An Interview with Rodney Stark
By Timothy Dalrymple

Rodney Stark is a prominent and prolific sociologist and historian of religion. His Curriculum Vitae lists 28 books and 144 articles, many of which have reached a broad academic and popular audience. Often controversial, and known as a challenger of conventional wisdom, Stark once described himself as neither religious nor atheistic, but later came to understand himself as an "independent Christian."

After four decades as a professor, Stark is one of America's preeminent scholars of religion, and serves as co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

He spoke by phone with Timothy Dalrymple for Patheos' Evangelical Portal about his latest book, God's Battalions: the Case for the Crusades.

Peter the Hermit leading Crusaders: Source public domainYou are well known as a buster of historical myths. Your latest book takes on one of what most Americans would consider a truism: that the Crusades were simply evil and irrational. Why reassess the Crusades?

Because the Crusades are often understood within a larger framework that says that Islam is the gentle faith and Christianity the violent one. Karen Armstrong would have us believe that Muhammad was a pacifist. Take Major Nidal Hassan, the man responsible for the Fort Hood massacre. Had an evangelical Christian of the nutty sort gotten up in front of Army psychiatrists and talked about how much he respected people who shot abortionists, he would have been out of the Army an hour later. But everybody tiptoes around the issue of Islam.

Several months after 9/11, former President Clinton gave a speech at Georgetown University in which he apologized for the Crusades. He said we had much to be sorry about, and we bore some of the guilt for sending those airplanes plunging into the Twin Towers. Now, Clinton isn't a nut. He's not an anti-American. He's just been miseducated. He's been told a whole lot of nonsense about the Crusades.

The notion, for example, that the Crusaders went to get loot and land and riches is made absurd by the survival of hundreds and hundreds of mortgages that have been found in the archives at various monasteries and convents. These people mortgaged away everything they owned in order to get the money to march East. They went at enormous personal cost. Most of them died. They knew there wasn't anything out there in the sand that was going to reward them for going.

The things I write about in this book are no secret among historians of the Crusades. I'm simply bringing their work to a popular audience. I quote those scholars at great length throughout the book. It struck me that the historians of the Crusades had not reached the public, and I would give it a shot.

The Crusades did not arise ex nihilo, but were part of a broader historical and geographical narrative. Can you tell us about that?

The fact is that Islam had been attacking the west for more than 400 years before the Crusades began. Shortly after the death of Muhammad, the armies started marching. They took the Middle East, which was a Christian area beforehand. They took the Holy Land. They took all of North Africa, which had been mostly Christian. They went across the straits and took most of Spain. They took southern Italy. They took Sicily. A Muslim army marched up within 150 miles of Paris before they were turned around and run back out.

The point is that an aggressive, invasive warfare had been going on between Europeans and Islam for hundreds of years. Shortly before the First Crusade, the Normans drove the Muslims out of southern Italy and Sicily. But the Muslims were still in Spain. As a matter of fact, about thirty years before the First Crusade, the pope tried to get a Crusade going to Spain, which was about half-reclaimed at the time. And that presents an interesting contrast. Spain was close; you didn't have to march 2500 miles; and there were riches to be had in Spain. Yet nobody went. The reason nobody went, and then thirty years later they all went, if you will, is because nobody believed that Jesus had walked around in Spain.

It really was a religious Crusade. If you don't believe it, all you have to do is look at the mortgages, documented by Riley-Smith, where the people taking out the mortgages go on at length about why they're borrowing the money in order to go. It was about Jesus.

Cultures change. What is overlooked about the Crusaders, and the knights and nobility of the 10th century and thereabouts, is that they were very bloody-minded. They had been raised since infancy to devote themselves to fighting. They were very sinful. They particularly were into coveting wives. And they were very religious.

The fact that these things can be combined strikes the modern mind as bizarre. But you have to deal with it if you're going to understand these people. They would commit a horrid crime, and their confessor would say, "I don't know if you can ever get over that one. I don't know if atonement is in the books for you. But you better walk barefoot to the Holy Land and hope that that works."

And they'd go. And then come back and sin some more.

It takes some stretching to understand what motivated these people.

Popular media representations of the Crusades depict the white-skinned Europeans slaughtering and conquering the brown-skinned natives. Yet the picture is more complicated than this. You point to the fact that the Holy Land had previously been inhabited by many Christians and Jews. Were there still Christians and Jews living in the Holy Land when the Crusades began?

