Human history, as we all know, is messy and complicated. Most historians produce tomes about the convolutions of one era or another. American sociologist Rodney Stark doesn't pretend to be a historian and is honest enough to say so. Still, his subject matter embraces the "social consequences of monotheism" and covers more than 2,000 years of history.
Stark's terse book, the first of a planned two-volume study, is stripped of absolutely everything that doesn't bear on his theories and conclusions. It's at once accessible, absorbing, irritating. and even, at times, amusing.
To be the "One True God," Stark writes, it's not enough to be "an essence or principle governing all life," as in Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. This conception of God does not generate passionate mass followings who form strong and enduring religious institutions, missionize broadly, and foment lethal clashes with other monotheisms.
To inspire world-changing behaviors, monotheistic "Gods" are "conscious supernatural beings" who engage in "satisfying exchange relationships" with humans. Unlike lesser polytheistic deities, they have infinite power and scope, so they "can provide far more valuable rewards and therefore can require more in return."
In the name of their one true god, the largest monotheisms have mobilized armies of believers to spread the faith and save the world. That Judaism also missionized extensively throughout the Roman and Hellenistic worlds is less well known. Stark devotes a sizeable portion of this book to discussing the 185,000 American Protestants, mostly evangelicals, who are currently conducting a highly competitive Christian mission to the world.
Two things stand out about the centuries-long continent-wide missions: the long-term superficiality of much that has passed for genuine conversion, and the sheer extent and brutality of coercive missionizing. Not coincidentally, Stark points to two things that he finds inherent in all monotheisms: (1) the merging of desire and duty to spread knowledge of the one true god, and (2) religious intolerance.
While this is excellent social analysis, where is any discussion of the historical evidence for the transforming power of monotheism? Why this glaring omission?
Intolerance is the dark side of monotheism, and Stark enumerates 500 years of murderous attacks on Jews by groups of Christians and Muslims. He is occupied with showing that certain theoretical principles, applied to the historical record, "unite countless bloody events over many centuries into an integrated dynamic process." Monotheists committed to what he calls "the particularistic principle" - the idea that theirs is the one true god, and that therefore theirs is the only "authoritative belief system" - are inevitably in conflict with those who disagree. This is when "truly dangerous religious antagonisms arise."
In response, most Jewish communities "fully demonstrated their [own] unrelenting particularism by their unrelenting resistance" to conversion or assimilation. Chapter 4 contrasts the conditions in which Jews have resisted assimilation to those in which assimilation has taken place fully or partially.
If there is any hope in Stark's bleak picture of religious motives, he suggests it is the development of a new civility among religions and sects in a pluralistic society, based on an Adam Smithian religious capitalism - a free market of religious "suppliers" who compete with each other for members, no one of which can monopolize the rest. So far, he claims, this has been best worked out in the United States.
Stark sees his book's contribution as "assembling ... historical pieces into a more comprehensive structure as a test of original sociological theories, which, in turn, are meant to illuminate the history."
An open-minded examination of the entire historical record, with all its horrors and blessings, would have provided a more illuminating survey.
Freelance writer Linda L. Giedl divides her time between Boston and Denver.