Big Ideas

February 12, 2004

Working with big ideas -- and turning them upside down -- is nothing new to Rodney Stark. The man who almost single-handedly recast the study of the sociology of religion over the past several decades doesn't only make assumptions; he challenges them.
Take the concept of rational choice as it applies to religious behavior. For many years, "Sociologists denied that people chose to be religious or that religious people decide how they wanted to express their religion," says Christopher Bader, a sociologist of religion who joined the Baylor faculty in fall 2002 after studying with Stark for six years. "The standard assumption was that religion is utterly irrational and primitive, and so, as people become more educated and modern, religion will die out. It was a real shift when Stark pointed out that there's no reason to assume that religious behavior is irrational. He said, 'Let's look at how religion can be a rewarding behavior, a rational behavior.' Starting with these different baseline assumptions, he recreated the field."
Sociologist and novelist Andrew Greeley of the University of Chicago recently wrote that Stark is a "giant," comparable to Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, the two leading early figures in the formation of the social scientific study of religion. As Greeley described him: "Arguing, refuting, dismissing, challenging, stamping his feet, pounding the table, and occasionally tossing an intellectual bomb, he continually throws the discipline of sociology of religion into chaos." 
Stark, who was named University Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor in the fall and is on campus this spring, admits that he often shakes up things in his field. But, he says, it's only because he has found it to be dominated by a smug, antireligious bias that prevents effective studies. "Anyone who said people reject religion because they are crazy or stupid would arouse a storm of condemnations. But, it has been OK to say that people are religious because they are ignorant or brainwashed," Stark says. "In truth, we are at least as choosy and rational about our religious choices as we are about buying cars or anything else. Faced with a substantial array of choices, about half of Americans change denominations at least once."
Stark published two books during 2003 -- For the Glory of God, which is his second of two books on historical consequences of monotheism, and Dio è Tornato (The Return of God), written in Italian. His 24th book, Exploring the Religious Life, is scheduled for publication in March, and he is working on Victories of Reason: How Christianity, Freedom and Capitalism Led to Western Success. He also has written a leading introductory sociology textbook (now in its ninth edition). "I did it largely because I couldn't stand to use the other books, and it was inefficient to try to be a textbook for a class of 800," he says. 
His book The Rise of Christianity, published in 1996, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and three others received Distinguished Book Awards. He also has published more than 140 peer-reviewed journal articles.
Maybe it's natural that a man who began his career as a journalist, reporting for the Denver Post and later the Oakland Tribune, should be such a prolific writer. He makes it clear, though, that he thinks too much of sociology is what he calls "slow journalism. They don't do anything more than a journalist would or could do. It's just basically a bunch of musing and attitudinizing that took forever to get done." He says his goal is to "bring the sociologist's tools of quantitative research and theory application to bear on understanding the human side of religion."
Educated at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid-1960s, he worked with noted sociologist Charles Y. Glock, with whom he co-authored four books while a graduate student. When he left California in 1971 with his PhD, he took his first academic post -- as a tenured full professor -- at the University of Washington, where he spent his 30-year academic career before coming to Baylor.
Stark visited Baylor for the first time last spring to deliver a lecture on "Upper Class Asceticism." Curious about the university that had lured his former student, Bader, he grew more interested after reading an article in Christianity Today (Nov. 18, 2002, Vol. 46, No. 12), which described the 2012 Vision. 
"It struck me that the plan was a good one. It's a big-time university that has not yet compromised itself to the point that it's lost," Stark says of Baylor's commitment to its religious heritage.
Baylor's intent to hire Christian scholars also caught his attention. Although he acknowledges the pervading opinion in higher education that there aren't enough Christian faculty members available, he considers it "pretty stupid, frankly. There are a lot of superior academics who are solid Christians, but in most places they keep their mouths shut, because there is, in fact, discrimination. But they're there," he says.
He also likes the interdisciplinary approach to social sciences at Baylor. "The idea of taking an appointment as a professor of social sciences fits me much better than being a professor of sociology," he says. "I will much enjoy having students from across the board. That should be a lot of fun."
Charles Tolbert, professor and chair of sociology and anthropology, says Stark will be "an intellectual leader" at the University. "He is a remarkable man. He will galvanize the social sciences at Baylor," he says.
As a researcher and scholar, Stark doesn't accept premises blindly. Nor did he accept Christianity without wrestling with the central message of the New Testament. "I never had any trouble believing in God; I had a lot of trouble with the New Testament, with the whole notion that somehow blood sacrifice is essential to make certain things happen. It seemed to me very pagan," he says, adding that he wondered why God wouldn't choose another way to convey the message of salvation.
It was while he was researching the origins of science in Christianity that he came to an understanding and acceptance that made sense to him. "Christian commitment to reason is massive, and part of it is that one shall sit and reason about Scripture," he says. "Augustine says, 'There are many things here we do not understand about God's revelations, but one day we will.' That suggests to me that the task is there for all of us."
In that process of reasoning it out, Stark realized that God's choice of revelation had more to do with us, with his creatures, than it did with God. "It's about what's communicable and can be understood. The limiting factor here was us. What could first century people understand? That's the shape that that particular revelation, that particular great gift, would come in because that was the way it could be accepted and understood. There's a way in which the New Testament story -- although timeless -- is marked by its time and is thereby appropriate, necessary and true."
And, whether in agreement with Stark's theories or not, academics listen. "I think everyone would agree that Stark is the biggest name in the sociology of religion right now," Bader says.
"Like Rodney Stark, most religion experts are isolated prophets in the wilderness of large sociology departments in secular universities. They yearn for colleagues and institutional support," Tolbert says. "Anyone who knows this field knows there aren't that many exciting departments out there at present. Religion is one of the few areas of sociology where significant developments are now possible."