Deceased: Rodney Stark, sociologist who said religion is a rat…… | News and reports
Rodney Stark, the influential and controversial sociologist who advocated rational choice in religion, died last month at 88.
Stark argued that religious conversion, engagement, and cultural vitality should be understood in terms of costs and benefits. He rejected the common assumption that people practice a religion because they agree with the theology, arguing that affirmations of belief are secondary to social ties. And he dismissed academic accounts of the belief as “false conscience” or fundamentally irrational.
In more than 30 books published over seven decades, including The Church of America 1776-1990with Roger Finke; the future of religion, with William Sims Bainbridge; and The rise of Christianity, by himself – Stark countered that religious life was no different from other human pursuits. It could only be understood in terms of people’s social connections and rational choices.
“That’s the basis of my whole sociology of religion: people are as thoughtful and rational about their religious choices as they are about other choices in life,” Stark said. “If you assume that people make rational choices about religion, you start to see how the world works much better.”
The “rational choice theory”, as it was called, also led Stark to make influential arguments about religious competition and why some movements thrive and others decline. According to his research, religious groups that make it easier to join and participate will – unexpectedly – see fewer people joining and participating. Those who emphasize their difference and social deviance, on the other hand, will see their numbers increase.
“Thousands of articles and books have sought to build on or challenge Stark’s bold claims,” said Conrad Hackett, senior demographer at the Pew Research Center, wrote on Twitter. “His prose was clear, compelling and abundant.”
Stark is sometimes credited with reviving the sociology of religion, although this ignores the critical work of his peers and rivals, such as Robert Bellah and Peter Berger. Stark was, however, very good at generating interest in his research questions. He did it partly by going against the grain. One of his fundamental theoretical commitments often seemed to be that consensus and conventional wisdom were wrong.
He also allowed himself to follow his interests across disciplinary lines, working on what he wanted to work on. He had a knack for finding new topics and questions that drew more people into his research.
“I don’t think I have a mark,” he wrote. “I am a devoted, even reckless eclectic.”
An unusual achievement
Stark was born July 8, 1934, and grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, about 100 miles west of Fargo and 100 miles east of Bismarck.
Vanderbilt sociologist Gary Jensen once remarked that in their academic field, this set Stark apart. “He’s the only sociology doctor from North Dakota that I know of,” Jensen said. “This is a rather unusual achievement in sociology as a discipline.”
Stark has never spoken publicly about his parents or spoken much about his childhood, except to note that he was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran, but thought more, growing up, about football and baseball.
He only became interested in religion after he graduated from college, moved to California and went to work as a reporter for the Oakland Grandstand. It started with a story about UFOs.
“I came out to cover something called the Oakland Spacecraft Club,” he said.Christianity today in 2003, “where there was a guy talking who was going to talk about his trip to Mars, Venus and the moon on a flying saucer. I wrote a Sunday feature film and I had the maturity, where it came from, I don’t know, but I had the maturity to write it directly. … I was then considered the “zany writer”. Anything strange that happened, whether it was a calendar reform or a new religion, I would be assigned to it.
His ability to “write things straight” – to accept the plausibility of people’s beliefs and take their accounts of faith seriously – became a strong asset when he began graduate studies in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. In the first year of his master’s degree, he was recruited by the sociologist Charles Glock for research on the links between religious “particularism” and anti-Semitism.
Study religious commitment
However, Stark soon turned to the deeper question of commitment. He wanted to know why people are religious. What do they get out of it? He and fellow graduate student John Lofland developed a theory of conversion, focusing on social relationships, felt needs, and individual will.
“The heart of religion is commitment,” Stark wrote in 1970. “Despite the primacy of this aspect of religion, it has been studied very little. Virtually no systematic attempt has been made to determine what factors contribute to or inhibit the efforts of religious institutions to recruit and retain engaged members.
His first major study looked at 3,000 white worshipers in Northern California and an additional 2,000 Protestants and Catholics nationwide. The American Journal of Sociology called it “impressive and comprehensive”.
Focusing on religious commitment and why people choose to identify with a faith, Stark also noticed that competition between religious groups encouraged more conversions. Most at the time believed that religious diversity had the opposite effect, contributing to a general religious decline.
“We’re always told that when there’s more than one church, people don’t know what to believe, so they don’t believe any of them,” Stark later explained. “No. What you have when you only have one subsidized church is a very lazy church that doesn’t work to keep people happy or to bring them in.
Predicting the future of religion
In the process, Stark became highly critical of his fellow sociologists’ attempts to understand religion. He concluded that the classics of the field, including the works of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, were fundamentally wrong. Their definitions of religion made little sense, he thought, and predictions about the decline and ultimate demise of religion in the modern world, called the “secularization thesis,” were totally wrong.
In 1985 he joined sociologist William Sims Bainbridge to write The future of religion. The book argues that although secularization is occurring, it is more limited than sociologists have recognized and is countered by two unrecognized social forces: revival and religious innovation.
In 1992, he joined sociologist Roger Finke to apply his theories of religious choice and competition to American history. A number of professional historians and religious studies scholars have criticized the assessment framework, which used growth as the exclusive and universal metric for measuring religious success. They also questioned how sociological terms were applied in the historical context. Was it really true, for example, that Southern Baptists experienced more “tensions” in the segregated Jim Crow South than left-leaning, LGBT-affirming Episcopalians?
Despite professional skepticism, The Church of America found a large and enthusiastic audience, and Stark’s approach was widely embraced by journalists and others who attempted to explain changes in the religious landscape.
Stark also applied his rational choice theory to other historical topics. He sought to explain the success of the early church by The rise of Christianitymonotheism in One True Godand the disciples of Joseph Smith The rise of Mormonism. He also moved away from sociological questions to focus on historical defenses of unpopular causes, including writing a defense of the Crusades in 2009.
“The short answer to why I wrote the book is self-indulgence,” Stark said. “That’s always why I write. I mean, the big secret is that college life has given me the privilege of writing every morning for the past few years. It’s the reason to get up and the reason to have a happy day. And that’s why I do it.
“I struggle with faith”
His numerous defenses of religion in general and Christianity in particular seemed to have a personal impact on Stark towards the end of his career. He had long said he was an advocate of Western civilization and happy to embrace cultural Christianity but found himself unable to say more than that.
“I have issues with faith,” he said in 2004. “I’m not proud of it. I don’t think that makes me an intellectual. I would believe if I could, and maybe I could before it’s over.
Later that year he moved from the University of Washington to Baylor University, where he became co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion. In 2007 he said that although he could not become a Baptist, he could profess a personal faith.
“I found out…that I was a Christian,” he said. “I guess ‘independent Christian’ is the best description of my current position.”
Stark died July 21 at his home in Woodway, Texas. He was predeceased by his wife, Lynne Roberts. He is survived by one son, Joshua Stark. No public memorial is planned.