A couple of nights ago I happened upon Rodney Stark's book Discovering God while in the Borders book store near Penn Station. I first became familiar with him earlier this year when I noticed a couple of his books at my local library. Just from reading the jacket covers alone, I knew that Rodney Stark was someone with whom I would find much to disagree, but at the same time I relished the challenge of reading an academic apologia for Christianity instead of plowing through another pro-atheist book. I apologize for the flippant title of this post, but I just could not resist it! :-)
I had planned to do a review of one of the Stark books I read, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, but I had to return the book to the library and was not able to finish my review. I do plan to revisit it in the near future. This post will be the first of a series of running commentary posts I plan to do as I read Discovering God.
For those unfamiliar with Rodney Stark, he is a professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University who writes frequently on the history and sociology of religion. You can visit his website at rodneystark.com.
In his latest book, Discovering God, Stark comes across as a sort of anti-Dawkins. However, while Stark does devote several paragraphs to criticism of Richard Dawkins, Discovering God was not written specifically as a rebuke to The God Delusion. Rather, I suspect that due to the release and subsequent popularity of The God Delusion, Stark incorporated his criticism of Dawkins into Discovering God as he was writing it.
The introductory chapter opens on a personal note for the author, with Stark revealing to the reader that since he was very young, he "often wondered about God. Does he really exist? If so, where was he before he revealed himself to Abraham? Were many generations of humans condemned to live and die in ignorance, followed by many generations during which only the Chosen Few knew God? Or could it be that from earliest times God has revealed himself often and in various places so that many different religions possess at least fragmentary knowledge of divine will? If so, why do even some very major religions seem to lack any trace of divine inspiration?"
Only a few sentences later, Stark reveals his distate for what he calls the "militant atheism" of scholars of religion who openly presume "that Gods exist only in the human imagination, that religion arises mainly from fear, and that faith is sustained only by ignorance and credulity", followed by a jibe at Dawkins.
It is the thesis of Stark's book that God does exist and that the history of the evolution of religion is the story of how humans perceive God's revelations in bits and pieces. Stark suggests that at one point he might have been an atheist or agnostic. In describing the scholarly perspective, Stark writes "that the answer to where God was prior to Abraham's generation is that Yahweh hadn't been invented yet. That certainly was my view early in the 1980's... Today my answer is quite different..."
It is Stark's contention that God was always there, "revealing himself within the very limited capacities of humans to understand." This line of argument is what Stark calls Divine Accomodation. An analogy to this would be how we teach our children. We don't teach algebra and calculus to five year old children. First, they need to be taught numbers, followed by basic addition and subtraction, and then multiplication and division, fractions and onward. Stark goes on to cite references to this line of reasoning in the Bible, Origen's On First Principles, and Thomas Aquinas to support his argument and goes on to write "The principle of divine accomodation provides a truly remarkable key for completely reappraising the origins and history of religions."
In noting that many important religious founders throughout Eurasia were contemporaneous, such as Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, some of the Biblical prophets, among others, in what has been called the Axial or Axis Age, Stark asks rhetorically "Was this pure coincidence? An example of diffusion? Evidence of repeated revelations? Or what? On this, the social-scientific literature has had very little to say, and most of what has been said uniformly ignores or specifically denies any spiritual aspects."
Being someone who Stark would likely consider to be a "militant atheist" (though personally I consider myself to be a rather moderate atheist), I of course find myself in complete disagreement with Stark. If one posits the possibility of a god that is so powerful and intelligent that it can create this vast universe in which we live, then it should not be a substantial leap to posit a god that can create humans with a far greater capacity to comprehend it. (As an aside, unlike Stark, I refuse to refer to god as a male. Unless one is going to argue that god has a penis, how can a being with no shape or form have a gender?)
In other words, if there is a god that can do just about anything, then it should be possible that god could create humans with the capacity to achieve 21st century technology within the first generation, especially if that first generation really did have a 900 year lifespan!
Stark lays out the case that over time, "human images of God will tend to progress from those having smaller to those having greater scope." A god who creates and controls the universe is much more worthy of veneration than a god who controls the weather. In this, I find myself in agreement with Stark.
Furthermore, writes Stark, "humans will prefer an image of God[s] as rational and loving." Again, this is likely true. However, in debates I have had online with theists where I argued that the god of the Bible, if it really did exist, was not a being worthy of love and veneration because of its cruel behavior in the Bible, those theists would retort that I wanted a god that suited my preferences. Well, according to Rodney Stark, religions grow in popularity precisely because the god or gods worshipped by those religions are preferred by the people who convert to those religions.
It is getting late, so I will end this first part here for now and pick up on other parts of the book later this weekend.