An other great review from Jeff Needle who has kindly consented to have several of his reviews from AML reposted here. This one is about the rise of Mormonism from sociologists Rodney Stark. The book is The Rise of Mormonism and expands upon some of the comments Rodney Stark has made about Mormonism's growth.
Title: The Rise of Mormonism
Author: Rodney Stark and Reid Neilson
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Year Published: 2005
Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle
The name Rodney Stark is very familiar to LDS readers. His interest in Mormonism began with his long-time friendship with fellow sociologist Armand Mauss, also a familiar name and a member of the Church. Stark penned some astounding predictions several years ago, projecting what seemed to some an astounding growth rate for the American-born church, viewing Mormonism as the first new "world religion" since the advent of Islam.
The current volume is the outgrowth of requests made by colleagues and friends to gather some of his seminal writings containing his observations of Mormon growth and its impact on the world. Neilson, who has authored and/or edited several books on Mormonism, provides an extensive introduction, bringing to light not just Stark's views, but also the various reactions to those views. It's an excellent summary and a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the direction of Stark's research.
Chapter One is titled "Extracting Social Scientific Models from Mormon History." Stark introduces the idea of "religious capital" -- what believers have invested in their faith, noting that "the greater their store of religious capital (the more they have invested in a faith), the more costly it is for people to change faiths." (p. 25) He further explores the role of "revelations" in the emerging Mormon church, acknowledging the possibility that revelation can happen today. He sums up this rather mixed chapter with an appeal to scholars to consider Mormonism a "successful movement" that "differs from the thousands of failures" (p. 28) and is thus worthy of both respect and study.
Chapter Two, "Joseph Smith Among the Revelators," was initially motivated by Stark's study of President Spencer W. Kimball's priesthood revelation. Stark studies the context and manner of revelation, comparing the experiences of Joseph Smith, Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses. He examines the commonalities of their experiences -- their environments, social situations, etc. -- and then discusses what he calls the "holy families" of Mormonism, Christianity and Judaism, focusing on the immediate family members of the prophets. It's a fascinating read.
Chapter Three, "Mormon Networks of Faith," expands the focus from the "holy family" to the social networks developed by religious founders. It studies the mechanics of evangelization and analyzes the phenomenon of conversion under the heading "Choice and Capital" -- "capital," as previously noted, being the investment each person has in his or her religion, and how this affects the cost of conversion. The idea of networking is further discussed, not just in context of conversion, but also as a tool of retention.
Chapter Four is titled "Rationality and Mormon Sacrifice." Stark presents Mormonism as a "costly" religion (p. 85), one which demands sacrifice from its members. He discusses theories of religion as an essentially "irrational choice," and contrasts this with the rational tradition that guides social scientists and their research. How does the idea of "sacrifice" measure up as a "rational" choice? Stark finds that religious choice, as with others:
is generally based on cost-benefit calculations and is therefore rational behavior in precisely the same sense that other human behavior is rational. (p. 94)
That is, people will make choices based not solely on the demands made on them, but on the benefits that may be accrued from meeting those demands.
Chapter Five, "Modernization, Secularization, and Mormon Growth," posits that modernization, once thought to endanger the church and its institutions, is seen to actually foster new religions and institutions:
...my model proposes that modernization causes the secularization of conventional faiths and that this in turn leads not to a secular society but to the rise of new religious institutions better adapted to the new social and cultural institutions. (p. 102)
Can we account for the rise of Mormonism, at least in part, by the liberalization and secularization of the mainstream religions in the early 19th century? This is an interesting hypothesis.
He focuses on LDS growth rates abroad, and demonstrates some interesting correlations between Mormon population statistics and the surrounding societal milieu.
Chapter Six, "The Basis for Mormon Success," revisits the idea of "social capital" and explores the importance of retaining this capital in making religious choices. I took great interest in Stark's observation that:
(n)ew religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that their doctrines are nonempirical. Religions are less vulnerable to the extent that their doctrines are focused on a nonempirical reality and are not subject to empirical tests. (p. 119)
Indeed, such is the nature of "testimony," and thus becomes an appropriate basis for belief in that it cannot be tested by any scientific or historical method.
All of this is in the context of Stark's larger model, consisting of ten elements, for why religious movements succeed, which I will quote at length here, as I believe it will stimulate some discussion:
The Latter-Day Saints often retain cultural continuity with the conventional faiths of the societies in which they seek converts; their doctrines are nonempirical; they maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment; they have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective; they generate a highly motivated, volunteer religious labor force, including many willing to proselytize; they maintain a level of fertility sufficient to offset member mortality; they compete against weak, local, conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy; they sustain strong internal attachments while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders; they maintain sufficient tension with their environment -- they remain sufficiently strict; and they socialize their young sufficiently well as to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness. (p. 137)
This formulation goes a long way in explaining, from a non-spiritual perspective, the success of Mormonism as a new religious movement.
Chapter Seven, "The Rise of a New World Faith," closes the book with a brief appeal to the reader to consider Mormonism as the ideal example of a rising world religion. Stark presents several charts documenting the growth of the church, and insists that those wishing to study the phenomenon of the birth, and the occasional success, of faith groups, can be clearly seen in the history and projected growth of the Mormon religion.
"The Rise of Mormonism" is a thoughtful and insightful look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not so much as a movement born of revelation and restoration, but rather as a unique religious institution bearing the optimal characteristics for maximum growth and sustenance. Stark's analysis will not sit well with some who see the success of the Church as a divine reward rather than the result of various sociological factors. But Stark's conclusions merit examination and evaluation, and will surely provoke discussion in many quarters.
I am glad to highly recommend this book to thoughtful readers desiring an understanding of the Church from a different perspective.
The issue of sacrifice in religion is an interesting one. The book I'm about to start commenting on, Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust, brings this economic view of religion up as well. The question is when or if sacrifice is rational. For instance, what Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac (or similar stories in other religions) is rational. Kierkegaard famously argues that it isn't. I think some might argue it was, if Abraham had sufficient justified knowledge regarding God and life after death.
There is this odd conflict in religion between what is rational and irrational. We have the rational being that which is explainable in terms of the "system" of thought with rules and exchanges. Then there is the issue of the irrational, or that which can't be expressed in terms of rules and exchanges. The two are always in tension and I've noticed many thinkers try to move to one or the other. Part of this makes sense. After all economics tends to assume a rational agent. Without it you really aren't doing economics in a normal fashion. But does this mean that religion to be religion must be a mystery to the economist? I don't know. I don't think so. I think that, contrary to some, that religion often is rational. And further I think that where it is irrational, it's hardly unique among human acts. Rather it is a common feature of human decision making.