Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review - Stark, For the Glory of God

Here is a brief summary and critique of Rodney Stark's intriguing historical work, 'For the Glory of God.' Enjoy!

Stark, Rodney. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 488 pp.

Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion with no eminent sympathy for the Christian faith, wants to set the record straight. World historians have, for the past two centuries, maligned and reviled the historic Christian Church for its perceived sins of the past. Stark insists that Christian monotheism has been an incredibly positive force, mobilizing millions of Europeans to achieve admirable goals (11). He deplores the efforts of historians “to dismiss the role of religion in producing ‘good’ things such as the rise of science or the end of slavery, and the corresponding efforts to blame religion for practically everything ‘bad.’” (12) For the Glory of God is his ‘humble’ attempt to provide a balanced account of Christian history—conveying the worthy accomplishments of the Church as well as noting its more sinister side. He pursues his goal by surveying four broad ‘events’—the Protestant Reformations (Chapter 2), the rise of modern science (Chapter 2), witch-hunts (Chapter 3), and the abolition of slavery (Chapter 4).

Chapter 1 – The Protestant Reformations


Stark begins by provocatively insisting that the Protestant Reformation launched by Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 was not new. He defines reformations as “efforts to restore or renew standards of religious belief and practice to a more demanding level, within a religious organization.” (16) If such attempts are thwarted (as Luther’s ultimately was), the reformation turns outward and becomes a new sect. The need for reformations is the tendency of religious organizations to become lax and lower-intensity over time (17). Hence, reformations are a fairly constant presence within religious bodies. Stark briefly discusses early Christian reformation movements—the Marcionites (27-28), Montanus (28-29), the Donatists (36-37), and Arians (39). He argues that the latter two groups were repressed out of existence, an occurrence which is inherent to monotheism wherever it possesses the power to do so. Stark claims that “religious intolerance is inherent in monotheism,” because “those who believe there is only One True God are offended by worship directed toward other Gods.” (32)

Stark’s main concern throughout this chapter is to challenge popular myths concerning the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. First, he insists that medieval Europe was not a highly religious, consistently Christian entity, as most modern historians claim (17). On the one hand, the majority of the population of northern Europe (Germany, Scandinavia) was only nominally Christian, often combining belief in Christ with residual pagan beliefs and practices. On the other hand, the medieval Catholic Church was often perfectly content with that situation, so long as the coin continued to flow into its coffers (46). Second, he argues that reforming movements were not new in the sixteenth century, despite protestations to the contrary. Stark argues that the Catholic Church had long been divided between the governing Church of Power, and the energizing Church of Piety (40). The former ran the show, while the latter sought to bring greater religious vitality to the clergy and laity alike. Furthermore, there were numerous reforming movements both within and without the Catholic Church. Stark mentions numerous pre-12th century heretical movements (46-47), the Cathars (53-55), the Waldensians (56-57), Free Spirit heresies (58-59), the Flaggelants (60-61), Wyclif and the Lollards (64), and John Hus (65-67). The reforming movement ran deep and wide throughout the medieval Catholic Church. This leads Stark to debunk a third popular medieval myth—that the Catholic Church was peopled by fanatically religious monks, priests, and bishops who sought to instill oppressive religious requirements upon the lay population of Catholic Europe (17). Stark argues that, on the contrary, the priesthood of the Catholic Church was depressingly “immoral and indolent,” and that most sincerely religious Europeans were burdened by the rampant immorality and impiety of the Church.” (68) However, reform-minded popes were unable to achieve the results they sought.

The Protestant Reformation was not, in Stark’s opinion, a successful reformation. Rather than reforming the church from the inside, Luther ended up with a new sect altogether (79). His original goal was simple reform, particularly concerning the sale of indulgences (82). However, as Catholic opposition to his reforms intensified, and he was branded a heretic, Luther was radicalized, and proposed “a complete religious revolution.” (83-84) Luther’s reforms were not theologically innovative—indeed, most of them were represented in the Hussite movement in Bohemia (86-87) generations earlier. Why then did the Protestant Reformation succeed where earlier movements had not? First, Luther framed the religious doctrines in a clear, concise fashion: “salvation by faith alone . . . the priesthood of all believers.” (85) This summation allowed his views to be widely disseminated, a process greatly aided by the newly-invented printing press. Second, Protestants (especially Calvinists) were remarkably effective at sharing their new-found faith with friends, neighbors, and family (95-96). In this way, the spread of Calvinist Protestantism resembled the spread of early Christianity. Stark spends the most time, however, discussing three other factors which determined where Protestantism succeeded, and where it failed to make long-term inroads.

