Rodney Stark's 28 books on the history and sociology of religion include The Rise of Christianity, Historical Causes of Monotheism, and For the Glory of God. Now a professor at Baylor University, he has championed the idea that government establishment of religion leads to public apathy, but vibrant competition among and within religions leads more people to adhere to them.
Stark's new book, Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief (HarperOne, 2007), offers insights into the development of Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist doctrines and takes aim at some myths concerning the spread of Christianity and Islam. The importance of competition remains a central theme, but Stark explores many nooks and crannies.
WORLD: Why did you do this comparative study of the great faiths?
STARK: Having assembled an extensive collection of books on comparative religion, I discovered that they contain almost no comparisons. Instead, the typical book devotes a chapter to the beliefs and practices of each religion with few cross references to other faiths. I thought it time to actually do comparisons-to suggest, for example, that Buddhism was simply the new Hinduism without the emphasis on asceticism.
WORLD: You write that Buddhism moved from an ascetic movement into a pampered priesthood relying on patronage rather than broad popular support.
STARK: From the start, Buddhism was an elite movement. Buddha and his early followers were of the nobility and they believed that one reached Nirvana through meditation, not through asceticism. They also were content to remain a monastic order rather than a mass movement, and to focus their appeal on the wealthy and powerful (their relatives among them) with the result that they were showered with lavish gifts. As the monasteries became rich, the monks ceased to wander and adopted a settled lifestyle of comfort.
WORLD: So how did Hinduism justify the stratified inequalities of Indian life and the exalted status of Brahmans?
STARK: If one assumes that we are reincarnated on the basis of merit, then not only do those in exalted positions deserve their privileges, having earned them in prior lives, but those in misery also are only getting what they deserve. In that sense there truly is a hell on earth.
WORLD: Your description of Taoism's elaborately quantified system of deeds and consequences is interesting: An excess of 1,200 good deeds over evil ones leads to Heavenly Immortality but a deficit of 530 causes children to be born dead?
STARK: In an effort to forge the strongest possible link between morality and religion, Taoist teachers discovered that quantification was a very effective way to educate the public. People seemed to grasp more easily the message when presented with the specific consequences of specific ratios of good deeds to evil ones. Because they also realized that it is extremely difficult not to sin, the Taoists introduced simple methods for having sins forgiven. I am struck by the resemblance to the medieval Catholic notions concerning indulgences.
WORLD: Let's look at Christianity: What was its growth pattern from Christ's resurrection to the era of Roman emperor Constantine, and how did the advantages of Christian females contribute to that growth?
STARK: I estimate a Christian growth curve of about 3.4 percent a year. Supposing there were 1,000 Christians in the year 40, this rate of growth results in the Roman Empire being at least 50 percent Christian by the year 350. Women played a major role in conversion. First, because Christian women enjoyed many advantages compared with pagan women, they were especially likely to convert, and early congregations were quite disproportionately women. Second, because women then converted their husbands, sons, and brothers.
WORLD: What were the advantages and disadvantages of the transformation Christianity went through under Constantine?
STARK: Constantine made Christianity the official church, lavished it with financial support, and ended the persecutions. The results were a disaster. Where once only those deeply committed to faith entered the clergy, with all the risks and sacrifices that were demanded of them, now church officials were among the ruling elite and it was the ambitious sons of the rich and powerful who rushed into the clergy and pushed piety far into the background. The church became lazy; it took many centuries to spread the faith into northern Europe, and public piety greatly declined. Contrary to the received wisdom, medieval Europe was very irreligious.
WORLD: So the idea of a medieval European "age of faith" is more myth than reality?
STARK: People point to the huge and splendid cathedrals built during medieval times and assume they reflect the great regard the common people had for the church. I respond, look at all the splendid castles and palaces built during this same era. I guess they show the great regard the common people had for the nobility. Nonsense! Both palaces and cathedrals were squeezed out of the sullen peasants. Attendance at mass (when the local priest bothered to hold services) was very low.
WORLD: Let's turn to Islam: Why did Muslim Arabs gain military victory with such ease during the seventh century?
STARK: They were very well-organized and led, and they were highly mobile (everyone rode on a camel and then dismounted to fight). In addition, they were opposed by fortress garrison troops who were poorly suited to fight battles of maneuver. Eventually, the Muslim invaders ran into quality Christian forces at Tours (Poitiers) and were routed. From then on the Muslim tide began to ebb. Christians soon began to retake Spain, then Sicily and Southern Italy were liberated.
WORLD: Some Muslims and their supporters state that Muslim conquests led to rapid mass conversions. How long did it take for half of the people in conquered areas to become Muslims?
STARK: It took more than two centuries, despite the immense financial and social benefits of converting.
WORLD: It's commonly written that Muslims in Spain and other conquered areas were more tolerant than Christians. Any truth in that?
STARK: Not a bit. The notion that Muslims nurtured benign, multicultural societies, while Christians were viciously intolerant, is a lie made up by Voltaire, Gibbons, and other 18th-century writers intent on trashing the Catholic Church. Life in an Islamic society was, for Jews and Christians, nasty, demeaning, and dangerous.
WORLD: When pluralists say that all religions have contributed to the discovery of God, I suspect you have criteria for evaluating that claim.
STARK: First, was the religion founded on claims of revelation? Buddha, for example, regarded gods as of very minor significance and claimed to have discovered religious truths on his own. In contrast, Moses based his teachings on what he said had been revealed to him by God. If we take Buddha at his word, he contributed nothing to our understanding of God. If we believe Moses, he greatly enlightened us.
WORLD: And then?
STARK: There ought to be substantial consistency among faiths sharing a valid claim to know God. For example, if faiths teaching that there is a conscious life after death are valid, then those faiths that teach otherwise must not be valid. Finally, ordered as to when they were founded, authentic faiths ought to reveal an increasingly sophisticated and complex understanding of God.