Man made religion?

Simon Smart reviews Rodney Stark's Discovering God

  ‘The mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made.’
Christopher Hitchens1

Does God exist or did we make him up? Is the idea of a God or gods merely wishful thinking, a source of much needed comfort, or a contrived explanation for natural phenomena that in the modern scientific age we no longer need? Or, have some of the world’s religions glimpsed the creator? Whatever answer one might feel inclined to give, Rodney Stark’s latest book, Discovering God – the origins of the great religions and the evolution of belief, offers much that is worthy of discussion and debate.

Stark addresses this foundational question by examining the formation and growth of the world’s great religions. A highly respected sociologist, Stark, who taught at the University of Washington for over thirty years, and now at Baylor University in Texas, has spent decades studying comparative religion, and assessing the contributions – good and bad – of the world’s great faiths.

Stark writes in a field currently dominated by biologists and evolutionary psychologists whom he says are ‘unable to restrain their militant atheism.’ This contempt for the beliefs of their subjects, Stark laments, is hardly a scholarly virtue. Not a professed believer himself, Stark nonetheless takes seriously both the deeply held convictions of religious adherents, and surprisingly, the possibility of ‘revelation’ as one of a number of explanations of the evolution of belief. This somewhat novel approach might cause his peers to raise an eyebrow, but in countenancing the possibility of authentic revelation in at least some of the world’s religions, Stark makes a unique offering in this field.

In the 1980s Stark wrote that God was a mere invention, but he appears to have shifted from that position. When discussing ‘revelations’ here, he allows that they could be merely psychological phenomena; or the voice of God. The book can therefore be read as, either the evolution and history of human images of God, or the evolution of human capacity to comprehend God.

This is Stark’s major contribution: he presents a highly readable, yet formidable history of human belief in an objective and measured tone. His argument is not clouded by either the antagonism of the atheist, or the fervency of the committed believer. As such it has wide appeal.

The book is essentially a journey through the earliest forms of stone-age belief in the supernatural, through to the evolving and varied forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with much in between. Stark makes much of the so-called axial age – the sixth century BCE that gave rise to an astonishing number of religious founders and innovators from Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu (Taoism), Zoroaster, Mahavira (Jainism), the authors of most of the Hindu Upanishads, and the Israelite prophets Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Was this all merely a freak accident of history, or was something else going on? Stark appears open to the plausibility of a spiritual element to explain an otherwise inexplicable series of events occurring within such a short time period. He believes that it was at this moment in history that the concept of ‘sin’ became widely apparent and made a significant impact in linking religion with morality, and thus becoming a crucial social mechanism.

Stark argues that the cultural evolution of belief leads inevitably towards dualistic monotheism by which he means monotheism with an explanation of evil built into it. If God is to be absolved of responsibility for evil, then lesser spiritual powers must be responsible. Conceptions of God as a loving, conscious, rational being with unlimited knowledge and power who created the entire universe, as opposed to, for example the distant and impersonal gods of Greece and Rome, or the capricious, implacable gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia, represent the most advanced and enduring faiths. The three great monotheisms Judaism, Christianity and Islam each capture something of this development.

There are many challenging conclusions in this work, not the least of which is the sensible dismissal of the notion that all religion is in some sense divine. ‘Have all religions contributed to the discovery of God?’ If God exists, the answer must be no, according to Stark. He even tentatively puts forward a theory by which religions may be judged as divinely inspired. The theory posits three criteria: that God actually reveals himself, that he is consistent and not contradictory in that revelation, and that there is a progressive complexity and sophistication in the nature of revelation (not mere additions but advances). Based on the first criteria, he fairly easily removes the earliest forms of Hinduism,2 Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism, and Taoism, given that their founders claim no sense of revelation themselves.

Focusing on ‘consistency’ Stark argues that the claims of many different religions dealt with in the book are not logically compatible

Focusing on ‘consistency’ Stark argues that the claims of many different religions dealt with in the book are not logically compatible. It makes no sense to try to marry utterly conflicting beliefs. The universe cannot be both eternal and created. There cannot be a conscious afterlife and an escape into unconscious bliss. It is ludicrous to say that there are both many gods, and only one true God. The ‘revealed’ faiths, however, are compatible in these comparisons.

When Stark applies the final element – progressive complexity – we are left with the high Gods of the earliest societies, the religion of the Ancient Hebrews (along with Zoroastrianism with which it had contact,) and Christianity as the most complex and nuanced vision of God. These represent progressive revelation communicated within the limits of human understanding and comprehension at a given point in history. Removed from the line up are the temple religions of Egypt and Sumer, the polytheism of Greece, Rome, and Mesoamerica. Controversial, though consistent with his argument, is the absence of Islam from the list of an inspired core.

Stark says that Islam represents a regression morally and theologically, a point which Muslims will no doubt wish to dispute. His reasons for that conclusion centre on the way Islam has sustained theocracies and repressed innovation. In so doing, says Stark, Islam resembles the temple religions of Sumer and Egypt. Moreover, the God of Islam is more remote, less personal, unknowable, and less predictable, than the Christian God; hence, a regression.

