Tag Archives: Rodney Stark

Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.


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Squatting Monkeys

A friend sent me this the other day on the assumption that I would find it funny, which I do:

Other than the fact that Dana Carvey has a humor gene, what makes it funny? I suspect because it is polyvalent and can speak humorously to diverse viewpoints. Atheists will like it because they think all religions are weird. Believers will like it because they think most religions, other than their own, are weird. And everyone other than the world’s 25,000 Scientologists will like it because Scientology is really weird.

But Scientology is weird in a special kind of way. The sociologist Rodney Stark has done a fair amount of work on the factors that account for any given religion’s success or failure. He has found that, “other things being equal” (which as a matter of history, economy, politics, and power they never are), new religious movements succeed to the degree that:

1. They retain cultural continuity with the conventional faiths of the societies within which they seek converts.
2. Their doctrines are non-empirical.
3. They maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment – are strict, but not too strict.
4. They have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective.
    (4a) Adequate authority requires clear doctrinal justifications for an effective and legitimate leadership.
    (4b) Authority is regarded as more legitimate and gains in effectiveness to the degree that members perceive themselves as participants in the system of authority.
5. They can generate a highly motivated, volunteer, religious labour force, including many willing to proselytize.

6. They maintain a level of fertility sufficient to at least offset member mortality.
7. They compete against weak, local conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy.
8. They sustain strong internal attachments, while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders.
9. They continue to maintain sufficient tension with their environment – remain sufficiently strict.
10. They socialize the young sufficiently well as to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness.

In translation and practice, this means that most new religious movements fail and those few which succeed are nearly always closely-related offshoots of existing traditions. Those who would start a new movement can innovate but they cannot deviate too far from some existing tradition.

Scientology is weird not just because it’s doctrines are really weird, but because it apparently has succeeded despite not meeting many of these criteria. This success, however, is more superficial than real. It has always been a money-making and money-obsessed outfit that targets the gullible rich (i.e., Hollywood stars) and ostentatiously displays wealth. California is probably the only place in the world where such nonsense could have gained any traction, however small. What Scientology lacks in Stark’s criteria for success it attempts to make up for by being loud and visible. But it is not growing and has very few members. It will always be fringe or niche.

By these same criteria the Squatting Monkeys religion would surely fail, but only after some troubled souls had given it an earnest shot. Are you the lemon?

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Searching for the Elusive God Effect

Physicists may soon confirm the actual existence of the Higgs boson or God particle. It must exist or their models don’t work and the math is all wrong, which can’t possibly be the case. Or perhaps it can. Stranger things have happened. The elusiveness of the God particle, which is needed for mass to exist, brings to mind a similar kind of search by sociologist of religion Rodney Stark.

Stark was supposed to find, in survey and similar data, that religiosity impacted behavior in all sorts of interesting and predictable ways. But he couldn’t. Stark’s failure to find religiosity effects when he knew they should exist drove him to despair. In his 1983 presidential address to the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Stark reminisced on the problem:

Some of you are aware that I abandoned the sociology of religion in about 1969 and only returned to it several years ago. My inability to discover any consistent or robust religious effects played a major part in my decision to jump ship. Particularly disappointing were my efforts to find any empirical support for the proposition that religion sustains conformity to the normative order. In fact, about the only religious effects I could find were correlations between orthodoxy and opposition to drinking, dancing, and gambling among American Protestants. Whenever I searched for religious effects more remote from religiousness per se, I found little or nothing. If it is true that religion doesn’t influence secular beliefs and activities, our field is of very limited worth.

Stark next recalls a day in the life of a young dweeb, or sociologist. He had a handy data-set on his desk and decided to test the self-evident proposition that religiosity negatively affects delinquency. In other words if a kid believes s/he will go to hell for being a delinquent, s/he will be less likely to steal candy or kick old people. Stark was shocked to find that religious commitment had no apparent effect on hellions. He duly published the results and they were soon replicated. It thus appeared to sociologists that religious commitment didn’t affect delinquent behavior.

Nearly a decade had passed without anyone questioning these results when two studies were published which showed that kids who attended church regularly were much less likely to kick grandpa or hide dentures than their non-churched peers. The baffling results caused Stark to revisit the earlier studies:

Returning to the hunt, I soon discovered that so long as religion is conceived of as an individual trait, as a set of personal beliefs and practices, we can never know when and where religion will influence conformity, for research will continue to produce contradictory findings. But, if we move from a psychological to a sociological conception of religion, clarity leaps from the chaos. I am prepared to argue theoretically and to demonstrate empirically that religion affects conformity, not through producing guilt or fear of hellfire in the individual, but that religion gains its power to shape the individual only as an aspect of groups.

Let me put it this way. It is not whether an individual kid goes to church or believes in hell that influences his or her delinquency. What is critical is whether the majority of the kid’s friends are religious. In communities where most young people do not attend church, religion will not inhibit the behavior even of those teenagers who personally are religious. However, in communities where most kids are religious, then those who are will be less delinquent than those who aren’t.

