Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Exaggerating the Influence of Religious Faith - The Bias & Blindsight Of Rodney Stark

As rationalism and secularism has grown ever more during the past few decades it is natural that those still adhering to religiosity would try to strike back and also engage in wholesale revisionism. For example, sociologist Rodney Stark - who is actually more of a religionist - has been a prolific writer of numerous books on Christianity, God and faith -  often with a revisionist framing and themes.

One of those is his insistence that, contrary to originating with a tiny sect, Christianity was actually far more powerful and influential. This take is flatly refuted by some of the best theologians and exegetical researchers, including John Dominic Crossan.

In this light, Crossan's monograph: The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, arguably outweighs the value of all of Stark's writings in concert.. But the depth of his research clearly shows his conclusion is overpowering: That no genuine divine being existed identified with Yeshua. Instead one beheld a very unusual "hippie" persona, who evinced a disdain for all the normal customs, rituals, formalities of his time. In other words, given the era and time, an "Augustan Hippie".

Nor did he undertake to establish any powerful church or religion. This was done after his death, by none other than Paul of Tarsus otherwise known as "Saint Paul".  A formidable problem in researching and writing about historical personages, is that myth often becomes conflated with facts. This is especially true when the research entails exhaustive dredging up of numerous obscure scrolls, manuscripts- not to mention cross checking of sources. That is why John Dominic Crossan's book is all the more remarkable. It shines out like a beacon, against a morass of many other comparable books with far less scholarly qualities- like Rodney Stark's.

All of this is important background including Stark's earlier work : Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, which I reviewed some 7 years ago.  At the time, I pointed out his confession that it was impossible to analyze said God “discovery” outside of specific contexts. Stark then invokes his own brand of “theology” to ferret out God’s nature from “Revelation”.  At the end of it all, after discussing Islam, Taoism, etc, he is led to conclude that "Christianity is the only true religion."

But peeling back the dross all one finds is that he had applied “rational choice theory” to the anthropology and sociology of religions to try to show Christianity is an optimal choice. (Read the text, ‘The Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory’ to behold all its defects, and also note that the term “rational” in this context is NOT the same as we define it in terms of normative reasoned arguments, etc. You can also read this summary .pdf document: https://faculty.fuqua.duke.edu/~rnau/choice/choice_pathologies.pdf

Clearly also, when one's mind is already constrained by its own biases and  speculative selection of "rational choice" then anything outside this context will appear irrational or unjustified.

Further, as I pointed out in an earlier book (‘The Atheist’s Handbook to Modern Materialism’, 2000) it is impossible to “reason” about theology or theology’s tracts and dogmas. The reason is simple: theology lacks objects of inquiry that are the basis of genuine knowledge.  While quantum mechanics provides us insights into the behavior and properties of atoms, and we can actually observe certain atoms in electron micrographs, e.g.

Where is the comparable basis for accepting "soul"?

 WHAT exactly is  a "soul"? This entity hasn't even been defined properly - the word has merely been coined (invented) by theologians and circulated (by those like Rodney Stark) as if some real underlying entity exists- as much as silicon atoms. Where is it? How do I discriminate it from ordinary consciousness? What specific identifying attributes does it have that can be immediately recognized and subjected to distinctive tests - such that I may assert: "Look - here is the SOUL!"

As Sir A.J. Ayer has noted (‘Language, Truth and Logic’, p. 158):

The fact that people have religious experiences is interesting from a psychological point of view, but it does not in any way imply that there is such a thing as religious knowledge.”

While Ayer's standard for acceptance of legitimate knowledge may have been somewhat excessive (he demanded that any word or term used be tied to empirical verification) a case can certainly be made that at least a basic epistemological basis be provided. In all of this, the rationalist can see problems that Stark never does. Or wants to!

