This article originally appeared in The Catholic World Report in October, 2009.
Interviewed by Mark Sullivan
When an agnostic professor from a secular university writes a book defending the Catholic Church using sociology, it gets noticed. It also makes his fans eager for his next book.
Rodney Stark’s latest book is a popular history of the Crusades, God’s Battalions: The Case for The Crusades. Writing a popular history is a departure from Stark’s usual work as a sociologist, but it’s not much of a stretch. Stark began his career as a journalist and has read military history his whole life.
Fans of Stark’s influential book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries won’t be disappointed. God’s Battalions continues in the vein of the Rise of Christianity. In fact, after he completed God’s Battalions went back and rewrote The Rise of Christianity. His conclusions are the same. It’s just three times longer.
Stark has created the odd niche of the secular scholar defending the Catholic Church against the anti-Catholic bias present in much of the history books. Almost miraculously, Stark’s conclusions about the rise of Christianity fit exactly into the post- Vatican II vision of the Church and the universal call to holiness.
For those unfamiliar with The Rise of Christianity, Stark argued that Christianity grew at the blistering pace of 40% per decade not because of miraculous mass conversions but because of the personal apostolate and witnesses of the rank and file Christians. They took care of the sick, which made the sick people more likely to recover than their pagan counterparts. The pagan doctors were the first to leave town when the plague hit.
The Christians were faithful in marriage, didn’t use contraceptives, and didn’t leave unwanted children to die in the gutter. The pagans would often “expose” their daughters because they were less useful than sons. The side effect was that eventually there were very few pagan women. If a man wanted to get married, he’d have to marry a Christian woman and many were converted.
To use a military metaphor, in the siege between the pagans and the Christians, the Christians simply outlasted them.
Stark’s explanation of the growth of Christianity has been accepted by many scholars and even got him nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Since writing The Rise of Christianity, Stark left the University of Washington. He is now affiliated with Baylor University even though he is not actively teaching. In other interviews he has identified himself as an independent Christian. All of this clearly plays into how Stark handles the history of the Crusades.
What is the difference between the rise of Christianity and the rise of Islam?
Rodney Stark: One was a matter of conversion and the other a matter of conquest. The assumption in a lot of the histories of Islam is that once the Muslims got there and conquered the country, everybody was a Muslim. But that just wasn’t so. It took 100 years before as many as half of the people in these countries converted to Islam. It was until around the 13th century that Islam got tough on domestic Christians and forced a lot of conversions. Up until that point the Christians and Jews were staffing the bureaucracies.
Why have the Crusades been such an attractive topic for critics of Christianity?
Stark: Plain ignorance. They don’t like military history. They don’t think there is such thing as a just war. There is a streak of pacifism that seems to come through quite strongly. There is also a good dose of anti-Catholicism in it. Let’s blame the pope for another one of his dirty deeds. That is very ignorant because no attempt was made to convert the Muslims in the near east until the Crusader states were established. There were more Muslims than anybody else. They were left in peace. It was not an issue.
There is also the standard of wanting to blame the West for why things have gone wrong. There seems to be an intellectual pay-off for that.
I suspect the book is going to be very controversial which I find to be very odd because all these wonderful historians have written these great books that aren’t getting through to anybody. Since I’ve read military history my whole life but never written any, I decided to go ahead and write the book myself. It was a great deal of fun.
How has the role of the scholar changed?
Stark: If you look at the best-seller non-fiction list and it’s blink and wink and stink. The earth is flat. There aren’t books on the Crusades. Today I received a wonderful book on Churchill that won’t be on that list. Sometimes it seems that someone should write a popular version of things. I was reading a lot of these books on the Crusades anyway, so I had a good start.
Some of these studies are wonderfully done. Riley-Smith reconstructed who went on the First Crusade, and amazingly, it turns out they were all close relatives. [Jonathan Riley Smith has written a number of books dealing with the Crusades.] On the Second Crusade, they were all the children and grandchildren of those who went on the First Crusade. Even so, most of the knights and nobility in Europe didn’t go.
Are you surprised at how popular your work is with Catholics?
Stark: From time to time I take shots at people for the anti-Catholicism that has really been a black mark on a lot of English and American history up until recent times. There are a lot of things that are badly distorted. Is there a scarier phrase than the “Spanish Inquisition?” And yet there is a whole bunch of wonderful recent history that suggests that it was mostly a force for moderation and restraint. But the Brits decided to make it into this hideous thing. That war was a long time ago, and it’s time we got over it. [Stark’s book For the Glory of God devotes a whole chapter to debunking the severity of the punishments assigned during the Spanish Inquisition.]
Is there anything that the critics of the Crusades are overlooking?
Stark: Given the time and place, I think it’s remarkable that so many people went at such an enormous cost. There were all of these great lords who bankrupted themselves in order to go. Knowing that they weren’t going to get any reward at the other end. There’s a comparison I like to make that I think is very important. About 20 years before the First Crusade, the pope called for a crusade to Spain. Spain was nice and close. The Muslim territories were pretty wealthy, and there were land and titles to be had. Nobody went. So they asked for a crusade 2500 miles away in the middle of nowhere, where there is nothing to get, and 100,000 knights said, “let’s go.” The reason they went was purely religious. Jesus had never lived in Spain. These things are so simple that academics can’t often understand them.
Can you briefly describe the religious context of the time?
Stark: Pilgrimage was a very big thing for the nobility at this period. They were a strange group of people. They were wild, they were bloody, they were sinful, but they were very religious. They were constantly in a situation where their confessor was telling them, “You’re in deep now. You’re going to have to do some atonement. Maybe you ought to walk bare-foot to Jerusalem.” That had been going on all the time. When the pope said that this is a pilgrimage that is going to clear the slate [atone for all sins]. That mattered to a lot of people.
