Thursday, October 06, 2005

Thanks to the readers of this blog who have been lending a hand over at the Sec Web. My main opponent is getting steadily more annoying as he shifts and changes his position while still refusing to admit he's wrong about anything. Still, he did point out an error I made ages ago in a short article on the Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books. That's the danger of a large website: you forget what you wrote and so errors can sit around for ages. Whatever you do, don't believe a word I say!

I've just finished Rodney Stark's Rise of Christianity and I have to say it is a much, much better book than his latest effort For the Glory of God which I was forced to trash despite agreeing with its premises. The reason Rise of Christianity is so much better is that it is a work of sociology and Stark is a lifelong sociologist. Thus he is writing in his field rather than as a amateur historian. Why, he asks, did Christianity manage to destroy paganism in the space of four hundred years? To answer this he uses the tools of the sociology of religion which he honed during his first hand studies of modern religions and cult movements. Thus, his method is perfectly scientific. You take your theory formed from the data you can observe firsthand and see how well it fits another area where you cannot directly see what happened.

We had a brief discussion about Stark's calculations of the number of early Christians on Bede's yahoo group but that is not much relevant to his larger themes. His aim with the numbers was simply to show that mass conversion and miracles are not necessary to explain the growth in the numbers of Christians. He also dismisses the Marxist idea, now much loved by sceptics, that Christianity simply out muscled the other religions and won out using the force of the state. His own answers are much more interesting.

Christianity succeeded because it provided the spiritual goods that people needed and pagan religions did not provide. It also provided a moral system that greatly benefited its converts and meant that they could breed faster than pagans. This included the banning of infanticide and abortion as well as the improved status of Christian women compared to pagans. Also, Christians nursed each other when sick which significantly enhanced their survival rates during the plagues that periodically swept the Empire. Finally, paganism was dying on its feet anyway because it was not a mass movement but simply a series of religious shops that one could visit as required. Paganism may have been easy going but conversely you didn't get much out of it.

Not everything Stark says will please everyone. Sceptics will like his naturalistic account of the rise of Christianity but not the fact that he insists that Christianity succeeded because it was a good thing - certainly better than contemporary paganism. He is especially strong on the misery of ancient urban life and how Christianity could enhance the life experience of converts. Christians might find the wholly naturalistic emphasis unnerving. On the other hand, Stark insists that Christian doctrine was important and a huge step forward compared to pagan mores. We Christians can rest comfortable that Christian morality is found in the preaching Jesus rather than the rationalistic thinking of the pagan philosophers AC Grayling thinks so fantastic.

Finally, Stark is a very fine writer who was able to bring me, a complete ignoramus, up to speed on sociological terminology and theory without it making my brain hurt. I wholehearted recommend this book to absolutely everyone.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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