How do professional historians react to a social scientist writing about great historic movements?

I was very anxious about that when I did it the first time [The Rise of Christianity (HarperCollins, 1997)]. The only negative reviews I got were from two modernists, one a historian and one a social scientist. The historians, other than that, were wonderful—people like Owen Chadwick and the reviews in the Times Literary Supplement.

Since then, I have discovered that the grousing comes from social scientists, not from historians. Historians seem delighted to have someone try his hand at their stuff.

Do the social scientists have a problem with your focus on history or your emphasis on religion?

The religious emphasis. They tend to say things like, He certainly doesn't appreciate Marx properly. I don't think Marx deserves to be appreciated very much.

At the end of the chapter on slavery, I really did tear into the Marxists who made the pretense that the Quakers were acting out of false consciousness or trying to open the road to real capitalism. This is idiotic stuff. It presupposes that people can't think. The whole notion of false consciousness seems to me to be nothing but an easy intellectual out.

What first caused you to pay attention to the role of religion in social change?

I was a reporter at the Oakland Tribune before I started graduate school. And I went out to cover something called the Oakland Spacecraft Club, where there was a fellow speaking who was going to talk about his trip to Mars, Venus, and the moon on a flying saucer. I wrote a Sunday feature and had the maturity, where it came from I don't know, but I had the maturity to just write it straight. I figured the humor was there, and you didn't need to pound it.

The people I wrote about were so pleased I hadn't mocked them, while most of Oakland got a good chuckle. The problem was that I was then considered "the goofy writer." Anything odd that came along, whether it was calendar reform or some new religion, I would get assigned to it.

And so when I started graduate school, I had that background and had been wondering how these groups recruit. The first week of school, I met a guy transferred from Columbia who was very interested in how people join movements.

We decided to look for somebody to study. After about a year, we found the first 13 Moonies and did a study of conversion, which has stood up through the years. We said that friendship ties were in the first instance much more important than theology. That people learned the theology, but they learned it only after having already learned to trust it because their friends did.

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That's the same pattern that's been established in more mainstream groups.

Sure, why do the evangelical churches grow? Well because they invite their neighbors to church. I mean it really does come down to that a lot of the time.

The other thing that happened to me about that time was that when we took our first exam in the methods course and I got the top grade, I was recruited by Charles Glock to be his research assistant. He was one of the world's very few sociologists of religion at the time. The main reason that he recruited me is that I was the star student. But the other reason was that he picked up that, unlike almost everybody else in my cohort, I knew what people actually did in churches on Sunday morning. I had been baptized and confirmed a Lutheran, and it turns out he was a Lutheran. So I've been a sociologist of religion, really, since my first year of graduate school.

When I first came into the field, it was tiny. Now, it's really quite different. It's very big and a lot of the growth has come from religious people coming into the field. And the field's much better for it.

Since September 11, 2001, there's been a lot of interest in Islam. Many writers speak of the varied character of Islam. And yet when you write about Islam, it's fairly straightforward: "Islam couldn't provide the context for science because…" or "Islam couldn't provide the context for abolition of slavery because…"

And it didn't provide the context for witch hunts because…

How do such statements fit into our contemporary desire to build bridges wherever possible?

I don't think that as a scholar or historian it's my job to build bridges. I'm trying to figure out how the world works.

However, if I were to do a book on Islam, there is one thing that I'd stress: Our greatest mistake about Islam is the same mistake that Muslims make about Christianity. They think it's a monolith. Of course, you and I know that there are better than 1,500 Christian denominations in the United States. Well, most Muslims don't know that. And what we don't know is the enormous diversity within Islam, even at the village level.

There's a wonderful guy from Egypt who said to me once, I can take you to any village that has four mosques and it wouldn't take me an hour to find out which one was the "Episcopalian" mosque, which one was the "Baptist" mosque, which one was the "Nazarene" mosque, and which one was the "Methodist" mosque. And apparently there is that much variation across mosques and leaders.

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How does your historical work on the monotheistic impulse in social movements inform the present debate about the role of faith-based organizations providing social services in the U.S.?

I think that the notion of separation of church and state has been incredibly abused and misconstrued by enemies of religion, who have managed to fool a majority of the press. It doesn't say in the Constitution that it's illegal to have religion, but you get the notion that one day they're going to say that the President may not go to church because of separation of church and state.

I suppose my concern about the funding of faith-based organizations is that I'm worried about their ruination. I can't see that government funding has been good for anything else.

I'm also concerned there's a general perception that religion is either of no importance or very bad. And yet in the book I'm starting on now, I'm going to argue that everything important about Western civilization can be traced back to Christian rationalism.