Stark had re-discovered what sociologists since Durkheim have known but which he had somehow forgotten: human life is social. We conform when those around us — our friends — share similar ideas. If your group of friends is religious, then religion is more likely to influence decision-making. But if you are religious and your friends are not, religion won’t play much of a role in the choices you make.

This kind of network influence extends of course to non-religious beliefs and puts a different twist on “birds of a feather flock together.” It would be more accurate to say that if you want to act or be a certain way, choose your flock wisely.


Stark, Rodney (1984). Religion and Conformity: Reaffirming a Sociology of Religion Sociological Analysis, 45 (4), 273-282


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The Zoroastrian Ethic & Spirit of Modernity

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber sought to correct or temper Karl Marx’s view that religion was always a reflection or epiphenomenon of the economic base. Although Marx’s understanding of religion was considerably more complicated and drew heavily on Ludwig Feuerbach’s idealist critique in The Essence of Christianity (1841), his assertion that religion “is the opium of the people” usually obscures this fact. Weber’s intent was to show that religion, rather than being a mere result of economy, could produce economic transformations; in his view, Calvinism gave birth to capitalism.

While Weber surely was right to argue that religion and economy influence one another dialectically, few scholars accept his argument that capitalism was made possible by Calvinism. Although the Protestant Ethic remains a classic, its reputation has dimmed. Few have been more scathing in their criticism than Rodney Stark, who takes Weber to the woodshed in “Putting an End to Ancestor Worship“:

[E]conomic historians long ago dismissed Weber’s monograph as anti-Catholic nonsense on the irrefutable grounds that the rise of capitalism in Europe preceded the Reformation by centuries. Weber was aware that economic historians rejected his thesis on the basis of time order. Consequently, he progressively made his definitions finer in an attempt to restrict capitalism to “modern” Reformation business organizations. Clearly, Weber inserted the adjective “modern” in order to confound those who argued that capitalism was far older than Protestantism.

If Protestant ideals didn’t create capitalism, this doesn’t mean religion had no impact on the mercantilism and mindset that led to it. It simply means we should shift our temporal focus and look for earlier possible influences.

In “The Protestant Ethic and the Parsis,” Robert Kennedy does just this and suggests that Zoroastrianism — an ancestral monotheism — set the stage for Modernity, which encompasses not only capitalism but also science. Kennedy identifies five abstract values associated with Modernity: (1) an underlying order in nature, (2) sensory standard of verification, (3) material work is intrinsically good, (4) maximization of material prosperity, and (5) accumulation rather than consumption of material goods.

Zoroastrian and Parsi Symbol-Motif

Using historical data on the Parsis or Zoroastrian Persians who fled from Iran to India after the Islamic conquest in the 8th century AD, Kennedy examines their beliefs, culture, and society for correspondences. Finding many, Kennedy suggests that modern economy and science may have roots in Zoroastrian religion.

It is an unfortunate fact that we know less about Zoroastrianism than we would like. Although it was the official state religion of the Persian Empire for nearly seven centuries, the conquering Muslims attempted to eradicate every vestige of the faith. One thing is certain: Zoroastrian ideas and influences can be found in Judaism and Christianity. This raises an interesting possibility.

Nietzsche asserted that modern science arose in the West because the West was Christian. To make a long intellectual history short, Christianity’s obsessive search for sacred “Truth” turned on itself and (paradoxically) gave rise to a profane search for truth, which we now call science. If there is in fact a connection between Christianity and science, there may be an even deeper (or older) connection between Zoroastrianism and science.


Stark, R. (2004). SSSR Presidential Address, 2004: Putting an End to Ancestor Worship Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43 (4), 465-475 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00249.x

Kennedy, Jr., R. (1962). The Protestant Ethic and the Parsis American Journal of Sociology, 68 (1) DOI: 10.1086/223262


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Supernatural Punishment Theory: History Free Zone?

Over at the Evolution of Religion Project, Dominic Johnson comments on the first target article which will appear in what promises to be a fantastic new journal, Religion, Brain, and Behavior. Because the first issue has yet to be published, I will have to rely on Johnson’s summary:

Jeff Schloss and Michael Murray have written a “target article” in Religion, Brain & Behavior entitled: “Evolutionary Accounts of Belief in Supernatural Punishment: A Critical Review”. Schloss and Murray’s argument is as follows. In recent years a wide range of adaptationist, byproduct, and memetic explanations has emerged for various recurrent features of religious belief and practice. One feature that has figured prominently in adaptationist accounts of religion is belief in the reality of moralizing, punishing supernatural agents.

However, there is at present no unified theory of what fitness-relevant feature of the selective environment this cognitive predisposition is adapted to. Schloss and Murray distinguish two divergent and often conflated approaches to supernatural punishment theory, which hypothesize that the adaptive value of beliefs in supernatural punishment arise either because they increase cooperation among group members (”cooperation enhancement”), or decrease the cost of incurring (real world) punishment for norm violations (”punishment avoidance”).

