In fact, Stark claims, converting was a rational rather than an irrational decision. The charge that Christianity appeals to the irrational side of human nature has been one social scientists have traditionally been loathe to shake. "My colleagues and I recently showed that antagonism toward all forms of religion, and the conviction that it must disappear in an enlightened world, were articles of faith among the earliest social scientists. Today social scientists are far less likely to be religious than are scholars in other areas, especially those in the physical and natural sciences," he says.
Voltaire and his followers in the Enlightenment felt that Christianity was incompatible with science and sophistication. That prejudice lingers today, says Stark, and keeps people from approaching the subject with a clear head. If a person looks at the matter practically, says Stark, and employs a little "rational choice theory" borrowed from economics, a case can be made that Christianity was a very rational choice for your average Roman. In exchange for living a particular way of life, the reward was eternal life; a community of people who would care for you if you were sickened by plague, widowed or orphaned; and a deep sense of community. In terms of exchange, becoming a Christian was a bargain.
Christianity was also an appealing alternative to a world Stark describes as "miserable, chaotic and brutal." Christianity took strong root in urban areas where the population density was excruciating. The ancient city of Antioch contained 117 residents per acre compared to New York City's overall 37 residents today. The ancient population crush brought horrendous sanitation problems. "Keep in mind," says Stark, "there was no soap." Sickness was chronic and most people lived in filth beyond imagining. "The stench of these cities must have been overpowering for many miles," reflects Stark.
Professor Rodney Stark. Photo by Mary Levin.
During the rise of Christianity, two devastating plagues struck Rome, one in 165 that took the life of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and a second in 251. The Christian precept to tend the sick differed from the pagan attitude, which was often abandonment of plague victims. "Had classical society not been disrupted and demoralized by these catastrophes, Christianity might never have become so dominant a faith," Stark says.
Stark's research not only examines the reasons behind the rise of Christianity, but also tries to track its growth. He uses a variety of statistical methods and common sense to determine the rate of conversion. He concludes that Christianity grew at a rate of 40 percent per decade during the first several centuries after the death of Christ. Interestingly, he notes this estimate is close to the Mormon growth rate of 43 percent per decade during the 20th century
While he enjoys talking about his research, the sociologist prefers to keep his personal beliefs to himself. Stark is no stranger to organized religion. He grew up attending a Lutheran church in Jamestown, N.D. Although it was a small town, there were five Lutheran churches, he recalls.
Asked about his approach to social science and religion, Stark quotes football legend Woody Hayes: "There are only three things that can happen when you throw a pass and two of them are bad." The same three options occur for social scientists. In Stark's view, "You can approach it with the atheist assumption, which has been the case for scholars for about 200 years. Social scientists have asked 'How in the world can people believe this?' and go from there. The second approach is theistically, with the absolute and utter conviction that it's all true.
"Neither of these is scientific. I don't make assumptions. Our private views are what they are and we have to control our own views. I had no ax to grind," he says.
Stark says he has great admiration for church historians. "People who do early church history are really bright. If you require four or five languages (to study the early church), you tend to keep the riffraff out. I thought, however, that they needed better social science and I had that to offer," he says.
Stark also offers his expertise as a dedicated teacher to UW students. This year, as he has done every year since 1971, Stark has introduced many of the UW's freshmen to his self-described "crusty but nice" temperament as well as introducing them to the basics of sociology. "The first thing I ask them to do is take their caps off," he says, adding, "The students are just fine. They are really good kids, responsive and eager."
An early advocate of computers in the classroom, Stark and his students use a computer in the lecture hall to look at results of real studies together. "I like to let the students see what the sociologists do when they're doing sociology. Chemists make things explode but until I got this great software developed for me, it was a matter of waving my hands and talking," he says.
In addition to teaching freshmen, Stark is working on a new book looking at the "human side" of religion. Humanity is a thread in his current book as well. The triumph of Christianity transformed Western culture, he writes. A personal God who cared about each individual person was a heartwarming contrast to the chilly indifference of pagan gods who demanded sacrifice and meted out punishment on a whim.
"Aristotle taught that the gods cared nothing about human beings. You go out of the temple of Isis and nobody said 'Give your money to the poor,' " he notes. Stark believes that what Christianity gave to the world was nothing less than a new vision of what it means to be a human being. "In this sense virtue was its own reward."
·Julie Garner is a free-lance writer in Snohomish, Wash., who writes frequently on the social sciences and health issues.
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