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Religion and Society

Religions Compared According to Reason

Rodney Stark is one of most important sociologists of religion alive today. Having lectured at the University of Washington for 32 years, he has been at the Baylor University since 2004. Starting from the supposition of the theory of rational choice, he has dedicated numerous important studies to the relationship between society, cultures and religions from the mid 60s. Over the last years he has investigated the role of religions, and of Christianity in particular, in the development of civilisations.



The volume, Discovering God. The origin of the great religions and the evolution of belief, represents a sort of summa of his recent studies and offers a great, and very ambitious, comparative fresco. In short Stark’s is a ‘study both of the evolution of the human images of God, and the evolution of human ability to understand God’ (p. 14).



There are two basic theses: in the first place, human beings adopt and keep the image of God judged more valid in terms of utility, broadly defined as the togetherness of intellectual, emotional and artistic, but also practical and material gratifications; secondly, it is possible to distinguish an inspired religion from an uninspired religion by means of rational reasoning.



The first six chapters of the book follow the birth, the development and the meaning of the pre-Christian religions. Stark shows, following the footsteps of the studies of the anthropologist Andrew Lang, that most of the primitive cultures had notions of supreme divinities and a vision of a much more sophisticated vision of creation than had been thought until now.



He then looks into the ascent and influence of religions in the first civilisations – the Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian peoples – characterised by a sacerdotal polytheism in which the supreme gods left space for idols of an ultimately anthropomorphic nature. A monotheistic conception of God is hinted at in Egyptian religion (with the Pharaoh Akhenaton) and in Zoroastrianism, but only established itself definitively in Judaism.



Great attention is set aside for the ascent of the oriental religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Giainism, Confucianism and Taoism. Stark then goes on to analyse the advent of Christianity, maintaining that this represented a sort of humanisation of the Jewish conception of God. As far as concerns Islam, according to Stark this brings the knowledge and modalities of relating with God prior to the other two monotheist religions back into discussion. In the course of his long analysis (set out in over 600 pages), and assuming the existence of God, Stark asks whether all religions have contributed to His discovery: the answer is no. Such a conviction would be justified by three criteria by means of which to separate the beliefs that mirror a real divine inspiration (and which therefore increase our knowledge of God) from those that do not seem inspired at all. The first criterion consists in the fact that God reveals Himself, because if that were not so all faiths would be merely human, and there would therefore be little to discuss.



The second criterion is coherence: it is not plausible to presume that God’s revelations are completely contradictory, and therefore the beliefs that err too far from a coherent nucleus can be considered religions of a human order.



The third criterion is progressive complexity: set out according to their order of appearance, the inspired religions should reveal an increasingly sophisticated and complex understanding of God.



By applying these criteria to all the religions dealt with in the book, and going by exclusion, Stark reaches the point of stating on a rational basis that perhaps one can speak of some form of revelation for the religion of the acmes of the first human societies, and one can certainly speak about it with reference to Jewish monotheism and Christianity.



Stark’s book asks many questions, some of which perhaps remain unanswered; it cannot be denied however that it represents a stimulating attempt to make a comparative study of religions away from the atheist matrix (which, paradoxically, characterises most studies on the subject) and the relativist one. The supposition according to which the comparison between cultures (and religions) can be carried out on the ground of rationality is undoubtedly a challenge to be welcomed.



Paolo Terenzi