In his The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark sets out to answer …
How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries
Right off, he discards a straightforward old favorite - an emperor’s adoption …
Christians were so numerous that Constantine found it expedient to embrace the church.
How numerous, in order to force Constantine’s hand? Ten percent or so of the population by 300. But could they have made this leap all by themselves?
As a sociologist, Stark studied the rise of the Moonies and the Mormons. These movements are cults,
new faiths, at least new in the society being examined, that
violate prevailing religious norms and suffer
tension with their social environment.
He came up with a set of propositions for cult growth:
- Convert friends:
conversion to new, deviant groups occurs when … people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to non-members.…
People don’t seek a faith. They encounter one.
- Draw on the familiar:
people are more willing to adopt a new religion to the extent that it retains cultural continuity with conventional religion(s) with which they already are familiar
- Take on the worldly:
new religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and disconnected
- Draw on the privileged: they
have the sophistication needed to understand new religions and to recognize a need for them.
- Stay open:
successful movements discover techniques for remaining open … to new, adjacent social networks
- Button up the details:
people do not really become very attached to the doctrines of their new faith until after their conversion
- Operate in an open market: you won’t survive persecution. It makes you hide. Hiding means closing yourself off. Closing yourself off means …
Follow these and your cult, like the Mormons before you, will reach a
rapid growth stage along an exponential curve. Here is a route to numbers, but could Christianity have taken it? Were there enough worldly, privileged friends who would have understood their message?
- Friends: the Jesus movement spread out from the Jewish homeland to the cities of the east.
Who will welcome us? Who will listen?These cities had large populations of fellow Jews,
accustomed to receiving teachers from Jerusalem
- Familiar: unlike their neighbors, diaspora Jews could understand the Christian message. The new testament is the book of Mormon of its time - building on an existing tradition (the bible in Greek, the Septuagint). Anyone from that tradition was a potential convert.
- Worldly: the diaspora were the
emancipated Jewsof their time,
no longer accepted as Jews, and not truly assimilated Gentiles either. They were lost and open, prime for the
accommodated Judaismthat Christianity became.
- Privileged: the diaspora had the most sophisticated, most privileged Jews.
- Open Market: with no exclusive cult, Rome’s persecutions were hap-hazard. Unmentioned by Stark but relevant was the demise of the Jewish temple and nationalistic Judaism. Jewish was up for grabs.
Of course, this goes against received history. The mission to the Jews failed, we are told. Paul evangelized the gentiles. Christian-Jewish antipathy was early and deep. But study the data of Christian and Jewish remains and you get a
powerful positive correlation between synagogues and Christianization. Long after they had the gospels, the Christians kept the Jewish books despite discordancy. Why? Only Jews would care. And what of Christianity’s anti-Jewish screeds? Just
And the numbers? Stark assumes Jews were five to six million or ten percent of the population (the magic ten again!). If Christians take a fifth by the middle of the third century, they had the million needed to become ten percent themselves within fifty years. But the diaspora was too small to continue delivering exponential growth to a million member movement. It would have had to leap beyond its own. The sociologist is stuck.
(for) something truly new to make headway - Hindu groups in the United States … - is extremely rare
The scientist who tells you to
reason from the general rule to deduce the specific has no examples of societies voluntarily adopting the catagorically new. His book - Christianity - how Constantine raised a Jewish cult - ends. But …
Faith seldom is ‘blind’, in the sense that religions frequently are discarded and new ones accepted in troubled times
So steps up the second Mr. Stark - Stark, Christian Polemist, a man not troubled for precedent or evidence. Quotes from old histories are enough to support sweeping generalizations.
The Roman world was groaning under a host of miseries. … cultural chaos produced by the crazy quilt of ethnic diversity … epidemics … low fertility … love of death. Christianity,
a revitalization movement, had
immense competitive advantages vis-a-vis paganism and other religious movements of the day as a solution to these problems. It did?
Without the use of abortion and infanticide, Christians were more fertile. Hey, what of their fetish of virginity? Why did Nicea make a rule against castration? Where was the baby boom after Christianity dominated?
Unlike their neighbors, they cared for their ill during epidemics and so survived at greater rates. So all their neighbors were self-absorbed individualists, were they? All those ethnicities responded to epidemics in the same way?
Christianity was a
coherent culture … entirely stripped of ethnicity. Ah unified Christiandom! Only Christians offered hope,
certain that this life was but prelude. And the Platonists? Plotinus, Porphyry? Were they ignorant of this world beyond? Was it not their focus? Yes, Christians turned from gladiators and other cruelties but what did they turn to? Martyr stories. The gorier the better.
And let’s not forget good doctrine -
an essential factor in the religion’s success was what Christian’s believed.
As societies grow older, larger, and more cosmopolitan, they will worship fewer gods of greater scope … distinguish the supernatural into two classes - good and evil and
History suggests that when non-exclusive faiths are challenged by exclusive competitors, in a relatively unregulated market, the exclusive firms win.
Christian monotheism must be unstoppable! India, Asia anyone? Didn’t Dr. Stark write that
people do not really become very attached to the doctrines of their new faith until after their conversion, that what a cult says matters little for its growth.
Polemist Stark’s language is revealing.
Jews and then Christians were deemed to be ‘atheistic’ for their condemnation of false gods. No inverted commas for the gods! They need no respect. But their rival does. Stark worries about being accused of attributing
sacred achievements to profane causes when
no sacrilege is intended.
obviously God did not cause the world to become Christian, since that remains to be achieved
It does indeed. As does a credible account of how Christianity grew dominant without a certain emperor’s fateful choice.