Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stark Lunacy - Part 1

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

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.


Harry Nads said...

Nice post, Tommy. I look forward to reading more in your series.

chooseDoubt said...

This idea that god would have to reveal himself to us over generations as otherwise we wouldn't be able to understand is rally stupid. Everyone alive today is doing fine with understanding in a single life time. It's amazing how stupid believers have to make their god in order to excuse his obvious absence.

Another great post Tommy. I'll be interested to follow the rest of your critique. I'll be starting on critiquing NT soon as I've agreed to reread it in exchange for a creationist reading The Selfish Gene.

Matt M said...

I'm not sure that the idea of a God gradually revealing itself to the human race is that stupid: Assume that it's only maximally rather than infinitely powerful and you might be able to build a case on the idea.

It's theologically tricky though - if we only understand 26% of God then there's the potential to misconstrue it in a pretty big way. I doubt many Christians would be happy with that idea.

chooseDoubt said...

It's pure nonsense - plain and simple.

Tim said...

Response here.

Ryan said...

I posted a reply to your and Tim's comment on Tim's blog.

I'm posting another here.

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!

For starters; would that be desirable, either for humans or for God?

I don't claim to know what God is capable of or what 'omnipotent' or 'omniscient' really translate into.
Perhaps there is some limitation that I'm not aware of.

But more to the point, I don't know anything in religion that states that God's explicit purpose is to foster technological development, as opposed to moral development. From a religious standpoint, that seems more like a means to an end, or else just a side effect.

After the fall of Jerusalem, for instance, the political state of the world was in pretty bad shape. Governments were abusive and unjust. Would governemnts suddenly be less abusive and more lawful if the Roman Legion had had submachine guns and electronic listening devices and a host of other technololgy? Need for manpower and fear of insurrection were things that helped limit Rome's exploitation of conquered territories and their ability to 'project force'.

Would giving such governments modern technology induce them to revoke slavery, for instance? It's debatable. It depends on what the impetus for eliminating slavery was.

The fact that a free society is helpful, if not vital, in order to sustain a reasonable rate of technological development and progress is an interesting mechanism that favors free societies over unfree ones. And I'm thankful for that.

Tommy said...

You missed my point Ryan, which is that the god of the Bible, if it existed, could have created us with a greater ability to comprehend its message from the get-go rather than feeding it to us in drips and drabs. You are reading something into my comments that isn't there.

Ryan said...

the god of the Bible, if it existed, could have created us with a greater ability to comprehend its message from the get-go rather than feeding it to us in drips and drabs.

Well, lets say that you want to learn about physics. If you're like some of the ancient thinkers, you spend your time in contemplation about how the world should be.

You assume that heaveier objects fall proportionately faster than lighter objects, for instance.

Then, as you get the capacity to accurately measure things like time, you start figuring out what the laws of physics actually are.

Same with human nature. It's not about how humans should be or what worlds we can imagine, but what the end results of certain forms of social organization are. We can answer 'how' and 'what,' essentially.

I honestly don't know what kinds of worlds are possible. But I don't see the utility in hypothesizing how the world should have been created since I couldn't begin to create one. I can only describe the world that I live in as accurately as possible and learn from that.

If some measure of understanding of universal morality was given to ancient peoples, we can note that fact.

The bible, whether its views of God are accurate or inaccurate, never claims that human beings will be able to understand why God does what he does. Quite the opposite. It says things like "my thoughts are not your thoughts" and "where where you (Job) when I formed the foundations of the earth" and has prophets seeing God as strange and incomprehensible. It only claims that certain human actions will have certain effects. And those we can weigh and measure.

btw, Tim posted a response to the comment that you left on his blog.

All he best,


grebnes said...

i think the issue of what god can or cannot do is pertinent to an assessment of this supposed principle of 'divine accommodation" but not central do it. as you can see from the posts, any number of alternatives can be posited to explain why god did or did not make smarter people to begin with. criticism along that route leads to an endless maze i fear. as i read stark, he himself seems to think that the reason that accommodation is necessary arises from god's having decided to give this creature free will. that initial decision apparently, despite god's tremendous powers limits the possibilities. at page 7-8 we find: "Moreover, of humans have been given free will and thereby put mostly on their own to develop their capacities and culture, that also places serious restrictions on the extent to which god will reveal himself. from this perspective, god asks for human assent and will not force conformity, not even in the that extremely dramatic general revelations would do - if for example, he appeared in the sky each morning." this formulation is itself a curiosity. first it is a nonsecquitur - it does not follow at all that giving man free will entails putting humans "mostly on their own to develop their capacities and culture, [etc.]" the free will that moralists and theologians talk about is not about the choice between the heliocentric or ptolemaic systems. It is about moral choices and choices to obedience to divine commandments or to belief in the existence of a particular god. None of this would seem to require special means of concealment – but on the contrary, if there is to be a free choice, it would seem that the more of the pertinent information one had about the alternative choices the more rational and freer that choice would be. But even that is not necessarily the essential point. It is rather that this principle of divine accommodation is itself some sort of logical fallacy. Consider that no matter what god says at time t, (call it statement s) at some latter time, t+1, s seems to be contrary to the facts. No says stark. That is only because though s was true at t, those to whom it was addressed could not understand it properly and so it was misunderstood. Now at t+1, we must make such sense of s that it is true, not only now, but then. Since it is an axiom of this analysis that s is true, no matter what the evidence against it is, there will (again by hypothesis) never be any refutation of it. but such statements are not only not empirical statements (something perhaps stark will admit since they are some sort of divine revelation), but they must either be analytically true (true by definition, but the meaning of its terms) or neither true nor false (i.e. meaningless.) Why god should propound analytical truths to humans in the form of divine revelations but do so in such a way that they cannot figure them out must remain a mystery I suppose (no doubt a holy mystery). Why god should propound meaningless statements to mankind in such a way that they are misunderstood as meaningful is not answerable supposing (as stark does suppose) that god is not a deceiver. I think I am right about this. I have only thought about it for a couple of days now, but it seems to me that there is a logical problem with the very idea of divine accommodation, despite so many notable theologians from Augustine to Calvin having adopted it (at least according to stark – google does not provide a hit for that phrase except at this site! ) and despite their brilliance their adoption of this principle cannot endow it with validity. A logical fallacy remains one, and most of the most intriguing fallacies are in fact found in the writings and thoughts of the greatest philosophers – who else could dream these things up. If you see where I have gone wrong please let me know. Richard. Can contact me at, I have no blog nor web page. By the way, in light of the circularity of the reasoning to which this principle leads, and starks’ endorsement of it – I think your title is perfectly legitimate. R.

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