Stark, Rodney. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations,
Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2003). 496 pp, $45.00 Cloth..
It is rather cliché to say that ideas have consequences. It is another
thing to argue that monotheistic ideas about God have positive and
meaningful (and sometimes condemnable) consequences. Rodney Stark does just
this in For the Glory of God, the second of a two-volume study of
monotheism and its historical consequences. In short, Stark carefully argues
that conceptions of and about God have profoundly shaped important moments
in western history, all with a particular connection to the sixteenth century:
the Protestant Reformation, the rise of science, the witch hunts, and abolitionism.
Stark's first chapter focuses on the span
of western religious history through the sixteenth century and locates the
germ of various sects and the two reformations (Protestant and Catholic)
within monotheism itself. Here Stark engagingly suggests that within religious
organizations there resides pluralism, in essence the religious rhythms
of supply and demand, that creates space for alternative versions of expressed
belief. This explains, for instance, why heretical and sectarian groups
emerged and why under considerable stress and tension religious tolerance
often disappeared. This model, Stark attentively explains, gives meaning
to the "orthodoxy" and "heresy" of western Christianity from the early church
to the era of reformations.
Stark's chapter on science makes the audacious
yet intelligently supported claim that science arose because Christianity
believed a rational God created an orderly universe with "immutable principles"
(157). Humans, in turn, possess the rational faculties to observe and explain
such principles. In other words, Stark squelches the popular idea that science
and religion are mutually exclusive. Stark marshals quotes from church fathers
like Tertullian and Augustine to demonstrate that in previous eras science
bore the visible imprint of faith. The nexus of theology and philosophy,
Stark effectively suggests, fostered the scholastic desire to contemplate
how and why the natural world functions as it does.
In a chapter on witchcraft Stark dismantles
eight "myths" about the infamous trials, including their attribution to
sexism, to mental illness, and to the vaguely broad claim of "social change"
(214), and instead argues that witchcraft trials occurred because church
leaders followed the rational and logical conclusions of their religious
propositions. Thus, Stark thoughtfully observes, witchcraft trials occurred
most prominently in places like Spain, Germany, England, Sweden, Norway,
and even Iceland because in each of these countries significant effort was
put forth to combat magic, because there existed significant conflict between
competing religious groups that resulted in intolerance for nonconformity,
and because local authorities addressed witchcraft, often away from national
or ecclesiastical eyes.
Stark's discussion of abolitionism counters
the assertion that religious argument and meaning did not frame antislavery
movements. Stark convincingly claims abolitionism flourished when a feeling
of moral responsibility fostered by religious communities shaped societal
sentiment. Furthermore, Stark helpfully reminds readers that religious images
infused abolitionist discourse.
How does one evaluate Stark's provocative
claim that monotheism – specifically Christianity – inspired
some of western history's most admirable achievements (and deplorable failures)?
First, Stark has performed a great service to historians – as many
interdisciplinary ventures can do – by canvassing the massive body
of secondary literature on a number of important subjects and offering perceptive
and insightful observations. This kind of exhaustive analysis is surely
commendable. Second, Stark intelligently dismantles a number of historical
inaccuracies (e.g., reform movements sparked by lower-class discontent and
resistance). Third, Stark offers a new narrative of western history borne
of an historical-sociological consciousness, shaped by cogent analysis,
replete with rigorous interdisciplinarity, and full of questions and perspectives
with which future discussions of western history (and world history) must
|In the introduction and in a postscript Stark
laments that many modern academics unfairly marginalize religion as an institution
incapable of making a meaningful impact on society and takes his fellow
sociologists to task – notably Emile Durkheim – for replacing
the "Gods" of supernatural religions with emphases on earthbound rites and
rituals. As Stark makes clear, he wrote One True God (Princeton University
Press, 2001) and For the Glory of God to balance these claims and
demonstrates that monotheistic faith had both meaningful and
regrettable effects on western society.
|Though One True God provides a broad
and helpful introduction to monotheism as history, For the Glory
of God stands on its own. My own AP European history students, for example,
read a short section on witchcraft and instructively compared Stark's claims
about the frequency and severity of punishment for witchcraft with several
widely-used textbooks. In addition, energetic undergraduates might profit
from reading sections of the book, and graduate students will not only find
Stark's work challenging and engaging, but will find a shining example of
Phillip Luke Sinitiere
Second Baptist School (Houston)
University of Houston (History)