Rod Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part III
Date: October 1st, 2012

Prof. Rodney Stark, co-founder and co-director of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, joins us once again to talk about the final portion of his monumental book, The Triumph of Christianity.  We pick up the story of Christianity’s growth and change with the Protestant Reformation.  Prof. Stark notes that the Reformation wasn’t so much of a reform of the Church as it was a breakaway schismatic sect.  Whereas there were numerous attempts at schism throughout Christian history, Rod points out that Martin Luther — who did not set out to break from the Vatican — just happened to be at the right place at the right time, which allowed his challenge to various Church doctrines to spread initially as a grassroots movement among the upper classes and then became a tool wherein nobility who were under the tutelage of Rome could gain more financial and political autonomy.  We cover the various reasons for the spread of Protestantism including the role of the printing press, college students, and the incentive structure of the northern European nobility.  Prof. Stark also notes that Protestantism was not a movement among the lower classes of society given that the poor typically did not attend church in this era.  The “myth of medieval piety” is important for understanding why our contemporary era is not witnessing a decline in religiosity, but instead is greater than it ever has been.  Our attention then turns to how Luther and Calvin’s schismatic movements challenged the Roman Catholic Church, allowing the “Church of Piety” to finally get the upper hand on the “Church of Power” (a tension we noted in the second of this three-part podcastd series).  This discussion also examines what occured (and did not occur) during the Spanish Inquisition and the various witchcraft trials it supposedly spawned.  Another interesting consequence of the Protestant Reformation for the Catholic Church was the creation, for the first time, of seminary training as a means of educating priests in theology.  Prior to this most priests were trained as “apprentices” and often did not even know the content of the Latin texts they were reciting.  This provides clear evidence of how religious pluralism (or competition) helps to keep churches honest to their spiritual mission.  Indeed, Prof. Stark notes that the Reformation helped to create, in the Catholic Church, the institution he had always wanted.  Tony also adds to the discussion by talking about his own research on the Latin American Catholic Church and how the “reformation” was delayed by several hundred years in that region of the world.  It was when Protestants started making gains in the middle part of the 20th century that helped to reform Catholicism there.  Rod also lists a number of downsides of the Catholic Counter-Reformation including some problems for intellectual freedom and the Catholic view of commerce and entrepreneurial activity.  We then look at the so-called “secularization” of northern Europe and Rod makes a fascinating claim that rather than there being a large drop in the level of Christian practice over the past 500 years, there really was very little Christian practice to begin with, therefore it is hard to argue that Europe is becoming increasingly secularized when it never was really all that religious to begin with, particularly among the popular classes.  This discussion opens the door to our conversation of Christianity in the United States and why it has been particularly vibrant relative to the European scene.  The main point that Rod makes here is that in the U.S. there is no established church, and hence each religious denomination has to “make it on its own” if it wants to succeed and this prompts a wide range of creativity amongst the clergy.  We finish our conversation with Rod’s reflection on the future of faith in the US and he also provides some interesting tidbits from his forthcoming book, America’s Blessing: How Religion Benefits Everyone … Including Atheists.  Recorded: September 21, 2012.


Rodney Stark’s website with bio and list of books.

The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, by Rodney Stark.

America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone… Including Atheists, by Rodney Stark (available November 2012).

Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America, by Anthony Gill (mentioned briefly in the podcast).

Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.


Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part I.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part II.

Steve Pfaff on the Protestant Reformation.

Steve Pfaff on Denominationalism, Sin, and Other Stuff.


2 Responses to “Rod Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part III”

  1. Taylor says:

    Fascinating discussion! I have a question that hopefully isn’t cumbersome:

    Are there any books or papers about Mr. Stark’s claim (at the 10min mark) that European universities maintain student records from hundreds of years ago? I work in university records and would love to read more.


    • tonygill says:

      Sorry for the delayed response. The best thing is to contact Rod Stark at Baylor or track down some of the footnotes in his books.

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