Although a number of scholars have provided comments to the Schloss and Murray article, Rodney Stark does not appear to be one of them. This is most unfortunate, given that Stark has written a classic article — “Gods, Rituals, and the Moral Order” — which directly addresses these issues and tests them with actual religious history (rather than abstract game theory).

Of supreme importance is the fact that “punishing, moralizing supernatural agents” (or gods) appear in very few religions, and those few in which they do appear are relative latecomers in religious history. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that a robust punishing, moralizing god originated with Judaism and is primarily associated with the Abrahamic faiths. Punishing and moralizing supernatural agents certainly are not associated with the many forms of shamanism that constituted the original “religions” of Upper Paleolithic humans.

If this is the case, it makes little sense to hypothesize about the “adaptive value” of the punishing and moralizing God of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and successor sects such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witness. While this localized and modern conception of God may make Jews, Christians, and Muslims more “cooperative” and “moral,” this says nothing about human evolution or the origins of “religion.”

Framing the issue in this way makes about as much sense as asking how the cognitive predisposition for nationalism (another late development in human history) is adaptive. I am not aware of any scholars who analyze nationalism by asking “what fitness-relevant feature of the selective environment it is adapted to.” Why? Because biological evolutionary mechanisms have minimal explanatory power in modern cultural and historical settings.

The adaptationist yearning for a “unified theory” results in an erroneous conflation of biological evolution with cultural history. The tools of the former are ill adapted to analysis of the latter.

While lab experiments may show that supernatural surveillance impacts behavior, this is precisely what one would expect in Western cultures permeated with the idea that God punishes moral transgressions. Such experiments tell us nothing about the evolution of cooperation or religion.


Stark, R. (2001). Gods, Rituals, and the Moral Order Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40 (4), 619-636 DOI: 10.1111/0021-8294.00081


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Extinction of Religion

The BBC’s Jason Palmer breathlessly reports on a new study which suggests that “religion may go extinct” in nine nations (Australia, Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland). This is a classic case of what is known in accounting of “garbage in, garbage out” or GIGO.

The study authors relied on census data which asks about a person’s religious affiliation. While it is a well known fact that fewer Europeans formally identify themselves with particular religions, this is not a measure of religiosity or “spiritualism.”

As the sociologist Rodney Stark has demonstrated in several papers (including this classic), religiosity is alive and well in these countries and the secularization thesis is “well and truly dead.” Census forms are too crude an instrument to measure things like beliefs in the supernatural and non-standard religion.

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Making Religious Babies: A Cultural Phenomenon

As I noted in A Tale of Two Religion Scholars, Dr. Michael Blume’s research (which you can find at Homo religious) shows that religious groups out-reproduce their secular counterparts.  The data are solid and correspond to the commandments of most religions: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Given that religious people make more babies than secular people, Blume contends that religiosity evolved because it confers reproductive fitness benefits on believers.  This is how he recently described his hypothesis and conclusion:

Personally, I assumed – as did Charles Darwin – that evolutionary theory was perfectly able to explain religiosity and religions and that the trait would turn out to be somewhat adaptive. I would have been perfectly content with having found a slight reproductive advantage of religious people when compared to their secular neighbours.

But what I found (and keep finding) during these last years was not only a strong and actually widening demographic gap – but the complete lack of a single case of a secular population, community or movement that would just manage to retain replacement level for a century. What I found…is that secularism is followed by inevitable, demographic decline.

The problem with comparing religious and secular fertility rates, and using those to make evolutionary arguments, is that no humans in the deep past were secular.  If the archaeological record is correct and ethnohistoric-ethnographic analogies hold, then it is safe to assume that all Paleolithic human groups practiced some form of shamanism.  Because none of these groups were secular, none of them gained a reproductive advantage over another because they believed in the shamanic supernatural.

Hunter-gatherer group sizes are determined first and foremost by resource availability and the carrying capacity of local environments.  Foraging groups must constantly concern themselves with the perils of overpopulation.   Local ecology explains the limitations that all hunting and gathering groups placed on group size, which they limited in various ways, including longer lactation periods (which prevents ovulation and delays birth intervals), abortion, and infanticide.

Atheism, agnosticism, and secularism are all recent developments in human history — inklings of these ideas are apparent during the Renaissance and small numbers of people begin proclaiming them during the Enlightenment.  Larger numbers of people did not begin rejecting religion until after the Darwin-Marx-Nietzsche-Freud assault on supernaturalism, regardless of form.

Even then, the number of truly secular or non-religious people in the world remains tiny — around 1% or less of all people living today.  As the sociologist Rodney Stark has shown in numerous studies over the past few decades, the number of truly “secular” people in the world is vastly overestimated (and is usually a product of non-revelatory, superficial survey questions such as “How often do you attend church?” or “How often do you pray?”).

As John Hawks pointed out in this post, “whenever you’re talking about a hypothesis involving ideological causation, there’s a tremendous potential for confirmation bias.”  Blume frankly admits he is religious and his non-null hypothesis was that religion could be explained as an evolved adaptation.  His research seemingly confirms this, even though the data he uses seems wholly inapplicable to Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.

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