Thursday, April 5, 2012

Rodney Stark, One True God

In One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, Rodney Stark presents many interesting ideas about how to view religion, particularly monotheism as it relates to pluralism and religious civility. Stark can be described as an apologist, meaning he defends religion saying that it has many beneficial and in fact necessary functions for human beings as individuals and for society as a whole.

I have many criticisms of Stark, particularly around his narrow view of both sociology and more importantly, religion, which is highly reductionist. His definition of religion is as follows: it “consist[s] of explanations of the meaning of existence based on supernatural assumptions and including statements about the nature of the supernatural” (15). What Stark fails to incorporate in this definition is that many religions do not occupy their time, literature and practice around answering supernatural questions. In fact, the Buddha refused to answer such questions, saying simply that they did not matter, that suffering exists regardless and that is where focus should be. But Stark does not see any value in what he calls “godless” religions. He says, “godless religions are unable to gather a mass following” (10) and thus, “for a sociologist, the godless forms of Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism are of very limited interest, for they exist primarily as writing, not as human activities” (12). He neglects these traditions simply because they do not fit into his model, the provide complications to not only his definition of religion but to his application of criticism to it. And to say that they do not offer a mass following is an absurd statement for a sociologist as there are over 700 million followers of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in the world. Nevertheless, this is not the focus of his book and should not take away from the valid points he makes within his model.

Monotheism, for Stark, is inherently exclusivist. If there is only one God, then anyone who worships other gods is simply wrong. That’s a simple logical conclusion right? Well, it’s more complicated. One owes it to followers of other, false gods to show them the error of their ways; one must bring them into the light and show them the truth, not only as an obligation to oneself but as an obligation to the one true God. Another word used to describe monotheism is particularism, which is “the belief that a given religion is the only true religion” (116). This Stark says is inherent to monotheism. There are two sides to particularism: contempt for other faiths and reactions by those held in contempt. Other faiths are in competition, each espousing their version of the one true God. Each then feels attacked by the others, needing to defend and protect itself, to defend and protect truth itself. Stark then says that both internal and external conflict is inherent to particularistic religion (117).  The best example of this is heresy, a word used very little in modern times and usually used only to describe events and attitudes in the past, but however is still ever present in religious discourse however politically incorrect it seems to be. Stark says, internal and external “disputes are the normal consequences of theological study, for heresy is inherent in the act of seeking to fully understand and to reconcile the deeper meanings of scriptures and revelations within any context wherein there can be only one correct answer” (118). Monotheism, then, has two clear social aspects, to inspire conflict both internally and externally and to sustain intense solidarity within groups. In group/out group dynamics once again play an important role.

Stark’s criticisms can be applied well to international affairs. Pluralism he says, is a natural effect of the diversity of religious demand. Other things being equal, there will always be a corresponding diversity in religious supply. “However,” he says, “if there exist only a few very powerful religious groups, intense conflicts must ensue as they attempt to suppress the other(s).” The only way a religious organization can maintain a monopoly is to enlist the coercive power of the state. Sound familiar yet? Heresy, then becomes treason. Religious diversity itself, anything that attacks its power and influence, is seen as a threat to the state, to the social order as well as an attack on the one true God. Societies under threat from religious monopolies will not, and indeed, cannot develop a truly pluralistic religious situation until they must do so of their own accord and necessity. Unfortunately, this is a truly revolutionary notion for American foreign policy.

Starks conclusion is as follows: religious apathy and alienation, and more importantly, the potential for religious conflict, prevail in societies where one religious body maintains a monopoly. The answer to this, he says, is to increase level of local religious commitment and religious civility. This is done through religious pluralism, this is done through more religion, not less. This is an interesting conclusion coming from someone who points out the inherent danger of religion to be violent and inspire conflict. He did however discuss secularism a little. He cited Peter Berger’s idea of the Sacred Canopy. This idea is similar to Foucault’s idea of the Dominant Mode of Discourse. It provides meaning, plausibility and legitimacy to the norms and social arrangements to the society beneath it. Religion provides a sacred vision of the cosmos, in turn, creating a sacred canopy for those underneath its vision. How then, does this compete with other canopies created by a pluralistic socity? Stark says the sacred canopy “must not be associated with any specific religious faction but must transcend and overarch them all, thereby being immune from mutual contradiction” (246). Secularism and democracy have been infused with sacredness, ranging from the American way of life and the constitution, to the Declaration of Independence. People he says, can maintain the conventions of religious civility in a pluralistic society yet also retain full commitment to a particularistic canopy. Navigating these waters, as you can see, can become quite messy. The question must be raised: is this notion of religious civility and tolerance merely superficial to those under a particularistic umbrella? My personal answer is yes, and no. The ratio is the variable. 

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