Sure. Probably the majority of the population in some parts of the Holy Land still were Christians and Jews. Certainly most of North Africa was still mostly populated by Christians and Jews as well. There were these small ruling Muslim groups on top; the conversion to Islam took centuries and centuries before Christians more or less disappeared. 

The civilization we typically associate with Islam was in fact the civilization of the Christians and Jews they were ruling. When those Christians and Jews finally disappeared, so too did that advanced "Muslim" civilization. Suddenly the Muslims were all backward, and the question was, "How did they lose all that civilization?" They didn't. They never had it.

The famous "Islamic" architecture, for example, was not Islamic. It was eastern Christian.

A Ridley Scott film, The Kingdom of God, presented Saladin as principled and restrained in his conduct of war, and the Europeans as utterly lawless and rapacious. Is this accurate?

No, not at all. Saladin was your typical eastern butcher. He liked to chop people's heads off personally. Somehow, in the late 19th century, people got into romanticizing Saladin as part of this genteel, sophisticated eastern culture.

Kaiser Wilhelm in the 1890s placed a bronze wreath on the tomb of Saladin, and it said on the wreath, "From one great emperor to another." I find it more than fitting that during World War I, when T. E. Lawrence was leading his irregulars all over the area, he stole that wreath and it's now in the British War Museum.

It was all nonsense. In fact, Saladin was about as great an emperor as Kaiser Wilhelm was.

What of the sacking of Constantinople, when western Christians who had set out to reclaim the Holy Land decided instead to attack eastern Christians? This is often taken as a classic example of the irrationality and ultra-violence of the Crusaders.

It seems to be pretty clear that, through about four crusades, the Byzantines had betrayed the westerners. In the First Crusade, they were supposed to send their army along, and they did not. They were supposed to supply the knights, and they did not. They tried to make separate peace agreements, which was virtually treasonous. This went on and on and on.

Eventually, the knights from the west, having backed a faction of the Byzantines, found themselves having been betrayed again and starving outside of Constantinople. So they sacked the city. It's a wonder they didn't do it sooner.

We are sometimes told that Muslims and Muslim societies have a much longer view of history than we do, and the extremists among them, who have perpetrated violence upon the west in the past two decades, see the present struggle as a continuation of the struggle that "began" with the Crusades.

Until about the start of the 20th century, the Muslims didn't even remember there had been Crusades. This is all about 20th-century nationalism. The whole issue was: How did we get so backward? And the Muslims aren't the only ones who made up the myth that it was the westerners who made them so backward. We are told that almost all other parts of the world are backward or were backward because somehow they got exploited by Europe. It's all very well and good -- but it's all nonsense.

There wasn't any discussion about the Crusades until the 20th century, when it became one of the slogans of Arab nationalism. And even then, it was a pretty minor issue until the formation of the state of Israel. That's when suddenly the Crusades became a really big thing with Muslim nationalists. "We can blame the West for everything, including Israel." That may be good politics, but it's rotten history.

By the way, I'm not making this up, either. Again, there is a consensus among historians of the Crusades that there is no record of Muslim concern with the Crusades until the 20th century.

What exactly is the connection with Israel? Israel was established and supported by the West, and the rulers of Islamic nations utilized the rhetoric of the Crusades to rally support against Israel, or distract from their own failures, or what?

All of the above. "The West did it to us. The West took our oil. We would be an advanced civilization, but somehow the West stole it from us. Once upon a time, we were the enlightened people, and it all went away when the Europeans stole it." It does a lot for national pride, but it doesn't do a damn thing for history.

And this ties together with works you've written on how Christian thought laid the groundwork for the development of western civilization, with all its innovations in medicine and science, politics, and so on.

Sure. Let's face it: Christianity was the basis of western civilization. When you look at western civilization and see what it has, it came from Christianity. The notion that somehow western science broke through against the resistance of religion is total nonsense. Without the religious background, there wouldn't be any science, because the fundamental notion that separated the West from everybody else was the notion that God is rational and created a rational universe, so there were rules out there to be discovered.

Nobody else looked for the rules, because they didn't believe they were there to be found. They didn't believe that the world had been created in the same rational way. The marvelous thing is that these early Christian scientists, including Newton, believed God had created a rational world, went ahead and looked for the rules of that rational world -- and darned if they didn't find them. In an interesting sense, it was a scientific confirmation of the Christian religion.

What exactly was missing in Islam, then? Islam too is monotheistic. Muslim theology grew out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, even though it departs from it in significant ways.

