UW professor hailed for his ‘masterpiece of historical sociology’

The early Christians weren't all martyrs and they weren't all poor, says a UW sociologist whose book sheds new light on the rise of the Christianity.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Louvre, Paris, France. According to Church history, Sebastian was a Roman guard who was secretly a Christian. When the truth was discovered, the Roman Emperor demanded he be put to death by a troop of archers, but the saint miraculously survived the execution.

As a cub reporter for the Oakland Tribune in 1959, Rodney Stark drew the fraternal organization beat. “I covered the Oddfellows and the Elks because I was the new guy,” he recalls. One day, Stark got an announcement from a different kind of club-the Oakland Spacecraft Club. “A guy was going to tell about his trips on a flying saucer, to Mars and Venus and stuff. I went on my own time and wrote it up. The Sunday editor ran it as a front page feature.”

Readers loved the story. Believers liked it because he reported the event fairly. Skeptics enjoyed what they viewed as the story’s absurdity. From that day, Stark’s beat expanded to cover East Bay subcultures-including religious cults and sects.

Though his reporting days are behind him, Stark has kept the religion “beat” as a professor of sociology at the UW. An eminent social scientist, his most recent book, The Rise of Christianity, makes compelling claims that many Christians may find surprising. Stark punctures the notion that early Christianity was a religion of the poor and that most first-century Christians lived on the margins of Roman society.

Both the popular and academic press were convinced. Newsweek called it “a fresh, blunt and highly persuasive account of how the West was won-for Jesus.” Peer sociologists, in the journal Contemporary Sociology, hailed the book as a “masterpiece of historical sociology.”

Stark’s book is a departure. For several centuries, most historians and sociologists agreed that early Christianity was a religion of the dispossessed. Friedrich Engels wrote that “Christianity was originally a movement of poor people deprived of all rights.” A popular college textbook by Yale historian Erwin Goodenough said of the early church, “Its converts were drawn in an overwhelming majority from the lowest classes of society.”

Stark feels Engels, Goodenough and others missed the boat. “I was reading a book by an Anglican bishop, John A.T. Robinson,” he recalls. “He makes an interesting point. If you pay any attention to these fishermen who are among the apostles, you realize that they own the boats, and they don’t always go out. We aren’t talking about poor, uneducated guys who worked on boats.

“And throughout the New Testament, you can see that these people are not the down and out. The people that Paul refers to in his letters are people of position,” he says. He added that Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire and wrote Greek at a time when literacy wasn’t common. “It is now accepted by New Testament scholars that Jesus spoke Greek,” he explains.

Members of the Roman imperial households were counted among the early Christians, says Stark, noting that this was particularly true of imperial women. “We know this. The fact that they had gravestones means that they weren’t part of the down-and-outers. You didn’t have to be rich (to be a Christian), but you didn’t have to be part of the unwashed masses either.”

Women are a key to the growth of Christianity, he notes, contradicting the prevalent opinion that early Christianity was a patriarchal religion. Stark says from its very beginning, women held positions of honor and authority. He believes there has been far too much reliance on a passage in 1 Corinthians, that reads: “The women should keep silences in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

Citing modern translations of the Bible that restore the original letters of Paul, Stark says there is “virtual consensus” among historians of the early church that women served as deacons and fellow workers, evangelists and teachers. Christian women enjoyed considerable status, Stark says, compared to their pagan counterparts.

He also points out that there was a dramatic shift in the ratio of men to women among early Christians. In the pagan world, because of the widespread practice among pagans of abortion and female infanticide, there were far more men than women. In the city of Rome, Stark says, the ratio was 131 men to 100 women. Because Christianity opposed abortion and infanticide, that ratio dramatically changed. This altered fertility patterns and meant higher birthrates for Christians.

Marriage was held in low esteem by pagan Roman men. As the birth rate of the Roman empire plummeted, that of Christians rose. And because there was a surplus of Christian women compared to large numbers of pagan men, the men would often convert after marriage to Christian women.

Stark also splashes cold water on the idea that the majority of early Christians suffered martyrdom. Few were thrown to the lions, he maintains.

“I reject claims that the state did perceive early Christianity in political terms. It is far from clear to me that Christianity could have survived a truly comprehensive effort by the state to root it out during its early days,” he says.

The Romans thought the way to beat a religion was to behead the leaders and that was true, he says, for any pagan religion. That’s because paganism and other cults were usually priest-heavy with a few rich donors. If the government wanted to eliminate a cult, they went after the clergy. “In Christianity, if you behead a bishop there would be 40 more guys waiting for the job. It was a rank and file mass movement, not a little priest movement,” he explains.

If the Romans had viewed Christianity as a political threat, they would have acted without mercy to crush the fledgling cult, says Stark. However, as the movement was both misunderstood and full of middle-class people, the Romans tormented Christians, usually male bishops, only in a haphazard and occasional fashion.

“The truth is that the Roman government seems to have cared very little about the ‘Christian menace,’ ” says Stark. Research indicates that only a tiny number were martyred, meaning hundreds not thousands of believers. For most Romans, in fact, conversion meant little risk of ending in the lion’s jaws. Although becoming a Christian did mean a real commitment and change in way of life, it didn’t mean choosing death by torture.

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.


Rodney Stark (Mary Levin photo)

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.”

Late 20th century conversions: How the Moonies did it

Reverend and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon.

UW Sociology Professor Rodney Stark was one of the first social scientists to go out and watch people convert to a new religion. Instead of theorizing, as social scientists had done in the past, Stark and fellow researcher John Lofland actually sought out a “deviant religious group” to study in the early 1960s. They found a new group in San Francisco led by Young Oon Kim, a woman from Korea who had recently come to the United States to launch the American mission of a new religion, the Unification Church, more commonly known as the “Moonies.”

Kim tried to attract followers through press releases and advertising, but this produced no results. Instead, what made for new converts was personal relationships. If a person had a friend or family member who was a Moonie, the prospects for conversion increased dramatically.

“Conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s family and friends,” Stark says.

Stark and Lofland learned that potential converts with strong attachments to people who disapproved of the Moonies never joined, even if they were very interested. Newcomers to San Francisco, and people whose friends and family lived far away, were more likely to convert.

Stark explains, “Conversion to new, deviant religious groups occurs when, other things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to non-members.”

The Moonies quickly learned that seeking converts at interdenominational religious centers and church socials was a failure, Stark says. They had a lot better luck among people who came from backgrounds that weren’t religious at all.

“New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (mainstream) religious communities,” he says.