Which brings us to his current work, 'The Triumph Of Faith' also recently reviewed in The Wall Street Journal ('The God Profusion', Jan. 4, p. A13). True to form from his earlier sociological revisionism, we learn that Stark is ":pushing back against the secularization thesis", i.e. according to the WSJ reviewer (Naomi Schaeffer Riley):

"Intellectual elites have been declaring the  demise of religion  for centuries. Religious belief is a susceptibility of the illiterate and the ignorant. With education, people see the foolishness of their ways and abandon their beliefs"

We are then informed that Stark has shown "in one country after another today, more educated people are choosing religion in larger numbers than their less educated peers.""

Which begs the question of what kind of education they received. Did it include biblical exegesis, the textual analysis of so called sacred books? Did it include ANY scientific  courses or training at all, say in physics, chemistry or biology?  Did it include any critical thinking courses? If not, I would not use that form of education to brag on, i.e. as having distinctive quality, to promote as a basis for expanding religious belief.

As if to emphasize the point, Riley then avers (ibid.):

"This is certainly true in the United States, where college-educated Americans are more likely to attend religious services than their counterparts with only a high school diploma"

Which again, is egregious and also laden with disinformation. She might have better observed that liberal arts college grads with no science exposure are more likely to attend religious services than their counterparts with physics, chemistry, math and biology degrees. THAT would be far more honest, but why try to be when you are trying to push propaganda?

This includes her specious claim (and Stark's which she references) that the U.S. is "not becoming less religious as a whole" - contrary to numerous Pew surveys that disclose the increase of "nones" (i.e. the religiously unaffiliated who have allegiance to no particular faith . She even goes so far to criticize Alan Cooperman of the Pew Research Center for claiming that "the country is becoming less religious as a whole".

This prompted a reply from Cooperman in the WSJ letters section two days ago, and he noted ("Stark is Wrong About U.S.  'Nones' and Faith"):

"In fact, Pew Research surveys are far from alone in documenting the growth of religious 'nones' Gallup polls and the American Religious Identification Survey document the same trend as does the General Social Survey, an academic study with very high response rates."

But why let facts get in the way, when one is more invested in spreading revisionist swill and propaganda as Stark did earlier by claiming Christianity's origins as a nominal, Middle Eastern sect were a "myth".  Clearly, Stark's mission is to attempt to overturn historical facts as well as recent sociological data that shows faith in decline. What else is a propagandizer to do?

Indeed, to try to pump up his claims for increasing "faith" Stark actually goes so far as to conflate religious faith with  "all sorts of supernatural beliefs" held by Europeans - according to Riley. (Since Europe has been vastly more secularized than the U.S.) That includes: fortune telling, astrology, lucky charms, reincarnation and telepathy.

Here, neither Stark or Riley appear to be aware that telepathy need have no "supernatural" component at all. Experiments conducted by Dr. Robert G. Jahn (using random number generators), as published in The Journal of Scientific Exploration. (Vol. 1, No. 1) shows a possible way that assorted students actually affected computer random number generators to 'tilt' then to significance in churning out one set of numbers over others.

Astrology also has no supernatural element.  Rather, it has simply neglected to update according to the findings of astronomy. For example, in the two thousand years since the Sun signs were devised, the Earth's axis has precessed out of the original alignment, and with it the equinoxes.   This means that each of the other eleven so-called Sun signs used in horoscopes is out by the same amount: one entire Sun sign. (So if your birthday is in July, you are no longer a Cancer but a Gemini! )

In addition, astrology employs the long ago refuted model of the geocentric (Earth-centered) universe.  In the end, astrology isn't so much a "supernatural" belief system as a faux psychology for fragile human egos . Thereby attributing meaning to human lives based on planetary positions in certain constellations - where no such meaning exists. We are basically cosmic orphans, but astrology attempts to allay that reality, so the stars and planets are literally a 'code' for our flawed personas.

The whole point here is that dragging in all these marginal beliefs and putting them (speciously) under the category of "faith" (in order to convince people of the "triumph of faith")  is simply not cricket or kosher -  when one is really about religious faith. It would be roughly analogous to me trying to show that atheists outnumber Christians by including all 1.1. billion odd Buddhists as atheists, as well as all the Hindus!

But for Rodney Stark, what's a little obfuscation and conflation when there's a larger purpose - based on religious propaganda - to be fulfilled?

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