We know that the whole Protestant ethic thesis is silly because capitalism precedes the Reformation by 300 to 500 years, and it couldn't have been caused by the Reformation.

I started out to write a book on the real rise of capitalism, and the next thing I knew, that had become how we got Western civilization. How did these barbarians build on the rubble of Rome and a few hundred years later surpass the rest of the world? The title of the book is Victories of Reason, because I'm going to argue that it was the commitment to reason and progress which starts in Christian theology that really was the basis of Western civilization.

Reason, progress, and assurance. The major thing is that pioneers of science, for example, were confident that it could be done. And that that was absolutely crucial. In other religious traditions, it was clear to any educated person that science couldn't be done, that the universe is mysterious and unpredictable.

Early in the book you state "the urge for monopoly lies within all or nearly all monotheistic factions." Take the Anabaptists, for example: If the magisterial Reformers hadn't forced them to the margins, do you think they might have behaved more like the Lutherans and the Reformed?

I'm not so sure what would have happened if they'd looked around one day and said, You know, we're the big guys. That's an enormous temptation, because if you really are convinced that you have God's truth, how can you not share it? And how can you tolerate things that are clearly dreadful sins? It's one of the great temptations, and under certain circumstances, people find it awfully difficult to resist.

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Where we've got real religious liberty, we also have real variety. In the American model, we all keep each other straight.

American religious freedom developed in a context that is quite prohibitive. The various sects in 1776 and thereafter didn't believe that the other folks had much of the truth. It was that they kept looking around and realizing that unless there was toleration, they might be doomed. It was fear.

Adam Smith wrote about religious groups really beautifully. Unfortunately, those chapters are left out of most editions of The Wealth of Nations. He had wonderful things to say about religious competition and why state churches are lazy. It's marvelous reading.

It seems that when you say that only a God who cares about human society and who rewards and punishes in the afterlife can inspire passionate social movements. But isn't Christian ethics so much more than this?

There's been a terrible tension ever since day one. On the one hand, you get the Quakers and pacifism and on the other you'll get the kind of religion that produced the World War I German belt buckle the guy next door gave me when I was a kid. It said, Gott mit uns [God is with us].

Right now I'm studying the biblical work on moral equality as precursor to the early democratic regimes in the Italian city-states. Before God, everybody was equal. Before God, there weren't slaves and masters, and so forth. And this starts in the New Testament with Jesus hanging out with disreputable people. He violated boundary lines again and again with Samarians and fallen women.

In the long run, the notion that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness comes forth, but it starts in the New Testament.

Really, only Christianity ever had theology. There's some theology in Islam and Judaism, but it's more the study of law. Judaism and Islam are more interested in asking, What did God say? But Christian theologians have been more apt to ask, What did God mean? And that's a big difference.

The notion that we can progressively understand God better starts with Paul. Augustine goes wild on it, saying there are things that we don't understand but one day we shall. All the way through our history is a belief in progress that's really quite astounding.

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There is an entire literature on God's accommodation or condescension. Calvin called Revelation an act of supreme condescension. It's a wonderful idea because it says that even God believes in human progress—that next year, if we think really hard, we may understand more than we did last year from these same scriptures.

This is entirely out of keeping with religions which almost celebrate the past and irrationality, saying that reality is all a great mystery. Now that isn't quite true of Islam and Judaism, but for the other religions, it certainly is.

In the chapter on witch hunts, it seemed like you were making an a priori assumption that Satanism just couldn't exist.

I think that one can accept the existence of Satan and his evil intentions without embracing the notion that people can get into actual compact with him. Some Jesuits said Satan doesn't need fat old ladies.You know, Why in the world would he make a compact with those people? Some of the best people never for a moment said Satanism was impossible, but just that we haven't seen any. But these are instances—it's really, really hard to know.

Your book is full of interesting discoveries. I particularly enjoyed the obscure material you pulled together on the history of Roman Catholic opposition to slavery. What discoveries delighted you as you researched the book?

Well that one certainly did, enormously. And I can thank a Jesuit in Mexico for helping me figure that out. He wrote a little book and sent it to me and it made a big difference in what I eventually decided to do.

One discovery that fascinated me was that when preachers went around on behalf of the Crusades, agitating against heretics and unbelievers, it quickly grew into an attack on the dissolute clergy and practically caused a reformation in the 12th century. I found that fascinating.

A delicious irony.

Yes. And these preachers just kept on trying.

Related Elsewhere

For the Glory of God by Rodney Stark is this month's selection for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:

Read our review by David Neff
Read an excerpt from For the Glory of God
Buy the book online

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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