Saturday, June 07, 2003


Why Gods Should Matter in Social Science (Chronicle of Higher Education via the Arts and Letters Daily)


If it is hard to believe that conceptions of the Gods are ignored in most recently written histories, it is harder yet to understand why Gods were long ago banished from the social-scientific study of religion. But that is precisely why I have devoted two volumes to demonstrating the crucial role of the Gods in shaping history and civilization, and to resurrecting and reformulating a sociology of Gods.


Unconscious divine essences are unable to issue commandments or make moral judgments. Thus, conceptions of the supernatural are irrelevant to the moral order unless they are beings --�things having consciousness and desires. Put another way, only beings can desire moral conformity. Even that is not sufficient. Gods can lend sanctions to the moral order only if they are concerned about, informed about, and act on behalf of humans. Moreover, to promote virtue among humans, Gods must be virtuous --�they must favor good over evil. Finally, Gods will be effective in sustaining moral precepts, the greater their scope --�that is, the greater the diversity of their powers and the range of their influence. All-powerful, all-seeing Gods ruling the entire universe are the ultimate deterrent.

Two conclusions follow from this discussion. First, the effects of religiousness on individual morality are contingent on images of Gods as conscious, morally concerned beings; religiousness based on impersonal or amoral Gods will not influence moral choices. Second, participation in religious rites and rituals will have little or no independent effect on morality.


So then, let us finally be done with the claim that religion is all about ritual. Gods are the fundamental feature of religions. That holds even for Godless religions, their lack of Gods explaining the inability of such faiths to attract substantial followings. Moreover, it was not the "wisdom of the East" that gave rise to science, nor did Zen meditation turn people's hearts against slavery. By the same token, science was not the work of Western secularists or even deists; it was entirely the work of devout believers in an active, conscious, creator God. And it was faith in the goodness of that same God and in the mission of Jesus that led other devout Christians to end slavery, first in medieval Europe and then again in the New World.

In those ways at least, Western civilization really was God-given.

Rodney Stark is a professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington. This article is adapted from For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, to be published this month by Princeton University Press. Copyright � 2003 by Rodney Stark.

Read it all. I have to say I was with him up to the last two paragraphs - making religion about ritual to the exclusion of the gods clearly does't work - but I think he goes off topic at the end and into areas that are less defensible. Devout believers in God have been as much a hindrance to science as a help and they did quite a lot to promote and preserve slavery before it was ended.

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