It’s tempting to think that secularized academics are too intellectual to ever come to the kind of “child-like faith” that Jesus described, or that, if they ever were to trust Christ, they’d have to abandon their academic pursuits. However, like once-liberal theologian Thomas Oden or once-radical feminist English professor Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, the case of Rodney Stark suggests otherwise. Dr. Stark’s research and reading, specifically about the impact of Christianity in history, was part of what moved him to become a committed believer.
Stark was born in North Dakota in 1934. Oddly enough, he played high school football with Alvin Plantinga, the great Christian philosopher. After a stint in the army, he studied journalism in college, graduating in 1959. Once, during his early career as a reporter, he covered a meeting of the Oakland Spacecraft Club where the speaker claimed to have visited Mars, Venus, and the moon in a flying saucer. After Stark reported the story straight, with no sarcasm or snide comments, he was assigned all of the odd stories that came along.
Stark’s ability to treat people’s beliefs seriously and recognize that, at least for them, these beliefs are plausible, was a key element in his decision to shift from journalism to sociology. In 1972, after completing his graduate work at the University of California-Berkley, he was hired as a professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington.
Stark focused his research on why people were religious. How did they understand their faith?
What did they get out of it? How did they live it out? From this focus, Stark developed a theory of conversion that emphasized social relationships, felt needs, and personal choice. In essence, Stark concluded that conversion was a rational choice, based on the expectation that one would receive more from the religion than it would cost to join it.
He was among the first sociologists to recognize that competition between religious groups increased the overall religiosity of a community. In other words, a religious group with a monopoly tends to get lazy and neglect meeting needs and conducting outreach. Stark was also critical of the standard academic view that secularization was an inevitable result of modernization. Instead, he argued this idea was wildly wrong because sociologists misunderstood religion and failed to account for religious revivals and innovation.
His book The Rise of Christianity was published in 1996. In it, Stark argued that the incredible growth and spread of Christianity were because it offered more to people than any of its competitors. In particular, Stark argued that the rapid growth of the Church was, in large part, due to how Christians treated women. This, especially compared to the pagan treatment of women, led to more conversions, which led to the faith being spread through social networks. Also, prohibitions of abortion and infanticide led to an organic growth of the Church, and how Christians responded to persecution and plague led to a growth in credibility. The Rise of Christianity was so groundbreaking that it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
After this, Stark focused his work on the history of Christianity. After writing two books on the historical impact of monotheism—first One True God in 2001 and then For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch Hunts, and the End of Slavery in 2003, Stark wrote what may be his greatest book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, in 2005.
In 2004, the year before The Victory of Reason was published, Stark commented, “I have trouble with faith. I’m not proud of this. I don’t think it makes me an intellectual. I would believe if I could, and I may be able to before it’s over.” The Victory of Reason first brought Dr. Stark to the attention of Chuck Colson, who was astounded that a self-professed agnostic sociologist was clear-eyed and honest enough to recognize and highlight the effects of Christianity on the world. Chuck featured The Victory of Reason on Breakpoint and included it in the Centurions Program (now known as the Colson Fellows).
After the commentary aired, Rodney Stark contacted Chuck Colson, and thanked him for the kind words. He also told Colson that he had come to faith in Christ, which he publicly announced in 2007.
In 2004, Stark became the distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University, as well as the co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion and founding editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Although Baylor is a Baptist school, Stark preferred to call himself an “independent Christian” and continued to produce important and sometimes controversial books on Christianity, history, and culture.
Throughout his career, Stark was an irascible critic of political and religious biases in the academic world, especially in his own field of sociology. His intellectual brilliance is attested by his groundbreaking work, and his intellectual honesty and integrity by his faith, a faith he studied for many years.
Publication date: September 16, 2022
Photo courtesy: Oladimeji Ajegbile/Pexels
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.
John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.