calling the Dao Dejing by the name of its author, Lao Zi) is not a mistake. I have a copy of the book on my shelf in Chinese with just that title; both titles are now used. Calling a philosophy book by the name of its author was standard in ancient China: the Zhuang Zi, Xun Zi, Mencius.

Another critic (who may or may not have read the rest of the book) did not appreciate Stark's attempt to set the relationship between Christianity and persecution of witches in a more balanced context. She called it "the dumbest thing I ever heard." But contrary to what she seemed to think, Stark does NOT say witches worship the devil, rather: "the concept of satanism was deduced by leading Church intellectuals." The critic also suggested we ask a modern witch. Good idea. Neo-pagan historian Jenny Gibbons has written a very good on-line article that admits, with embarrassment at sensationalism in the New Age community, many of the very points Stark makes.

A so-called "militant skeptic" gave a fairer review, and may have caught Stark out in a minor error or two on a peripheral subject. (I haven't read Libanios.) But I can find such micro-flubs in most books, even my own. In a book of this scope and detail, that is hardly reason to grade such a sweeping, and empirically tested, argument down. Stark often gets big facts I am aware of right where many or most writers get them wrong.

Contrary to what some seem to assume, this is not a text of apologetics. An honest arbitaire, like the Jesuits of Paraguay whose remarkable story Stark tells, may get it from both sides. Don't let niggling criticism dissuade you from reading this brilliant, essential, and deeply enlightening work.


Anonymous said...

Didn't Hector Avalos demolish this book in his masterful book about slavery? Yes I think he did. His book is one I'd recommend to anyone.

David B Marshall said...

I'm sure he tried. He also tried to "demolish" my arguments on the subject in Truth Behind the New Atheism; the forlorn wreckage of his attempts can be found elsewhere on this site.

It would be nice if Avalos' book were under $100.

Anonymous said...

I think I read somewhere that the book can be purchased for around $50.00 at the publisher's website if you're interested. It's not the best price but it's much better than the $100.00 it's selling for on I'd love to read your critique. I honestly don't have high hopes for it given your lack of substance with your other critiques of Avalos's work but I'm sure it would be highly entertaining.

David B Marshall said...

Can you really say this and my other blogs on this topic "lack substance?" It's chock full of highly significant raw data:

The rest of this year is looking really crammed -- lots of writing projects. But I would like to deal with Avalos' book, some time.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news but the link leads nowhere.

David B Marshall said...

Click on 2011, then October, then "Abolition of Slavery, the Early Years." Or Google those words.

Ross said...

"Anonymous"'s posts sound suspiciously like self-promotion...

David B Marshall said...

Oh, I don't think he's Dr. Avalos. Hector has a sizeable fan base. I probably should tweak the comments so as to disallow anonymous postings, though; it's better to know who you're talking to.