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The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History.

Economists curious to see what sociologists have to offer their work could scarcely do better than explore Rodney Stark's fascinating, provocative, and very readable book The Rise of Christianity. In its pages one finds a thorough commitment to using social science to understand the development of Christianity from its early stages through the conversion of Constantine the Great and his subsequent edict of toleration [p. 313]. As Stark sees it "Constantine's conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not as its cause" [p. 10]. In these few words one glimpses Stark's approach - logical, empirical, and not content with conventional wisdom.

Stark has used his approach to great effect in a growing list of books, including The Future of Religion (1985), with William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (1987), also with Bainbridge, and The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (1992), with Roger Finke. The distinctive characteristic of his present book is the application of economic and sociological concepts to a time and place far removed from his previous investigations.

The concepts he uses are relatively simple - exponential growth, networks, and rational choice - and he brings to his work a knowledge of history which he frankly admits is not that of a New Testament scholar [p. xii]. But he artfully combines them to provide, insofar as possible, naturalistic explanations of the essential phenomena. He makes clear that one doesn't need miracles to explain the growth of the Christian population from the year 40 to 300, for a growth rate of 3.42 percent per year, not unlike the growth of the Latter-day Saints during the last one hundred years, accounts for things rather nicely [pp. 6-7].

The growth rate of the Christian population is explained through birth rates, death rates, and conversion rates, all three of which were strongly affected by "the Christian values of love and charity" [p. 74] and an environment which was usually urban and subject to epidemics and other disasters; apostasy rates, which parallel conversion rates, were presumably hard to find. In such circumstances - Stark devotes a chapter to the city of Antioch which endured forty-one major catastrophes over the course of six hundred years - Christians, in comparison to pagans, tended to have relatively low death rates and relatively high birth rates. These factors increased the relative size of the Christian population and provided the opportunity for the relatively high rates of conversion from paganism to Christianity.

It is in relation to conversion that Stark makes effective use of networks, for social networks, rather than supernatural intervention, generate most conversions. Generally speaking, conversions grow out of relationships with people who are already adherents of the religion to which one converts. The social dislocation associated with the frequent calamities of the early Christian era, and the other-oriented character of Christian values (as compared to paganism), created numerous new pagan-Christian relationships. This, coupled with the relative attractiveness of early Christianity to women [p. 95], resulted in relatively high conversion rates. One sees, then, how a changing social environment presented new opportunities for conversions which ultimately resulted in relatively high Christian growth rates.

This review has only scratched the surface of a broad, yet focused, book. In addition Stark devotes chapters to the class basis of early Christianity, the mission to the Jews, the role of women, and martyrdom (which he treats as a rational choice). Throughout the neoclassically-trained economist will recognize a familiar approach. What such an economist might not recognize is a clarity and relevance that is the province of few. The Rise of Christianity is a model for doing social science. May it be read widely.

Bruce Larson University of North Carolina at Asheville
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Author:Larson, Bruce
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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