Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Growth of Christianity 3

Another installment from Rodney Stark's book The Rise of Christianity. Stark accepts the findings of a number of early Christian scholars that suggests a substantial number of the first converts were from the privileged classes. He makes a distinction between sects, which are renewal movements within a religion that tend to appeal to the disposessed, and cults, which are brand new movements that require a level of intellectual skepticism about existing religious organizations. Christianity was a cult movement; it appealed to the skeptical and privileged. This assumes some breakdown in the satisfaction level with the existing religions, and this was true among the pagan religions of the Roman empire; more on this in a later installment.

The important point here is about the appeal of new religions:
New religions must always make their way in the market openings left them by weaknesses in the conventional religion(s) of a society... Here it is sufficient to point out that as weaknesses appear in conventional faiths, some people will recognize and respond to these weaknesses sooner than others. For example, as the rise of modern science caused difficulties for some traditional Christian teachings, this was recognized sooner by more educated people. In similar fashion, as the rise of Greek and Roman science and philosophy caused difficulties for pagan teachings, this too was first noticed by the educated. To state this as a proposition: Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the most privileged.

But skepticism does not entail a general immunity to the essential supernaturalism of all religions. For example, although sociologists have long believed that people who give their religious affiliation as "none" are primarily secular humanists, considerable recent research shows this not to be the case. Most such people are merely indicating a lack of conviction in a conventional brand of faith, for they are also the group most likely to express interest in belief in unconventional mystical, magical, and religious doctrines. For example, "nones" are the group of Americans most willing to accept astrology, yoga, reincarnation, ghosts, and the like.
Ain't it the truth. One of the great ironies of my experience with the "cultured despisers" of Christianity, those who have outgrown the "narrow-mindedness" and "ignorance" of their childhood faith, is how many of them dabble in new age and eastern religious practices. There is nothing necessarily wrong with dabbling and learning and finding what works, but it also the case that one "superstition" can be given up only to be replaced by another. In any case, Stark goes on to talk about those attracted to the first Christian message:
...For new religions always involve new ideas. Consider citizens of the Roman world as they first confronted the Pauline church. This was not simply a call to intensify their commitment to a familiar faith (as sect movements always are). Instead of calling Romans to return to the gods, Paul called them to embrace a new worldview, a new conception of reality, indeed to accept a new God. While sects are able to appeal to people of little intellectual capacity by drumming the old, familiar culture, new religions find such people difficult to reach. Thus they must gain their hearings from people of social standing and privilege...

In short, people must have a degree of privilege to have the sophistification needed to understand new religions and to recognize a need for them...
It is important to note his mention of Paul. This is what Paul did that was different than Jesus. Jesus was, in the terms of this book, the founder of a sect. His was a reform movement within Judaism. Paul took the Jewish reform message and turned it into a new religion in the world of the pagan Roman empire.

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