Russell and Duenes

From the ivory tower: rodney stark – discovering god: introduction

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From my days as a Sociology major at UCLA, it has been abundantly clear to me that, like any other field that purports to be a “science,” sociology/ anthropology in the academy suffers from an unwarranted a priori materialism; meaning that, by definition, God(s) and any kind of supernatural reality are excluded from discussion before any evidence is weighed. Science, so we’re told, must be based only upon naturalistic assumptions and explanations. Fortunately, Rodney Stark is the kind of scholar who is unwilling to abide by such unfounded, presuppositional bias against spiritual explanations. He shows a willingness to consider evidence that challenges his own paradigm, and his views on the origins and evolution of religion have certainly shifted over the years through the light of such new evidence.  His introduction rightly critiques many “with respectable credentials” in the sociology-anthropology fields for failing to “entertain the possibility that the common source of religious culture might be spiritual” (3). He writes, “Instead, the dominating scholarly perspective regards all revelations as purely psychological events and assumes that the answer to where God was prior to Abraham’s generation is that Yahweh hadn’t been invented yet” (3). Emile Durkheim and his followers reduced all questions of religion to ritual. As Stark says,

Many modern social scientists would say, why all the bother about God? Surely religion is a matter of ritual, not of divinity, so why waste time on images of God? Such views reflect the fact that for much of the twentieth century, the social-scientific study of religion was essentially a Godless field. Not only because so many practitioners were nonbelievers, but because God was banished from definitions of religion and was ignored in both research and theorizing…But Durkheim and his disciples were not even content to claim that people worship illusions, for then they would have had to restore the Gods, illusory or not, to the core of religion. Instead, they even dismissed illusory Gods, thereby proposing, at least by implication, that people knowingly pray to and worship the empty void (13-14).

To which Stark replies, “It requires a great deal of sophisticated social-scientific training for a person to accept such nonsense. People pray to something! To something above and beyond the material world. To something having the ability to hear prayers and having the supernatural powers needed to influence nature and events. Real or not, such ‘somethings’ are Gods” (15). It is gratifying to see Stark standing against the “scientistic” tide from the get-go, being willing to consider that God or gods might actually exist and might have been revealing himself/ herself/ themselves to us in some way over the course of history.

The remainder of his introduction is fairly straightforward. He lays out some of the foundational questions that have led him into the study of religious evolution in the first place. He then suggests how God might reveal himself if, in fact, he does so. He believes that if God (or gods) has revealed himself to us, he has accommodated his revelations to our “current capacity…to comprehend.” He’s willing to entertain the hypothesis that revelations from God don’t actually occur, but he is rightfully certain that it is “well beyond credibility to argue that all religions are to any significant extent true” (8).

Stark then gives a preliminary sketch of the evolving conceptions of God(s) in human history. Human beliefs about divine realities have evolved over time, a point which no one disputes. How or toward what end they evolve is the subject of the book. Stark does offer his hypotheses about the kind of God or gods human cultures will tend to adopt over time. They will “prefer Gods to unconscious divine essences” (10), will “progress from those having smaller [scope] to those having greater scope” (10) – which is to say, from local deities to all-encompassing ones – and “will prefer an image of God(s) as rational and loving” (11). Gods must be rational for their to be coherent religion, and the ultimate “theology” toward which all religions evolve is “dualistic monotheism” (12).

Stark adds an overview of what he hopes to cover in each chapter of the book, laying out a few more cherished socio-historical assumptions about religions (to take but one example: Europe’s churches are empty due to the influence of modernism) that he hopes to challenge along the way. He ends his Intro by returning to what he considers the essential questions: “Have we discovered God? Or have we invented him? Are there so many similarities among the great religions because God is really the product of universal wish fulfillment? Did humans everywhere create supernatural beings out of their need for comfort in the face of existential tragedy and to find purpose and significance in life? Or have people in many places, to a greater or lesser degree, actually gained glimpses of God?” (20) I’m looking forward to his discussion.



Written by Michael Duenes

February 22, 2010 at 5:46 am

Posted in Duenes, History, Literature

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