The amazing complexity of religious belief

By Rodney Stark
HarperCollins, 484 pages, $25.95

Is a religious movement best characterized by the teachings of its founder, the principles of its sacred writings, or the beliefs of people who call themselves its adherents? What if all these things have changed over time? What if this diversity is characteristic of the movement today?

Ask enough of these questions and one may conclude that it’s impossible to say anything definitive about any religious movement. Yet it’s important to explore the differences within a major movement, such as Christianity, and any of its subgroups, such as Catholicism. And preparations for such tasks as the upcoming Vatican-Muslim dialogues illustrate the importance of trying to understand such diversity on the world religious stage.

Rodney Stark’s latest book offers a good basis for such a task. Discovering God: A New Look at the Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief is breathtaking in its scope. It illustrates not only the amazing varieties of religious beliefs that have marked the journey of humankind but also the often contradictory variety of sociological explorations of those beliefs.

Bringing to bear his more than four decades of studies of religious belief, Dr. Stark says his newest work can be read either as a study of the evolution of human images of God or of the human capacity to comprehend God, because the same theoretical model suits either interpretation. The Baylor University sociologist maintains a traditional scholarly reluctance to affirm or deny the truth of religious belief while suggesting that the three great monotheistic faiths of the West -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- are more in keeping with the dictates of reason than are other belief systems.

Dr. Stark’s study will provoke readers to reexamine what they may have considered to be the essential aspects of a religion. For example, although ethics might seem to be a standard element of religious teaching, Dr. Stark says the temple-based faiths of such ancient civilizations as Sumer and Egypt didn’t have much influence on individual morality because they lacked attractive doctrines concerning individual salvation. Because these systems posited a miserable afterlife for people regardless of their moral behavior, he writes, “There was no compelling religious reward for virtue.”

Using the Roman Empire as a setting for examining the origins of religious conflict, Dr. Stark says Jews and Christians faced persecution not primarily for rejecting polytheism but because of their closely knit congregational organization. He notes that such pagan movements as the followers of Cybele, Isis and Bacchus also “got in serious trouble” with the rulers of the empire for similar reasons. At the same time, Dr. Stark says, monotheistic movements also tend to generate internal conflicts as subgroups claim to be the most authentic expression of the movement’s core beliefs.

The perils of making sweeping statements about the beliefs of a religious movement are particularly evident in Dr. Stark’s chapter on the religions of India. He says the Vedas and Upanishads of ancient Hinduism represent a remarkable variety of teachings and that it’s even difficult to identify and characterize the major Hindu gods. For example, he writes, “when one worships one of Vishnu’s avatars, such as Krishna, one is, in effect, worshiping Vishnu, although some devotees of Krishna regard him as the supreme God and Vishnu as one of Krishna’s avatars.”

Similarly, in examining Chinese religions, Dr. Stark relates that after Buddhism arrived in China, some Taoists claimed that Lao-Tzu transformed himself into the Buddha, in a parallel to the claim of some Hindus that Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu. The author also challenges mainstream sociological treatments of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism as godless belief systems. In doing so, he makes a distinction between the elite and popular forms of these movements and concludes that Confucius founded a religion even if he didn’t intend to. Dr. Stark says today’s Chinese folk religion has blended elements of all three movements with such ancient beliefs as ancestor worship, exorcism and divination, so that devotees at many temples have no specific name for their religion and simply speak of “worshiping the deities.”

In examining the varieties of Islamic belief, Dr. Stark notes that one problem is the difficulty of citing authoritative scriptures. This is true not only because the belief that Arabic is the divine language makes it sinful to translate the Quran into other languages, but also because all major branches of Islam accept the authority of the collections of writings known as Hadith while disputing which collections are authentic.

Another problem is the issue of free will versus predestination. Dr. Stark writes that the Quran sometimes affirms one and sometimes the other, giving rise to the Shiite belief that humans can choose between doing good and evil and the contrasting belief of the Sunni majority that God is responsible for both good and evil and that all human actions are predetermined. Add to this the fact that there are, in Dr. Stark’s words, “many different kinds” of Shiites in Iran alone, and the difficulties of understanding Islam -- to say nothing of conducting dialogues with its adherents -- seem overwhelming.

Dr. Stark’s book illustrates the difficulties but also provides a good starting place for diplomats, theologians and any laypeople who want to be informed. A good method for such explorations might be to set aside time for careful study of such books as Discovering God -- and to use a good deal of humility while doing so.

Darrell Turner writes the annual religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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