On religious grounds, Muslim scientists would have faced many challenges. It was widely held theologically that the notion of physical law was blasphemous. The laws of science presumed to limit the power of Allah, and therefore they could not be true. Clocks and printing presses were prohibited for centuries on the grounds that they were somehow blasphemous.

Implied in the notion of scientific law, Muslim theologians felt, was that Allah would not be free to do whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased. They did not imagine Allah as the Great Clockmaker. He does as he pleases. That creates two impediments. One is it basically declares science itself heretical. But second, and more important, it says that science is impossible. If the concept of scientific law is regarded as theologically contradictory, then there are no rules there to be found. So who is going to go looking for rules that do not exist?

You have astrology all over the world, but scientific astronomy only really happened in Europe. You have alchemy all over the world, but it turned into chemistry only once -- in Europe. And so it goes. And that's why in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Europeans could sail around the world, when everyone else could only row around a "lake" like the Mediterranean.

The most surprising discovery for Europe when the age of exploration began was not the discovery of the New World or the civilizations in the Americas. It was the fact that the whole rest of the world was so far behind them. They had rather assumed that China would be way ahead of them. But that wasn't the way it was.

Religion does matter. And in the case of Islam, with the identification of the Church and State as being one, you have some potential impediments built right in.

You also cannot have economic development because you cannot have institutions such as banks. There is a wonderful story about the Battle of Lepanto in about the 1570s. That was the last great battle between Islam and the West. It was a naval battle, with galleys. The Christians just slammed them. After it's all over, the Christians were working their way through all of these beached Islamic galleys. When they reached the galley that had belonged to the ruling Pasha that had led the battle on the Islamic side, they found several rooms totally filled with gold coins.

What, they wondered, is this doing here? It turns out that the Pasha, even though he was married into the royal family, felt so insecure that he could not leave his fortune at home. He took it with him to war, for fear someone would find it and take it away from him. If even he had no secure place to leave his cash, think about what that reflects on an economy and how that economy simply cannot work and invest and build anything. And there you are.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the book?

It wasn't one of my major works. It was a quick aside. It was fun to write some military history, because I've always enjoyed reading it.

What are you working on presently?

I have a book called The Birth and Triumph of Christianity about to go into production. It's a follow-up on a little book I did about fifteen years ago called The Rise of Christianity. That was the beginning of my attempt to do history and I am deeply dissatisfied with it even though it was very nicely received. 

This book is about three times as long. It's not a history of Christianity. The subtitle is, New Perspectives on Major Episodes. That means I can skip everything I do not want to cover and focus on the things I have something to say about.

I'm now working on a book called, How Denominations Die: the Continuing Self-Destruction of "Mainline" Protestantism. There are quotation marks around "Mainline" because they are no longer mainline. What happened to these big denominations? They killed themselves. They did it theologically and they did it with radical politics. They offended older people, who voted with their feet.

Some progressives say that evangelicals are making the same mistake on the opposite side, by confusing their faith with conservative politics.

What happens with "progressives" is that they cannot get any traction amongst evangelicals. Their audience, or their intended audience, is largely among the "mainline" congregations and the media that favor them. I don't think they have found much traction amongst most evangelicals -- and I think that's for the same reason that everybody has fled the old mainline. You get tired of hearing that capitalism is sinful and that Cuba is the way of the future, and other kinds of idiocy like that. Yet when I look at evangelicals using survey data, they are not a bunch of right-wing Republicans. They're conservative, but they're about equally Republicans and Democrats. It's religious and not political conservatism that defines them. 

Very clearly, evangelicals don't like abortion. They do like school prayer and a few things like that. If those were right-wing issues, then sure, evangelicals would be right-wing. But if they're not right-wing issues -- and the majority of Americans agree with evangelicals on those issues -- then I fail to see that there's anything right-wing or scandalous about it. But when it comes down to meat and potatoes politics, evangelicals are not that different from the rest of America, and that's important for people to understand. A whole lot of them voted for Obama. Whether they will do so again, I don't know. 

So, I think those guys are entirely wrong. I am tired of people like Mark Noll worrying about "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." What do they expect? I don't consider it a scandal that a bunch of laymen don't want to read academic books. It's not a scandal that ordinary evangelicals are not left-wing seminary professors.

Too many evangelical intellectuals want to be the house conservative at the liberal banquet. So Martin Marty will invite you to his table because you can be the token evangelical. I'm sorry, but I'm not a token anything.


Rodney Stark lives and writes in New Mexico, and serves as co-director for the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.