Stark, Rodney. One True God: Historical Consequences of
Monotheism (Princeton University Press,
2001). 319 pp, $24.95.
"Granted, germs, geography, printing, sailing ships, steel, and climate have
mattered, but probably none of them so much as human ideas about the Gods"
(1). Rodney Stark's contention that "history is not shaped by 'material' factors
alone" (1) will seem gratuitous to world history teachers who have reviewed
world history textbooks in recent years. However, the opening quotation reveals
the ambition behind this book. Stark offers it specifically as an alternative
to world history titles such as Jared Diamond's bestselling monograph, Guns,
Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies
(Norton, 1997). Despite the offhanded reference to Diamond's work, One
True God is similar to Guns,
Germs and Steel both conceptually and
in its execution. Both works articulate broad interpretations of world history
by non-historians (Diamond is a physiologist; Stark is a sociologist), are
explicitly aimed at the general reader, and offer a retrospective explanation
for attributed material or spiritual advantages realized in the Mediterranean,
Europe, or more broadly "the West," through the course of history.
The goal of One True God is, as indicated
in the subtitle, an analysis of the historical consequences of monotheism
or the belief in "One True God." Stark divides this project into two parts.
In a companion volume, he argued that monotheism was the motivating force
behind such "cultural" changes as the Reformation, the rise of science, and
abolitionism (For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations,
Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton University Press, 2003. Reviewed in World
History Connected 2.2.). This first volume
proposes to "be more purely historical" (3); in effect, it examines the sociopolitical
processes of the development of monotheism.
The first chapter defines monotheism and lays out the conceptual premises
("A Theory of Gods") of later chapters. Stark adopts a rational-choice perspective
and posits that humans care about gods because they provide access to things
humans desire. Humans, because they make rational choices in their pursuit
of the things they desire, tend to prefer gods that are rational, responsive,
and dependable. This preference for rational gods coincides with a general
historical trend towards monotheism. Stark usefully points out that monotheism
is rarely absolute. In all three major monotheistic traditions - Judaism,
Christianity and Islam - monotheism developed over long periods of time, and
remains dualistic at its core due to the need for a rational explanation of
Chapter Two argues that only monotheistic religions produce missions. Based
on a wide range of secondary sources covering two millennia of history, Stark
concludes that the exclusive commitment to one god and the drive to convert
others are commensurate with the scope of one god's power. He adds that only
"authentic missions," those that are organized as person-to-person networks,
"get results" (85). The comparisons with non-monotheistic faiths in this chapter
are adduced as illustrations for the argument that conquest, exchanges of
women, trade, migration, and travel diffuse such faiths (37).
| From an "admirable" (35) aspect of monotheistic faiths, Stark moves to a less
desirable one in Chapter Three. Stark presents a series of theoretical principles,
which provide a theory of religious conflict. Following Adam Smith in The
Wealth of Nations, he hypothesizes that
"religious conflict will be maximized where a few powerful and particularistic
religious organizations coexist" 122). During periods of religious conflicts
among such organizations, "toleration will be withheld or withdrawn from nonthreatening
but nonconforming religious groups" (123). Stark effectively uses the latter
hypothesis, called the principle of collateral conflict, to explain the persecution
of Jews and heretics in medieval Europe.
| Chapter Four turns from the expansionist drive of monotheistic religions to
the militant persistence they have demonstrated as minority traditions. In
this chapter, Stark takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Jewish diaspora, from
medieval Europe and imperial China to twentieth-century New York, arguing
along the way that regular participation in rituals that tie communities together
as well as the exclusivity of such rituals determine religious persistence
(184). Ironically, Stark interprets the assimilation of the Chinese Jews as
evidence of the persistence of monotheistic traditions: they only assimilated
when "their conception of God became increasingly vague" 195).
| In the last chapter, Stark addresses the question whether monotheistic militancy
is compatible with pluralism and civility. The question appears to be in large
part rhetorical, as this chapter reads more like a manifesto for monotheistic
pluralism American-style than a global history of twentieth-century monotheism.
The theoretical principle here is again based on Adam Smith: competition among
more religions is key to religious civility. The historical application of
the principle leads to rather questionable forecasting: "If these trends ['the
immense American-based mission to 'Christianize' Europe'] do produce pluralism,
then we may observe the appearance of religious civility in European nations"
| Stark's broad investigations into the historical consequences of monotheism
merit the attention of world history teachers and researchers interested in
the spread of religious and intellectual traditions. Additionally, the employment
of his interpretations and hypotheses can also be useful in discussions of
missionary activity, religious conflict, and the persistence of nonconforming
(religious) minorities. They are fraught with methodological and interpretive
problems, but also carry potential. First, historians and researchers in religious
studies will question Stark's rational-choice premises. For one, the psychology
of religion has amply illustrated that the images of god among followers of
monotheistic religions far from coincide with Stark's representation of god
as a rational, dependable, and responsive being. Second, this historian wonders
whether the theories of missionary activity, conflict, and persistence developed
in this work are historical consequences of monotheism exclusively. Do they
also apply to movements espousing social and political causes? In addition,
are they patterns of development intrinsic to monotheism, or, are they, rather,
articulations of a combination of religious, political, social, or economic
| In sum, One True God is a thought-provoking
read for world historians interested in the historical development of monotheistic
and non-monotheistic religions. Some will balk at the tirades against "secularists"
who fail to take religious motivations seriously (166-168) or violate the
standards of monotheistic civility (Chapter 5). These are, in a manner inconsistent
with the standards of scholarship upheld elsewhere in this book, based on
outdated and unrepresentative scholarship (166-168), or on opinion (250-256).
Regarding classroom use, I may assign selections from it in undergraduate
classes, but I would not assign the entire monograph.
Hilde De Weerdt
University of Tennessee,