I just finished Discovering God by Rodney Stark, Professor of Sociology at Baylor and an expert on the history of religion. I recommend it to the therapists I train because people’s feelings about religion and spirituality influence them, yet surveys show that many therapists are cautious or even afraid of asking about those topics. Counselors can benefit from a deep historical understanding of the spiritual and religious experience.
Stark’s book is a broad history of religion, and he uncovers many surprising data. While social scientists have created various narratives about the origins of religion, he shows evidence that these preferred stories are unsupportable. Most have been created not by an open-minded examination of anthropological evidence, but rather armchair-fashion, by sitting down and making up a story. Freud’s story of Totem and Taboo is a prime example. As the actual evidence starts to appear, the best explanation turns out to lead us in surprising directions.
His core argument is that humans’ experience of the divine makes them aware of God. Materialists argue we invent God. Stark says we discover him. While the preferred explanation by materialists is that primitive man needed to explain natural phenomena like sun and moon, lightening and thunder, the best evidence is that so-called primitive people don’t attribute much significance to them. Instead, they struggle to discover meaning and significance, and in doing, discover a higher power. Stark argues that God reveals himself to humans to the extent they are able to comprehend him. Rather than a single God evolving out of a polytheist mish-mash, Stark shows how the vision of one single God is the original experience, and multiple gods and idols are a cowardly retreat from this demanding relationship.
This is significant to mental health practitioners because it suggests a more reverent approach to the individual experience of the numinous. Therapists should have a respectful response to client religious and spiritual qualities. William James, in his classic, Varieties of Religious Experience, pointed out that the spiritual intrudes into lives of all people in all societies. God constantly taps us on the shoulder. Stark’s impressive evidence gives muscle and sinew to James’ prescient skeletal propositions.
I recommend the book. If you have read C. S. Lewis, especially Till We Have Faces, this won’t be new. But it is a fun and enlightening read. That said, Stark has a lot of idiosyncratic qualities. If he agrees with an authority, he adds an approving adjective, like “distinguished” to their name. There is clearly some special pleading, in that reviewing contemporary religions, he saves his highest approval for Christianity. His reasoning that neither Buddhism nor Islam is a revealed religion seems thin to me. While I selfishly cheer for Christianity, I’d prefer to see all religions as having some level of revealed truth, which is ironically the argument that Stark sets out with.
In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker shows us that violence is declining dramatically, and that we live in the most peaceful and war-free epoch of recorded human history. With massive evidence, he dispatches the calumny that the 20th Century was the most violent ever. That surprised me. He describes the violence of past ages in which both humans and animals suffered unspeakable torture. The contrast he draws between those benighted times and our own is heartening indeed. It is a painfully long book and at times I felt his analysis of the data approached absurdity. Yet I am left with a deep gratitude that we live in this time, when no one roasts cats for entertainment, no witches are burned, and no Jews are tortured by the state-sanctioned religion.
We live in times of peace? Pinker has taken some abuse for his thesis, and he shows how this tendency to think we are living in evil times is a result of cognitive distortions. We hear of violence in the present time and think of pastoral peace in ancient times. The truth is the opposite. Rosseau’s noble savage was much more savage than noble. Pinker describes how ancient stateless people were obligated to respond violently to insults, threats, and opportunities. The rise of civilization / agriculture / fixed towns required less violence in settling difficulties.
Some of my colleagues want me to fulminate against corporate America, but I just can’t get into it. I always reply that GE doesn’t have guns and jails. Corporations are not the ones I fear. Pinker points out that one of the factors reducing violence is exactly that: the government has a monopoly on violence (Pinker calls it the Leviathan factor). Other factors include increasing humanism and empathy, and a greater awareness of the costs of war. The result is we live in a time of unprecedented peace. Buddhists teach that it is a rare and precious thing to be born a human being. This book makes me feel it is even more rare and precious to be alive now, when peace is the rule. I am blessed indeed. And so are you.