Rodney Stark hits another home run with Triumph of Christianity. Stark examines the history and sociology behind the growth of Christianity from a few adherents 2000 years ago to nearly 40% of the world today.
Stark lists three most crucial events in church history, two beneficial and one a misfortune :
1. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 that changed Christianity into its own movement gathering new members from every nation rather than a Jewish sect connected with ethnicity.
2. The conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century. The point isn’t that Constantine stopped persecution, but that he established orthodoxy and created a pattern of using state power to stop religious dissenters. This involvement of the state in the church affairs creates lazy monopoly churches rather than vibrant local churches sensitive to their own community’s needs. This still plagues Europe today.
3. The Reformations undid the harm caused by Constantine by breaking up the lazy and intolerant monopoly of Catholic and state churches and reenergized Christianity and extended its influence around the world.
Sociological insights to the Triumph of Christianity:
Christianity is set apart from other religions in that is offered “opportunities for intense interaction and the formation of close social ties that religious groups generate the highest levels of member commitment and loyalty.” p. 20
When leadership positions are restricted to those who have a sects’ original standards, other members continue to have high commitment; but when leadership is hereditary or highly rewarded (so that financial or political gain is the motivation for leadership) members’ commitment quickly declines. p. 38
Conversion is primarily about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and relatives, not about encountering religious doctrines. Most people “convert” to join friends and family and then later learn about what the group believes and becomes strongly committed to those beliefs. p. 68.
Those who have a religious identity that is a huge investment in time, effort, and emotion is less likely to convert than someone with low “religious capital”. People are more likely to change faiths to the extent that they can conserve much of their religious capital. For example, in a Christian culture, people are more likely to converts to Mormonism than to Hinduism. “A new religion is more likely to grow to the degree that is sustains continuity with the religious culture of those being missionized.”p. 73
Monotheistic religions triumphed over pagan religious because pagan religious do not demand exclusivity, people regularly followed one pagan god and then changed to another. Monotheism requires higher commitment and rejection of all lesser gods. p. 80
Christianity grew fastest 1) in cities 2) closer to Jerusalem, 3) port cities, 4) in Hellenic rather than Roman cities, 5) was a larger city. p. 161
Common misunderstandings corrected:
Contrary to many sociological dogmas, Christianity didn’t first thrive among the rural or poor, but among the wealthy and urban.
Paul, who is known for his missionary journeys, spent long periods of time in just a few places. Outside of these, he only traveled for about three years.
It is a myth that the crusades were “an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.” Rather they were “precipitated by Islamic provocations, by many centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West, and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places.” p. 215
That history can neatly be separated into 1) classical antiquity, then 2) the Dark Ages when the church dominated, followed by 3) the Renaissance-Enlightenment which led the way to 4) modern times. This is complete fraud. p. 238
Christianity didn’t impede the development of science, it was essential to its having taken place. p. 293
America didn’t start as a highly churched nation. In 1776 about 17 percent of the colonists belonged to a religious congregation. Attendance has steadily increased since then. p. 353
Christianity has by far the most adherents of any religion. Stark attributes this to its message, scripture, pluralism, and the link to modernity. p 408
Read this book, you won’t regret it. It was World Magazine’s Book of the Year this year.
Also don’t miss Stark’s other insightful books, I’d start here: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force