A Curious Mix of Sophistication, Sin, and Piety

The debunking sociologist Rodney Stark on the Crusades.

When an agnostic professor from a secular university writes a book defending the Catholic Church and draws upon sociology for that defense, it gets noticed and inspires fans to look forward to his next debunking of conventional wisdom.

Fans of Rodney 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 by his latest one. It 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. God’s Battalions continues in the vein of The Rise of Christianity. In fact, after he completed God’s Battalions he went back and rewrote The Rise of Christianity. His conclusions are the same. The book’s just three times longer.

Stark has carved out the odd niche of the secular scholar defending the Catholic Church against the anti-Catholic bias present in many history books. For those unfamiliar with The Rise of Christianity, Stark argued that Christianity grew at the blistering pace of 40 percent per decade not because of miraculous mass conversions but because of the personal apostolate and witness of rank-and-file Christians. They, for example, took care of the sick, which made the sick in their care more likely to recover than their counterparts treated by pagan doctors, who were the first to leave town when plagues hit.

The Christians were faithful in marriage, didn’t use crude early contraceptives, and didn’t leave unwanted children to die in the gutter. The pagans would often expose their baby daughters to the elements because they were less useful than sons. The side effect of this practice 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 by such marriages. To use a military metaphor, in the battle between the pagans and the Christians, the Christians simply outlasted their adversaries.

Stark’s explanation of the growth of Christianity has been accepted by many scholars and even earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Since writing The Rise of Christianity, Stark has left the University of Washington. He is now affiliated with Baylor University, even though he is not actively teaching at the moment. Stark spoke to CWR recently.

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 not 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, 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 2,500 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 confessors were telling them, “You’re in deep now. You’re going to have to do some atonement. Maybe you ought to walk barefoot 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 who had been abused when they had taken pilgrimages [to the Holy Land]. I think it’s amazing that they 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 who would walk all the way from Iceland because their confessors told them they had to. The masses weren’t really religious, but the nobility was. Many of the medieval saints were from the nobility. I studied about 500 of them and looked at their family backgrounds once, as a lark. I think 20 percent of them were the sons and daughters 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 among 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 united. 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 a 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 a word like “quagmire.” It made me think of the Vietnam War, the way the rhetoric was going toward 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 themselves.

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 1,000 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. Higher proportions of Protestants in any Latin American country translate 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 of town. 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. Gallup has this phenomenal thing going called the Gallup World Poll. They have been doing annual polls 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 peel out Latin America and go, “Wow!” Protestants are up to 38 percent 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 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 manifesting itself 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.


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About Mark Sullivan 0 Articles
Mark Sullivan is a songwriter and guitarist living in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the co-author, with Mike Aquilina, of St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013).