restricted access Interview with Rodney Stark
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March/April 2006 Historically Speaking 19 Interview with Rodney Stark Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa Donald A. Yerxa: You have earned the reputation of being a fearless scholar who enthusiatically takes on the received wisdom on big ideas. What attracts you to such big topics as the rise ofChristianity, the historical consequences of monothesism, and the origins of science? Rodney Stark: Let me start off by saying what I am and what I am not. I'm not a historian who works with primary materials and discovers new things. Years ago Thor Heyerdahl said that archaeologists are inclined to sit in their own holes surrounded by the artifacts they've dug up. And he thought that somebody should walk from hole to hole and make something larger out of all these small collections. There is a way in which historians are like archaeologists. There are marvelous subspecialities in history with very good people doing wonderfully inventive things that almost nobody hears about. Being a history buff, I started encountering these studies, and for the life of me I couldn't understand why they weren't being pulled into the big picture. For example, several people have been working on the Spanish Inquisition, and they've documented more than 40,000 cases that came before the Inquisition. They've created an astonishing data base. It turns out that the Inquisition was primarily concerned with matters ofjustice and the rule of law. There were very few executions. The place to get convicted of witchcraft was in Spain by the Inquisition because the penalty was to say you were sorry. And if you had been particularly snotty about it, they'd make you carry a sign confessing your evil ways in front of the church on a Saturday morning. Bonfires and stakes were really rare events. Did they burn some books? Yes. Were they scientific books? No. Were they Lutheran books? Some of them. Calvinist books? Some ofthem. Do you know what most of them were? Pornography. Good Lord, you look at Hollywood these days and you say: "Torquemada, where are you now?" The point is that here's this wonderful stuff that I never heard about. My colleagues don't know about it. The term "Spanish Inquisition" still sends chills down everybody 's spine, despite all this work to the contrary . Another example is the claim that there really wasn't a "Dark Ages." I didn't know that. I was raised on the Dark Ages and the notion that idiots in the church tried to prevent Columbus from sailing west because they thought he would fall off the edge of the world. No, they knew the world was round. These kinds of things come along, and the next thing you know, I'm writing a book pulling a bunch ofthem together. I confess that there is a lot of self-indulIfyou assume thatpeople make rational choices about religion, you can start seeing how the world works a whole lot better. gence in what I'm doing. I do this because it is incredibly fun. I've had an enormously privileged life. I have been able to spend most of my mature years doing whatever I want. And writing books like The Victory of Reason is what I really love doing. Yerxa: You have been credited with recasting the study of the sociology of religion over the past several decades. Could you briefly describe how your work has challenged prevailing assumptions in the field? Stark: Years ago John Lofland and I decided we really wanted to know what happened when people converted to a new religion. I don't mean changing denominations, but really shifting in a major way, like Christians becoming Jews, Jews becoming Moonies, or whatever. We found a little group that was going out trying to convert people, and when we watched them closely, we made a remarkable discovery. Converts said that they joined movements because of what the ideology did for them, what the payoff was. Sick people were attracted to the possibility of healing; poor people were attracted to notions like "the last shall be first." We discovered that people joined new religious groups because their friends...