Also, a lot of people had relatives that had been abused when they had taken pilgrimages. I think it’s amazing that you got all these guys to get together and make this enormous effort. It was two years before they got to Jerusalem. And there were not many of them left when they got there. They had eaten their horses, but they pulled it off. It’s pretty impressive.
How were the crusaders able to win?
Stark: They had superior tactics and better armor.
Was it just the tactics and armor?
Stark: The other thing was that they didn’t turn and run. They were really dedicated, and they would hold the line. The Muslims were basically light cavalry and that doesn’t work very well against heavy infantry. You ride around and shoot arrows at them, and it doesn’t seem to matter much. Again, and again the Crusaders won when there was no reason to suppose that they could, but they thought they could.
They sound like football players.
Stark: They were a rowdy bunch. But when somebody has a vision and says, “We need to fast for three days and then march barefoot around Jerusalem,” they would do it. It was an interesting mix of sophistication, sin, and piety. These guys were bad on the seven deadly sins–especially the coveting.
It’s not uncommon for football players to be devout.
Stark: There were guys that would walk all the way from Iceland because their confessor told him he had to. The masses weren’t really religious, but the nobility was. Most of the medieval saints were from the nobility. I studied about 500 of them and looked at their family background once as a lark. I think 20% of them were the sons and daughter of kings.
Could the unity in the ranks of the Crusaders be traced back to the idea of a pope? The Muslims seemed to fight a lot amongst themselves.
Stark: The big problem was that the Byzantines were not reliable and not honorable. But the guys who marched out there, if there were some political problems between them, those problems had gotten worked out long before they got to the battlefield. They were unitary. They stuck together.
I think it was in the Crusaders favor that there were so many different kinds of Muslims in the area with different political connections. Only in Saladin’s time did the Crusaders really get attacked from every direction by big unified force. That was bad news, they had a really close call then. When the Turks took over, that’s when the whole thing fell apart. I’m not sure if it would have ended then if Europe hadn’t gotten tired of paying taxes to support the Crusades. They even used word like “quagmire.” It made me think of the Vietnam War the way the rhetoric was going on towards the end of the 200- year period.
It’s also reminiscent of the rhetoric regarding the current war in Iraq.
Stark: People are fairly predictable on a lot of these things. Taxes are not popular. The first Crusaders went on their own money. But when kings started going, they figured they could tax instead of taking the financial risk.
Were the Crusades inevitable or could they have been avoided?
Stark: If the Christians could have made a deal with the Muslims, that the pilgrims would be safe going to Jerusalem and that they wouldn’t bust up any more of the holy places the crusades would never have happened. It’s a little like the Middle East today. You can’t make peace.
It’s been almost 1000 years since the Crusades. Yet anyone looking to bash the Church always refers to them. Has this been effective? As a sociologist, what do you see as the trends in Christianity?
Stark: The draw [to Christianity] is stronger than ever. What’s happening in Latin America is astonishing. The weekly mass attendance among Catholics is in the 50 and 60 percent range. In some countries weekly mass attendance is at 70 percent. As the Protestants have moved in, the Catholics have responded. The higher the proportion of Protestants in any Latin American country translates into a higher rate of mass attendance among Catholics.
That happened in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. The Catholics getting off the boat weren’t very Catholic. The Church learned how to function in a competitive situation. One of my favorite stories is that John D. Rockefeller gave the Baptists some chapel railroad cars in the 1890s. They would run them into the mining towns out west and park them on the side. You would hold church there until you had enough of a congregation to build a church, and then you moved the chapel car on to the next town. Eighteen months later, the Catholics had chapel cars out in the west. No fooling around here jack! It was very good for the Church, and so it’s been in Latin America. Nobody went to Church in those places 40 years ago and now the Churches are full. The Church is not going away.
Have you covered that topic in any of your books or articles?
Stark: I just did this last week. Nobody has had decent data on how many Catholics and Protestants there are in Latin America. There aren’t many surveys done. Gallop has this phenomenal thing going called the Gallop World Pole. They have been doing annual poles in 156 nations, and they let me look at them. They have two years in the bank now. They ask people what their religion is and how often they go to church. You just peel out Latin America and go wow! Protestants are up to 38% in some of those countries. But the Catholic Church has never been stronger and that is a wonderful irony.
Africa is my next project.
What about China?
Stark: They aren’t permitted to ask religion questions in China. Foreign firms aren’t allowed, but the Chinese can. At Baylor, we paid a Chinese firm to do a huge survey. It’s good for some information, but it does not tell you how many Buddhists or Christians there are. The Chinese are pretty smart. If you’re a Christian and somebody asks you to do an interview you say, “no.” And if you don’t say no to do the interview, you say, “No, I’ve never been to church.”
Just based on our survey with all the defects, there are at least 40 million Christians in China. But the number is probably closer to 75 million. That’s a lot of Christians given that 30 years ago they would kill them if they found them.
If you go to the University of Peking in Beijing, there are so many Christians you would think the whole country was Christian. The professors are all Christians of fairly recent conversion. Mostly they’re Evangelicals. All of these people have had big conversion experiences, but there is an organized Catholic Church that has some problems with the government.
Is there a competitive streak in you with challenging the anti-Catholic bias?
Stark: I suppose, but you look at it and say that’s unfair and that’s untrue. It motivates me. I was raised in a very anti-Catholic environment and saw through it. To be raised Lutheran—almost every sermon is about the wicked Catholic Church because that is what Martin Luther left us. But it didn’t take.
November 11, 2009
A Curious Mix of Sophistication, Sin, and Piety: The debunking sociologist Rodney Stark on the Cursades
This article originally appeared in The Catholic World Report in October, 2009.