One of the world’s most influential sociologists of religion is Rodney Stark. His market theory of religion is a standard model of how religions behave. His series on the rise and influence of Christianity marked, among other things, a bold yet empirically detailed defense of Western civilization in general, and the effect of Christianity in particular. (My reviews of five ground-breaking books by Stark are now posted here.)
Our conversation ranged widely and freely over Marxism, what "religion" means, China, Islam, the revival of Christianity in Europe, and Dr. Stark’s own return to faith. (Unfortunately, some early parts of the conversation were lost, including Dr. Stark’s description of how, having worked with atomic testing in Nevada, and then as a reporter, he got into sociology more or less by accident at UC-Berkeley. Stark also talked about his status at Baylor University in Texas, which he seldom visits, though he has helped put together a strong sociology program there.) Stark by phone turned out to be as iconoclastic as his writings, but also blunt and, often, amused.
I. Was Marxism a "Religion?"
You define religion as "explanations of the meaning of existence based on supernatural assumptions and including statements about the nature of the supernatural." Some people would define religion in what they might see as a more neutral way, as an "ultimate concern," as Paul Tillich put it.
Paul Tillich didn’t have a religion.
One thing I like about Tillich’s definition is, you have a movement like Marxism-Leninism, which a lot of people say looks like a religion in many ways. Isn’t it better to have a more neutral definition?
To the contrary! I think confusing the two greatly hinders analysis. Let me explain why. I think you can say you have secular movements that have some of these characteristics, like high levels of commitment, true believer-ship and that sort of thing. But there’s an enormous difference between systems of thought that openly are predicated on the existence of the supernatural, and those that are purely worldly. For example, the purely worldly ones are subject to failing all the time! The supernatural ones don’t need to.
Sociologically, in terms of how they operate in society, it seems that there are many similarities.
Well there are similarities, but I think that the important one is that – you know, why do utopias always fall apart? That is to say, the non-religious ones.
It has been 150 years, and there are still some pretty radical Marxists out there.
Oh, no, no, no, no. Start a utopian community, OK? We’re going to go out here and we’re going to have this commune and we’re going to, you know, whatever.
The problem is, they’ve got to succeed here and now in making the wonderful thing happen. And they can’t. But if it isn’t going to happen until the next life, then you can. And so the religious communes are vastly more durable. God knows whether there were any serious communists in Russia at some point, except for ignorant people. They were mostly in Western universities. I can’t imagine that the intellectual elites in Russia really were communist after some point. Because it wasn’t working, and everybody could see …
Isn’t that your point (in Discovering God) with temple religions (i.e., in ancient Egypt), that the elite priests didn’t really believe in it either?
They may not have. And for good reason! They had God right there in the building with them, instead of in Heaven where He belongs!
I’m sure Stalin didn’t bear that much scrutiny up-close, either …
No, I’m sure he didn’t. But I think it’s very important not to confuse the two. I mean, yes, there are enormous similarities. But I think the differences are absolutely critical. The ability to sanction morals and put the payoff in another life, I think, is vastly more durable and less likely to lead to tyranny.