First, the degree of Protestant success was directly proportional to the degree of local Catholic weakness (104). Some newly-Protestant areas (e.g. Denmark, Scandinavia) had been more recently Christianized, and Stark rightly indicts the Church for being satisfied with surface conversion. Other newly-Protestant areas (e.g. southern France, Germanic principalities) were marked by long-standing hostility to agents of the Catholic Church. For example, southern France still retained strong memories of the extermination of the Cathars, and there were still Waldensian communities who had been (and were being) repressed by Catholic France (105-07). Both of these factors led to “local Catholic weakness,” and enabled Protestant success.

Second, “other things being equal, to the extent that local governments responded to popular preferences, they turned Protestant.” (108) Protestantism was a popular movement, and if the government was responsive to popular demands, it was more likely to turn Protestant. Third, “some regimes had much to gain in terms of wealth and power from turning Protestant, while some regimes had far less to gain, having already minimized Church authority and exactions.” (105) German princes, like the Danish and Swedish kings, had both wealth and power threatened by the position of the Catholic Church, giving them strong incentive to embrace Protestantism (114). Spain and France, meanwhile, already exerted strong control over the Church, including its offices and finances, and had little incentive to turn Protestant (112-13).

Chapter 2 – The Religious Origins of Science


Most schoolchildren today are taught that modern science was the result of an “Enlightenment” in which the shackles of religious superstition were thrown off by courageous skeptics. The Christian Church fought the advance of scientific knowledge tooth and nail, but eventually the power of the truth won out, and Christianity receded while science pushed on. Stark refreshes the tableau and sets the record straight. His thesis in this chapter is fairly simple: “not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science.” (123) Pursuing this thesis requires the debunking of another set of powerful public myths.

First, Stark refutes the ‘Columbus myth,’ which teaches that Columbus had to fight against an oppressive Church which believed that the world was flat, not round. This myth, like so many others, originated in Andrew White’s magisterial work of deception, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (122). All of Columbus’ contemporaries, including the learned Christian Scholastics, believed that the world was round—their dispute with Columbus was over the circumference of the earth. [Incidentally, on that score Columbus’ opponents were correct; Columbus was fortunate that there was a Western Hemisphere—otherwise he would not have lived to tell his tale!] However, the myth presented by White is a necessary part of the militant atheistic Enlightenment tale—hence its enduring power.
Second, Stark refutes the myth of the “Dark Ages,” presenting medieval Europe as a hotbed of technical innovation (130-33) and Scholastic learning (134-43). Proponents of the Enlightenment require a ‘Dark Ages’ to contrast their own views; but the proposed perspective of medieval Europe is simply mythical. Stark notes that medieval Europe not only created technical innovations of their own, but rapidly implemented innovations derived elsewhere (133-34). Meanwhile, the universities, founded and endowed by the Church, promoted scientific learning and theorizing.

Third, Stark refutes the myth that the advance of science required the discarding of Christian theism. Rather, science required a Christian foundation on which to build. “Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.” (147) Christian theology presented a positive framework in which scientific hypotheses could be tested with confidence. Stark notes that neither China (149-52), Greece (153-54), nor Islam (154-55) contained sufficient theoretical and theological boundaries for modern science. Christian doctrine alone provided the key: nature is because it has a transcendent Creator; God’s laws govern natural regularities; knowing nature enables deeper comprehension of God (157). Further supporting Stark’s thesis, an examination of the most prominent scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries uncovers a remarkable degree of pious, devout Christian faith (162-63).

Fourth, Stark builds upon earlier arguments and rejects the mythical “Enlightenment.” (166) Just as the hypothesized ‘Dark Ages’ were non-existent, so too was the ‘Enlightenment.’ On the one hand, the Greek classics did not have to be rediscovered—they were already known, discussed, and generally rejected by Scholastics throughout the universities of Europe (156). On the other hand, the emergence of science was built upon the earlier insights of medieval Scholastics (166). Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, Christian theologians and scientists were mutually willing to adopt and acknowledge one another’s insights (176). Christians were active in natural theology (173) and astronomy (173-74), and eagerly sought to unite science and theology (174).

Fifth, Stark refutes the myth that evolution is a battle between science and religion. Rather, it is “an attack on religion by militant atheists who wrap themselves in the mantle of science in an effort to refute all religious claims concerning a Creator—an effort that has also often attempted to suppress all scientific criticism of Darwin’s work.” (176) There is no inherent contradiction between Darwin’s theory itself and Christian theism—Stark demonstrates that numerous Christians had adopted some type of natural selection and intra-species deviation through evolutionary means long before Darwin published Origin of Species (176-77). But Darwin’s theory is marred by numerous difficulties, improbabilities, and unproven assertions (178-83). Nonetheless, atheists seized upon Darwin’s theory as the best one yet put forward, and presented it as categorically disproving the existence of the Christian God (185). In belated response to continual harsh rhetoric, many Christians eventually adopted a defensive stance and rejected Darwinian evolution wholesale (187). Christians were not being asked to accept the simple scientific hypothesis that life had evolved; rather, they were ‘required’ to “agree to the untrue and unscientific claim that Darwin had proved that God played no role in the process.” (187)

Finally, Stark disputes the argument that scientists have become increasingly hostile to religion. He presents surveys from throughout the 20th century demonstrating both that belief in God is surprisingly robust amongst natural scientists and that such belief has not altered over the past century (193-94). Despite the hopes and claims of militant skeptics, theism continues unabated.

