“Rodney Stark on Religious Studies”


Professor Rodney Stark


An interesting passage from one of the most important living sociologists of religion, Rodney Stark, on the character of “religious studies.”  It’s worth pondering, as “Mormon studies” emerges as a distinct and more or less vibrant field.



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  • http://www.sethpayne.com Seth Payne

    Hi Dan,

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing. I wrote about some of these issues in a blog post last week based, partially on our brief exchange about the importance of having believers play an important role in Mormon Studies. Would love to get your thoughts:


    I have to say that my experience at one of the most liberal divinity schools in the country does not match up with Stark’s observations at all.

    Indeed, any class that “challenged” traditional faith claims (that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, for example) always included serious discussion of faith in light of these challenges. Not one professor every mentioned that religions were going away. In fact, many students and faculty actively worked to promote a more active role for the Church in modern society.


    • danpeterson

      I’ll have a serious look at your blog post, though probably not today (which, somehow, has been scheduled solidly through late tonight).

      Please understand, though, that I’m not opposed to secular approaches to religion.

      • http://www.sethpayne.com Seth Payne

        Hi Dan,

        No rush on reading my post.

        I know you aren’t opposed to secular religious studies. You do, after all, study Islam from a primarily secular perspective. I think it is about finding the right balance. Both as individuals and institutions.


  • Louis Midgley

    Seth’s remark about Professor Peterson’s study of “Islam being from a primarily secular perspective,” if my study of contemporary conservative Protestantism is from a similar secular perspective. If so, then the word “secular” may simply mean that one is not a communicant of the particular faction or tradition in which one happens to be interested. I am, however, interested in and learn from secular histories of Christianity. For example, I value the two books, on on Christianity, and the other on the Reformation, that have made the reputation of Diarmaid MacCulloch as an historian. And I do so both despite and because of the f act that he is not a believer, since he insists that that “religious belief is by its nature close to madness.” So I am very much interested in how he accounts for the Church of Jesus Christ or explains the religiosity of the Maori in New Zealand and so forth. I don’t think he is a good guide for getting right with God, however.

  • http://www.sethpayne.com Seth Payne

    Hi Lou,

    When I say “primarily from a secular perspective” I suppose what I’m really getting at is that Dan, as other scholars, is open to certain ideas that a “true believer” may not be open to. For example, a text-critical or historical-critical approach to the Quran. In other words, Dan explores naturalistic explanations for Islam while at the same time showing great respect for the faith of Muslims. From what I’ve read by you, it seems you may have a similar approach. You consider the sociological and “political” aspects of the Evangelical movement — not to disparage the faith of Evangelicals — but to illuminate our understanding of the movement from the viewpoint of a non-adherent.

    I am unfamiliar with MacCulloch but know scholars (Ehrman?) who are hostile towards the religions they study. This is unfortunate because I believe it detracts from their work.

    I strongly believe that believers and non-believers alike need to be part of the religious studies enterprise. Believers, I think, are better able to articulate the “why” of a particular faith in a way that non-believers simply could not.