Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1934-) Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion, University of Washington. President, Association for the Sociology of Religion, 1983; ASA Sociology of Religion Section, 1997.

Having begun his life's work as a journalist working for the Oakland Tribune from 1959 to 1961, Stark entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1961 and earned his M.A. (1965) and Ph.D. (1971) there. He has twice received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), in 1986 for The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (with William Sims Bainbridge, University of California Press 1985) and in 1993 for The Churching of America 1776-1990 (with Roger Finke, Rutgers University Press 1992).

Stark's early work on religion was done with Charles Glock, with whom he wrote several books. One of these joint efforts is American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment (University of California Press 1968). This book dealt with the issue of the dimensionality of religiosity/religious commitment, a topic that was being addressed by numerous social scientists at that time. In their collaborative work, Stark and Glock explored the use of a multidimensional approach to religiosity that included beliefs, ritual practices, knowledge, personal experiences, and sociomoral consequences.

Of greater significance was Glock and Stark's earlier work Religion and Society in Tension (Rand McNally 1965). This work set the stage for their other books by defining religion from a sociological perspective (including a taxonomy of religious experiences), describing the new denominationalism in American society by focusing on what people believe in the various churches, and elaborating the role of religion in the integration of society and in promoting (or discouraging) social change. The chapter on religion and radicalism remains relevant, for example, to the 1990s situation in American politics concerning the religious right strongly pushing the Republican Party toward conservative stances on sociomoral issues. Many of the patterns being discussed today were already evident in the late 1950s and early 1960s, even though the players then were different.

While the importance of his early empirical work should not be overlooked, Stark's most influential writings are theoretical in nature. This includes a large number of articles and books written in collaboration with William Sims Bainbridge in the late 1970s to mid-1980s, and with Roger Finke (among others) from the mid-1990s to the present time. His work with Bainbridge began the development of a new theoretical perspective on religion, one that is derived in part from social exchange theory. Stark and Bainbridge began to propose this theory by stating a number of axioms, definitions, and propositions. According to the authors, "the concept of compensators is key to the theory of religion which follows" (1980:121). A compensator is the promise of a future reward that cannot be tested by empirical means. A major proposition is that when humans cannot achieve a desired reward, they will accept a compensator instead, and will even treat the compensator as if it were a tangible reward.

This new theoretical approach was later expanded with the publication by Stark and Bainbridge of A Theory of Religion (Lang 1987), a seminal work with 344 propositions, beginning with those proposed in the article cited above, and moving on to apply this theoretical approach to a macrosociological analysis of the role of religion in society as well as to the impact of society on religion. Perhaps of greatest importance was the idea that secularization could be self-limiting because the increased secularization of a church could, and often did, lead to the starting of a new sect as a splinter group from that denomination. Thus the new theory contributed to church-sect theory, which Stark described as being like a "stagnant pool wherein participants, like algae, are content to add encrustation to a sunken ship." The new theory added to the old by offering a process model for how sects came to break away from churches, describing how the increased secularization through accommodation with society would lead people to leave a church to form a new religious body. In addition, impetus was given to "shifting the scope of church-sect theory from religious organizations per se to whole societies" (1985:139 f). This in turn led to the next new development: the religious economies (or rational choice) perspective.

The religious economies perspective is being developed through the writings of Stark, Bainbridge, Roger Finke, Laurence Iannaccone, R. Stephen Warner, and others. Stark employs as a basic principle that the religious mind is rational, that "it makes sense to model religion as the behavior of rational, well-informed actors who choose to 'consume' secular commodities" (1994:2). Thus the choice of religious affiliation is made in a rational way, with the potential member weighing costs and benefits of each possible choice before choosing the one that maximizes rewards (although not necessarily the one that minimizes costs). As such, it challenges the conventional thought that the religious mind is either irrational or, at least, nonrational.