Chapter 3 – Witch-Hunts


The tragedy of witch-hunting in late medieval Europe is a tremendously misunderstood phemonenon. First, it is often asserted that millions of people, particularly women, were executed during the persecutions. The truth, Stark insists, is that only 60,000 – 100,000 people were executed, one-third of whom (at least) were men (202-04). Second, modern historians generally attribute the extent and brutality of the witch-hunts to the fanatically religious Inquisitors. The truth, however, is that ecclesiastical authorities were much more hesitant to prosecuted accused witches than were secular courts, and that punishments handed out by Inquisitors tended to be considerably lighter (204). Third, today’s students are taught that the witch-hunts were ended by the triumph of secular rationalism. The truth, Stark argues, is that no atheistic voices were raised in protest against witchcraft until after the witch-hunts had ceased—the witch-hunts were stopped by other factors (286-87). Stark endeavors to set the record straight, proposing a model for causes of the witch-hunts, as well as factors in their cessation.

To set the necessary framework, Stark begins with a brief discussion of magic (205), sorcery (205-06), and Satanism (206-07). Only the latter could result in charges of witchcraft and the associated death penalty—and such charges could only arise in monotheistic cultures (206). Stark then debunks eight common assertions of why the witch-hunts occurred (208-23). A brief discussion of magic in the Greco-Roman world establishes that when the Christian Church “came to power, magic was everywhere. Virtually everyone believed in it.” (226) The later rejection of witchcraft was not a return to the golden age of Greek rationalism; rather, it was something entirely new. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church struggled with the reality that all types of magic—Church and non-Church alike—sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed (230). Church authorities acknowledged that pagan magic sometimes worked, and struggled to understand how this could be so (236). Eventually, Scholastics deduced the only logical, rational conclusion: non-Church magic worked through the power of evil spirits, particularly Satan (237). “There was no place in their worldview for causation that was neither natural nor fully supernatural. … Thus did logic and reason lead the best minds of the time into catastrophic error.” (238) Stark is remarkably lenient toward the Scholastic authorities who concluded that non-authorized incantations, potions, and spells necessarily relied upon satanic power!
Stark then builds a theoretical model to account for the rise, occurrence, prevalence, and intensity of witch-hunts in various geographic locations. He posits three key factors to account for “when and where” witch-hunts occurred (245). Each factor is necessary but not sufficient—only the combination of all three factors was sufficient for witch-hunts to occur (254). The first factor is the continuing practice and efficacy of magic (246). The second factor is the presence of “intense and constant religious conflicts.” (246) Stark notes that the time of the most intense witch-hunts, 1590-1640, also marks the height of the Catholic-Protestant wars, as well as severe incursions of Ottoman Turks in Europe (246-50). The third factor is the lack of strong, centralized political or ecclesiastical authority (251). Local officials easily got carried away by witch crazes; central authorities, where able, continually reigned them in (251-54). In times and places where magic was effectively practiced (particularly parts of Europe that had never been effectively and thoroughly Christianized), religious conflicts were prevalent, and central authorities were weak or non-existent, witch-hunts took strongest form and shape.

Case studies bear out Stark’s hypothesis. Spain, France (except the “borderlands”), Italy, and England were generally devoid of intense witch-hunts (256-62). The lowlands of Germany, as well as the Scandinavian countries, were marred by severe and intense persecutions and executions of accused witches (263-73).
Stark then proposes four factors which contributed to the cessation of the witch-hunts. Notably, the rise of skeptical Enlightenment materialism is entirely and consciously absent from his list (277). First, witch-hunts could easily target and eliminate marginal members of society; but once those “socially inexpensive” members of society were executed, the costs of witch-hunts rose to “unsustainable levels.” (279) Arresting and prosecuting acknowledged outcasts and misfits was easy; when prominent members of society were implicated by new accusers, witch-hunts became in-credible and unsustainable (278-79). Second, the establishment of religious peace through the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 removed ongoing warfare as a contributing factor in witch-hunts. “Just as the outbreak of severe religious conflicts brought on the search for witches, the end of the religious wars and the implementation of treaties of toleration brought it to an end. In nation after nation, witch-hunting collapsed after the Peace of Westphalia.” (282) Third, the strengthening of central political authorities following 1648 placed stricter guidelines of prosecutions of accused witches (282). Finally, increasing skepticism concerning the existence and practice of witches led to the demise of witch-hunts (283). However, this skepticism did not arise from atheists who disbelieved in magic. Rather, Scholastics and Inquisitors led the charge against the accuracy of accusations of witch-craft (283-86). Well-trained and deeply committed Christians, “responding to the evidence of their sense,” brought the witch-hunts to an end (287).

