Field of Science

Big questions in the social science of religion? How to get it wrong...

The social science of religion has taken off in the past decade or two, after having been the poor relation of other fields of study for the past century. One of the major reasons for this transformation is a guy called Rodney Stark, currently Professor of Social Science at Baylor University. In the 1980s he, along with a few others, challenged the then-dominant paradigm of 'secularization'. In simple terms, the secularization paradigm said that industrial modernization brings with it an inexorable decline in religiosity.

Using the USA as example of a modern nation that bucks the trend, Stark challenged this assumption and showed that it was wrong, at least as a simple description. In it's place, he put forward an alternative theory based on free market forces to explain the vigour of religion in the USA. Religion in the Old World, he argued, was unpopular simply because it didn't cater for people's needs.

Anyway, all that has nothing directly to do with this blog post! What this post is about is a new paper by Rodney Stark, in which attacks a few sacred cows in the social science of religion. It's published in the open-access Interdisciplinary Journal of Research in Religion - you can read it here. After attacking these sacred cows Stark puts forward a couple of alternative, more nuanced ideas but (astonishingly!) his proposals are vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms he makes of the 'sacred cows'. All right so here they are:

Sacred cow #1: Religion functions to sustain the moral order

As Stark points out, clearly religion in its broadest sense does no such thing. The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were hardly moral role models! As a result many sociologists, the original and most famous being Emile Durkheim, have argued that religion is all about rites and rituals - the particulars of the god involved are simply unimportant.

Stark reckons he's proved them wrong. He did a cross-country analysis which showed that, in monotheistic countries (26 Christian and 1 Muslim) there was a strong correlation between the importance of god in an individual's life and their tolerance for immoral behaviour. In the two polytheistic nations (China and Japan), there was no such correlation.

Stark thinks that this proves that moralistic religions (but not others) improve morality. He concludes:
Religions will function to sustain the moral order if (and only if) they conceive of conscious, morally concerned gods. Lacking such a conception of gods, religious rites and rituals will have little or no effect on morality.
But wait a moment! All he has actually shown is that people who adhere to a 'moralistic' religion will, when questioned, tell you that they are moralistic. This says nothing about cause and effect!

Perhaps moralistic religions have no effect on behaviour. Perhaps if your dominant religion is moralistic, it simply discourages non-moralistic people from joining. Perhaps people who claim to follow a moralistic religion will, when questioned, say that they are moralistic - but then do something completely different in their private lives. Hypocrisy is not unknown in the religious sphere...

Sacred cow #2: Poor people are more religious and initiate new religious movements

In fact, as Stark has shown, new religious movements are usually started by people with wealth and connections. But he gives a totally bizarre and unsupported reason for this:
Religious movements usually are formed by people of privilege, especially those who have inherited their status and then find that power and privilege do not satisfy their spiritual concerns.
Surely the reason that new religious movements are usually founded by those in a position of power is the same reason that powerful people are responsible for most historical events: they are more powerful!

If you are going to start a new religion, then you will need followers. To get followers, you need to be a somebody - it's incredibly difficult to get people to take you seriously as a prophet of new gods if you are an itinerant nobody. Reputation is all, when it comes to religious authority. Plus, money can help support and protect you. Furthermore, since religious hierarchies are closely linked to power, starting a new religion is often the first stage in a power grab.

These seem like strange mistakes for Stark to make. But they are easy to understand once you know where he's coming from. If religious ritual is what is important (sociologically speaking) about religion, then it can easily be substituted by modern secular organisations. Indeed, that's exactly what Durkheim argued. And if poor people are more religious, then modernization and wealth will lead also lead to secularization.

In other words, he needs to convince himself (and others) of his two 'axioms' in order for Rational Choice Theory to be true. And, as a result, he's not being sufficiently self critical.

The paper goes on to deal with a couple of other issues, including a lengthy swipe at Gregory Paul's 2005 paper linking religion to societal ills. But his major criticisms (that correlation does not equal causation, and that preconceptions should not be shoe-horned into the evidence) can be directly levelled at his earlier claims!


  1. On several occassions I have been struck by Stark's willingness to shoehorn the evidence. For example, his thesis that the scientific revolution was only made possible by Christianity, rather than having been impeded by it. At the same time, I find his main thesis to be totally unconvincing and do not think that he has provided anything like adequate evidence. I know that he's considered one of the most important people in the area but I, for what it's worth, have found his work consistently unimpressive.

  2. I think the problem with Stark is that he came up with an innovative theory that worked in the USA but which has no cross-cultural validity. But he's reluctant to admit that and so his work becomes increasingly poor.

  3. Tom, I'm sure there's some of that, but I still feel that his motivation is to be a Christian apologist. Clearly, the US is the best place for his free market of religions idea but even there the idea only manages to capture one aspect of religion and can not be used as the main thesis to hang a theory off - not that there is any alternative that is clearly adequate in that respect. What is more, I suspect that the degree to which the theory gets the data right in the US is more a coincidence than anything.

  4. Re moral order: As you say correlation is not causation. However I think that most of the religious BELIEVE that their religion underwrites the moral order. I've argued elsewhere ( that it's this belief that causes them to conflate atheism and immorality and thus to get so angry about atheism.

  5. There are a couple of other issues here too. The two 'polytheistic' countries, China and Japan, are both countries in which several different 'faiths', some monotheistic, are widely found. On a recent tourist trip to China I saw little sign of religion (one mosque, a few churches, some Buddhist and communist images).

    You see more temples in Japan, even though Paul rates it one of the least religious nations, but Buddhism (which endorses a moral order) seems much commoner than Shinto (whose polytheism I do not understand).

    In short I think there's a need to dig deeper here.


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