Also challenged by this new perspective is the contention that religious pluralism "weakens faith by calling all faiths into question" (1994:1). The traditional thought was that only a religious monopoly could enhance the spread of faith within a society. The religious economies perspective argues the opposite, that "to the degree that a religious economy is competitive and pluralistic, overall levels of religious participation will tend to be high" (1994:3). Finke and Stark provide empirical support for this proposition in their analysis of the impact of religious pluralism on religious participation in American cities, using data from the U.S. Census on religious bodies collected in 1906. Their findings indicated that religious adherence is higher in urban environments than in rural areas, and that this is due in large part to the greater availability of religious options in the city. "Thus, a natural consequence of an open religious economy is a religious pluralism that forces each religious body to appeal successfully to some segment of the religious market, or to slide into oblivion" (1988: 47). With religious bodies specializing, it becomes easier for religious "consumers" to find the best product for them.

A third point of contention between traditional thought and the new perspective relates to the view of secularization. The traditional approach argued that a decline in religious demand was caused by modernity, in essence that the increased emphasis on science and rationality would lead people away from supernatural explanations. They cite the low rates of religious adherence in northern Europe as evidence of this process of secularization. Again, proponents of the religious economies perspective disagree. "We argue," Stark says, that the religious condition of northern Europe is largely a supply-side problem rather than a lack of demand. That is, lack of religious participation in much of Europe reflects highly regulated [religious] economies dominated by state supported churches and that these are lazy, inefficient firms who do nothing to create demand. (1994:4)

Stark also notes that it is only church attendance that is low in Europe, with many people still believing in God, few describing themselves as atheists, and a majority being critical of the state churches.

Much of Stark's recent writing has been a reexamination of American religious history from a religious economies perspective, primarily in collaboration with Roger Finke. Their primary emphasis has been on clearing up a variety of misconceptions about religious life in America, beginning with the colonial era. The Churching of America, 1776-1990 (Rutgers University Press 1992) is the culmination of these efforts. In it they note such popular myths as the high religiosity of colonial New England (their estimates are that only 17% of colonialists had a religious affiliation), that mainline churches (Episcopal, Congregational, Presbyterian, and so on) began to decline in the 1960s (they find it started in the mid-1800s), and that the 1960s and 1970s were characterized by religious "eruptions" such as cult formation, Eastern religions making inroads, and the New Age (which they state are all exaggerated).

Stark and Finke go on to provide evidence for a different view of American religious history, one in which the colonial era is seen as a time of low religious fervor. They note that this did not change until the colonies became more interdependent economically, forcing colonies to be more tolerant of religious traditions not financially supported by them. Eventually the U.S. Constitution opened up the religious marketplace, making it easier for new religious groups to flourish. Through several chapters, they indicate the impact this religious freedom had on the rising fortunes of such groups as Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics, as well as the subsequent decline of the Methodists.

The final chapter presents an excellent synthesis of the religious economies perspective with church-sect theory. Ultimately, they argue that they

do not believe that the church-sect process has the blind inevitability of Marx's dialectic or even the wheel of karma . . . The sect-church process appears so unstoppable because humans seems [sic] to have rather mixed motives when they make choices about religion.

They also argue that secularization is not an inevitable aspect of this process. As they indicate, "sudden shifts do occur in our religious economy, but these involve the rising and falling of religious firms, not the rise and fall of religion per se" (1992:274 f).

Stark continues to work in the area of theory and religious history. He provides a fascinating autobiographical account of the process by which he came to the rational choice perspective, as well as a summons to bring theory back into the research process (1997). In 1996, Stark completed The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton University Press), a book on the early Christian church and Greco-Roman times that extended his interest in theory and history in yet another direction, presaged by several articles during the first half of the 1990s.

See also Church-Sect Theory, Compensators, Rational Choice Theory

André Nauta


R. Finke and R. Stark, "Religious Economies and Sacred Canopies," American Sociological Review 53(1988):41-49

R. Stark, "Church and Sect," in The Sacred in a Secular Age , ed. P. E. Hammond (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985): 139-149

R. Stark, "Rational Choice Theories of Religion," Agora 2, 1(1994):1-5

R. Stark, "Bringing Theory Back In," in Rational Choice Theory and Religion , ed. L. A. Young (New York: Routledge, 1997):3-23

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, "Towards a Theory of Religion," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19(1980):114-128.

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