Russell and Duenes

From the ivory tower: rodney stark – discovering god: chapter 1

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In this chapter, entitled Gods in Primitive Societies, Stark’s major aim seems to be reconsidering “the characterization of early religions as crude and infantile…in light of an abundance of later ethnographic evidence showing that many of these religions were far more sophisticated than had been supposed” (23). There certainly is a powerfully populist notion in the mind of “educated” western man that it is, as Stark puts it, “impossible for primitive religions to be other than crude, implausible superstitions” (29). It’s an interesting paradox in our western culture, because on the one hand you’ve got an academic mindset that finds robust belief in God or gods to be absurd and irrational while at the same time a popular culture which overwhelmingly considers itself “spiritual” in one form or fashion. What seems beyond dispute is that mankind is “incurably religious.”

Stark criticizes the idea that religion is merely a product of our biological evolution, that, as Richard Dawkins claims, there is some kind of mental gene (a “meme”) passed down that disposes us toward religion. From a purely biological standpoint, there is no way to demonstrate what this “meme” or “mental virus” would be, so it’s really an unnecessary explanation. Stark’s real task here is to knock down evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology says that religions exist because they are beneficial in some way to the propagation of our species. There must be some kind of “God gene” that gives us a sense that God is real, but it’s really just a particular brain-state. The problem here is that this argument is circular and unfalsifiable. Evolutionary biology merely asserts that religion, like everything else in human existence, provides survival value, and therefore that’s the reason it exists. As Stark concludes,

The final insufficiency of all biological approaches to explaining religion, or any other aspects of human culture, is that they are unnecessary! The fundamental biological basis of all culture is general intelligence, and nothing more needs to be postulated. Of course, culture ‘evolves,’ but not via imaginary memes or viral infections. Instead, it evolves through reason and assessment: culture is discovered and refined by thinking human beings as they attempt to solve problems and satisfy their desires. To search for a religious instinct or a biological basis for faith is like searching for an algebra or a chemistry instinct – a misguided waste of time (43).

Stark then considers how religious innovations might become a part of human culture. One point that struck me within this discussion is Stark’s common-sense observation that “whenever possible, primitive people prefer direct efforts and techniques for overcoming [nature’s] uncertainties. They do not call upon supernatural means to get the weeds out of their gardens, to skin a deer, or to construct a canoe. They do call upon the supernatural for rain, for help in finding game, and for safe voyages. In doing so, they acknowledge the fundamental principle that the supernatural is the only plausible source of many things that human beings greatly desire” (45). In other words, this notion we have that “primitive” peoples did and even now do nothing but pray or perform rituals to their gods because they’re too stupid to see that many things can be done without divine intervention is bogus. Our forebears are not so different from us, and when the doctor says, using sophisticated MRI machines, that our tumor is inoperable and terminal, we’ll also confess that divine intervention is our only hope.

But back to origins of religion. Stark attempts to understand spiritual revelations. He does not assume that revelations come from a divine source. They may not be revelations at all. But he is trying to understand the kind of person who might be given to thinking they are receiving revelations, and who might indeed be truly receiving them. He argues that such people typically have revelations that are “uncreative.” That is, they mostly confirm previously accepted theological beliefs. But this raises the question: “How is it possible that some of them [if they are merely of human origin] are so impressive as to seem worthy of divine sources?” This takes genius, according to Stark, much like genius we see in music. So he concludes, “Certain rare individuals have the capacity to perceive revelations, whether this be openness or sensitivity to real communications from the supernatural or consists of unusual creativity enabling them to create profound new religious truths and then to externalize the source of this material” (50-51).

But how did they become credible? Here Stark argues that virtually all religious innovators started with relatives, friends, and associates. I would argue that this is generally true, but I believe Stark does what many scholars of religion do, namely, trying to fit the square peg of their data into the round hole of reality. Stark argues that Joseph Smith, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad “all began with their families” (52). But any reading of the canonical gospels will show this to be false. Jesus is rejected by his own family early on in his ministry (they take him to be crazy), and none of his family members are among his twelve disciples. When Jesus said that “no prophet is without honor except in his hometown,” he was stating a general truism with regard to Jewish prophets. Indeed, as Stephen says to the Jewish leaders in Acts 7, “was there ever a prophet your fathers DIDN’T persecute?”

Stark continues with a discussion of the idea of “general revelation,” whereby various cultures might come to the belief in what he calls, “High Gods.” These are not necessarily monotheistic Gods, but they certainly have a position of preeminent power and authority over all other gods. Stark appeals to Scriptural examples such as Acts 14 to show how Christian theology has handled the topic of general revelation. We should be open to this general revelation based on the widespread ethnographic data claiming it to be a reality. I heartily agree with him on this point, though I would say that the biblical data tells us that general revelation has happened, but that this revelation has been “suppressed in unrighteousness” by the peoples of the earth (cf., Rom. 1)

Stark’s discussion of “primitive religions reconsidered” is the strongest section of the chapter. He argues that “by the 1920s the claim that many primitives believed in High Gods [rather than a plethora of gods] was accepted by the best anthropologists of the day, only to have that fact soon slip once again into relative obscurity” (55). He describes his understanding of the historical process of how this happened. Highly regarded Scottish scholar, Andrew Lang, “discovered that many of the most primitive groups, scattered in all parts of the world, believed in the existence of High Gods: ‘moral, all-seeing, directors of things and of men…eternal beings who made the world, and watch over morality'” (56). Lang’s thesis was not well-received, nor was Lang, his impeccable academic credentials notwithstanding. Nevertheless, the facts about primitive peoples believing in High Gods were there. Lang went further and argued that since the evidence for these “High Gods” was most often seen in these “least advanced peoples, High Gods would seem to represent the earliest form of religion and that ‘lower’ religions, such as animism and crude idolatry, probably devolved from these more ethical religious beginnings” (58-59). Of course, Jewish religious history bears this out.

Stark points out that there is variation in how peoples conceived of these High Gods, but this fact can’t scuttle the truth that they are being believed in. Which brings Stark to his final question: “Why weren’t primitive religions a crude muddle of superstitions” as most anthropologists believed them to be? In other words, why were most anthropologists regarding primitive religions as “a crude muddle of superstitions” when the ethnographic evidence pointed the other way? I’m not qualified to judge whether Stark’s answer is definitive, but it certainly seems plausible, even likely, to me. His answer is that the theological implications were too scary. The anthropologists were so steeped in secularism that they could not allow for the possibility that we can even KNOW or explain the origins and similarities of these primitive religions. The academy must remain finally ignorant and agnostic about such matters. This was beneficial to their secular presuppositions because it basically said that “if it is impossible to know what early religions were like, we need not worry about the possibility that a general revelation might actually have occurred. Thus did social scientists breathe a profound sigh of relief, even as they abandoned what they had long regarded as one of their primary reasons to study surviving primitive cultures” (62).

This chapter ought to at least open the reader to the possibility that the popular conception of the origins and evolution of religion is inaccurate. Stark’s chapter here seems to corroborate Don Richardson’s thesis about the Most High God in his book “Eternity in Their Hearts.” God has revealed himself in the natural world and “has not left himself without witness.” We discover this as we learn more about religious history and culture. I need to know more, but this seems to give some basis for doubting the idea that our forebears were a bunch of ignoramuses and superstitious nut-jobs who we have now transcended and surpassed in our “modern” maturity.



Written by Michael Duenes

March 1, 2010 at 6:05 am

Posted in Duenes, History, Literature

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