Stark’s summation includes the suggestion that although through the ages many gods have been invented and a litany of questionable characters have emerged on the religious landscape peddling false claims and disreputable doctrine, it does not follow that all religion is merely wishful thinking or delusional. But it is the final claim, given the author’s history, that is the most surprising. Stark completes his study by arguing that ‘there are more objective grounds for accepting the existence of God as the more rational conclusion.’(395)

Stark concludes, ‘It would seem to me that the most remarkable “retreat” from reason is to cling to the belief that the principles that underlie the universe come out of nowhere, that everything is one big meaningless accident

For Stark, it is the failure of abject materialism to answer the largest questions of meaning and purpose that lead him closer to theism. Even if it is ultimately possible, as some suggest, that science is able to explain everything in the universe, the questions will remain, ‘Where did the rules come from?’ ‘Why is the universe rational and orderly?’ Stark concludes, ‘It would seem to me that the most remarkable “retreat” from reason is to cling to the belief that the principles that underlie the universe come out of nowhere, that everything is one big meaningless accident. I am no longer sufficiently arrogant or gullible to make that leap of faith.’ (399) We might expect these words to have been written by an earnest theologian or priest, but that they come from the pen of such an eminent sociologist, will be truly surprising to many.

When Stark assesses large amounts of data and offers interpretations to explain events and suggest the likely human impact – that is, writing as a sociologist – he is at his strongest. It is when he drifts into areas of speciality not his own – ancient history, and biblical criticism for example, that some readers will find him less convincing. His claim of a very early date for the gospels – either around the time of the Apostle Paul or before, and that they could have therefore been written in Hebrew rather than Greek – is not well attested or supported even by conservative Christian scholars.

Similarly, he runs into problems when defending the integrity of the gospel narratives. Stark rightly questions the credibility of scholars such as Burton Mack and his colleagues of the Jesus Seminar who discredit the entire New Testament as a work of fiction. But Stark possibly overreaches himself in arguing against the dogmatic scepticism of Mack and co. He cites their obsession with the theory of Q (‘source), the hypothetical source behind Matthew and Luke, as a ‘misguided and futile’ effort to dismiss the gospels. The problem is, Q is not a marginal conclusion in scholarship. It is accepted by most mainstream experts, including conservative ones, as the best explanation of the similarities and differences between Luke and Matthew. It has no bearing on Gospel authenticity; Luke himself alludes to his use of prior written (and oral) sources (Luke 1:1-4).

Stark makes a strong case against Western apologists for Islam, who gloss over the less politically correct aspects of the faith’s history, in a way that Muslim scholars do not. He dismisses as nonsense the oft-expressed idea that Islamic states have been models of religious tolerance. Yet in the discussion of Islam one can’t help but feel that Stark lacks empathy for what a Muslim person would say is the most attractive element of their faith. To include these ideas would seem only fair, despite the author’s personal leanings. After all, he does so for Judaism and Christianity, if only indirectly.

His explanation of the accuracy and importance of oral history is illuminating, as is his argument against the commonly expressed idea that groups with intense religious commitment typically come from lower class protest

These complaints aside, Stark makes a very significant contribution with this book. His explanation of the accuracy and importance of oral history is illuminating, as is his argument against the commonly expressed idea that groups with intense religious commitment typically come from lower class protest. More often he says, they emerge from dissatisfied elites searching for something more fulfilling than power and privilege. Stark’s historical dismissal of the notion of mass conversion demands attention, as does his claim that when pluralism is allowed to flourish the most authentic players in the religious economy will survive and thrive.

Sceptics interested in the phenomenon of belief and the history of religion, spiritual seekers and convinced believers will all gain much from this broad sweep of human history with its provocative arguments dotted throughout. It is anything but dull. Stark issues a real challenge to scholarship which is enamoured with novelty and sensation designed to gain maximum attention. He has little time for idiosyncratic approaches. He writes with clarity and economy despite the 400 pages, and with the authority of someone with much experience and sound control of masses of material.

It is refreshing to read a book of this genre that is willing, albeit with appropriate professional distance, to touch on questions of meaning and purpose. The topic after all would seem to demand it. It is what is so often lacking in books of this nature. After years of studying comparative religion and the question of God’s existence, Stark appears willing to accept an entity beyond the physical realm, mysterious as it may be. For those who feel something similar, or even those who don’t, Stark’s Discovering God is well worth the effort. 

Simon Smart is the Head of Research and Communications at CPX

1. Christopher Hitchens, God is not great – how religion poisons everything, (Twelve, Hachette Book Group USA, 2007), page 10.
2 Presumably Stark knows that the Vedas in Hindu tradition are thought to be divinely inspired. Nonetheless he still says that, ‘no important revelatory tradition has survived within Hinduism.’ (392)