Chapter 4 – Slavery


The typical school textbook of Western history presents slavery (explicitly or implicitly) as a novel invention of colonial Christian Europe, and insists that the abolition of slavery was achieved not by moral suasion but by Enlightenment humanism (291-92). Sadly, though happily from a Christian perspective, this widespread myth is entirely fictional. In this final chapter, Stark sets out to tell the story of slavery the way it really happened.

First, slavery has been an institution in human cultures since before the Egyptian pyramids, and has permeated every area of the globe. North American Indians, those ‘noble savages’ of Western romantic imagination, engaged in intense slavery (293-95). Greece and Rome, so admired as the ‘classical civilizations’ by Renaissance and Enlightenment secularists, were built on the backs of slaves (295-99). Slavery was institutional in Islamdom (301-03), partly based upon the personal example of the Prophet Muhammad, who owned, captured, and traded slaves himself (338). Enslavement of Africans was not initiated by Christian colonialists, but had long standing between African tribes themselves (304), and was furthered by Muslim incursions. In fact, Christian European nations relied on long-established African slave runners for their continual supply of slaves (307). However, when European nations founded colonies in the ‘New World,’ they captured and utilized slaves as a primary labor force (309-23).

Second, while European nations did delve into widespread slavery, the Church was hardly complicit in the practice. On the contrary, Christian theology had outlawed slavery since early in the Middle Ages (291). Thomas Aquinas could speak of slavery as a quaint and obsolete institution, no longer practiced by Christian Europe (329). While the occasional pope (e.g. Innocent VIII) ignored canon law and possessed slaves, such violators were generally guilty of ignoring the rest of canon and biblical law as well (330). The papacy in general condemned slavery, and considered an excommunicable offense (331). As Stark proclaims, “The problem wasn’t that the Church failed to condemn slavery; it was that few heard and most of them did not listen.” (332) There were indeed some clergy who sent (or lived out) mixed messages; but they were exceptions to the rule (337).

Third, monotheism alone possessed the moral suasion to condemn and outlaw the institution of slavery. Stark makes a fascinating side foray into the issue of morality and religious theology, arguing that monotheism alone is capable of promulgating a strong, binding, effectual system of morality. Plural gods do not have the authority; impersonal gods cannot sustain the notion of ‘sin’ at all; philosophy on its own conveys no moral weight (324-25). Only monotheism can provide a concerned, personal, omniscient, omnipotent God who enacts moral laws and expects conformation (325). Some Jewish sects developed abolition movements (328-29), and Christianity in general was directly opposed to slavery from the outset.

Stark develops this last thesis as the fourth pillar of this chapter. He proposes the thesis that abolitionist movements arose when three factors coincided. In the first place, anti-slavery movements required an appropriate moral disposition (339). This was provided by Christian sects—particularly Quakers and Methodists in America, and Methodists, Quakers, and the Clapham sect in Britain (340-41, 349-51). In the second place, anti-slavery movements could only arise when they were proximate to the practice of slavery itself. Thus, abolition movements were strong in the northern States, which though they did not practice slavery themselves, were intimately familiar with the plight of slaves in the South (not to mention Caribbean colonies). (347) In the third place, the proximity and moral persuasion of anti-slavery movements needed to be distant from any perception of self-interest (339). Stark develops this thesis quite persuasively, but the key assertion he is making, which runs contrary to the trends of modern historians for the past two hundred years, is that it is Christian moral persuasion which was responsible for the abolition of slavery (353, 365).

Fifth, and finally, Stark refutes the widespread belief that Enlightenment secularism (rather than Christian conscience) was responsible for abolition. Having already established that Christian ethics were a necessary element of anti-slavery movements, Stark proceeds to debunk the first part of the equation. He presents a list of prominent Enlightenment thinkers—Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Burke, and Hume—who “fully accepted slaver.” (359) Indeed, it was very much not the philosophical intellectuals “who assembled the moral indictment of slavery, but the very people they held in such contempt: men and women having intense Christian faith, who opposed slavery because it was a sin.” (360)

Postscript – Gods, Rituals, and Social Science


Stark closes with a fascinating postscript in which he debunks the sociological axiom (based upon Durkheim’s theses) that religion is fundamentally about ritual, not belief in supernatural Gods (367-68). Stark shows that, to the contrary, “Gods are the fundamental feature of religions.” (376) Furthermore, not all religions can underwrite a moral order (373); but rather only “images of Gods as conscious, morally concerned beings.” (374) Hence, Christianity possessed the moral resources to oppose slavery, where secular rationalism, polytheism, and impersonal religions did not.