Rodney Stark on Myths of the Reformation
Date: September 17th, 2017

Everybody knows that the Protestant Reformation ushered in what eventually became an era of scientific enlightenment, economic development, and secularization to Europe.  Or did it?  Prof. Rodney Stark, co-founder of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, says “Nonsense!” to many of these so-called historical truths as we walk through some common myths and misconceptions of the famous religious movement that Martin Luther set rolling.  We begin first by noting that there really wasn’t just a single Reformation, but at least three including Luther’s protest, Calvin’s subsequent religious movement, and King Henry VIII’s English Reformation, which wasn’t so much a change in theology as it was a transfer of authority.  Prof. Stark also points out that once Catholicism’s exit door was opened and excommunication was off the table as a form of punishment, Protestantism became a fissiparous movement that underwent continual reformations leading to thousands of recognizably distinct Christian denominations today.  We further learn that “Protestantism” was a term first used by the Catholic Church, and not by the individuals protesting Rome’s monopoly dominance of Christian theology.  The next myth that we wander into is that the Reformation (writ large for all the various reformations) was a religious rebellion of the masses.  Here Rod points out that Europe was not deeply religious in the sense of being steeped in official Catholic doctrine, but rather was a mish-mash of popular Christianity, pagan rituals, and other non-Christian superstitions and rituals.  The lower classes seldom attended religious services during the supposed “golden age” of Christianity, and when they did it was often raucous affairs, not the solemn worship services often depicted in paintings and literature.  Social movements, he points out, are rarely ever spurred on by the poor, but rather by economic and cultural elites that have the time and motivations to organize collective action.  We address the German Peasant’s War (sometimes Revolt) of 1524-25 as possible evidence of a popular religious uprising, but this was merely the one in a long string of sporadic peasant revolts against unfavorable economic conditions.  Rod notes that the reason why some regions of Europe tended to “go Protestant” while others stayed Catholic had little to do with popular sentiment and more to do with elite politics and the economic position of princes to the Vatican in terms of debt owed.  Poland is brought up as a curious case of a region that initially sided with Protestantism, but then returned to the Catholic fold.  Rod further points out that Protestantism did not lead to an uptick in formalized religious worship, citing the work of a historian who actually took a census of church attendance and rolls during the 16th century.

The next issues that we tackle are not so much myths as they are misfortunes.  Prof. Stark explains why he sees Protestantism as providing for the cultural and political conditions that gave rise to European nationalism, that had some beneficial aspects in coagulating states, but also led to a number of extremely vicious wars between rival geographies.  Rod further notes that what the Protestant Reformation(s) did was really end Christendom, the spiritual language that kept Europe pieced together during some rather fragmented centuries, at least amongst the political elite.  We then go on to discuss whether or not Christianity was the impetus behind the Scientific Revolution and, eventually, the Enlightenment.  Rod corrects the record about the so-called Dark Ages in that there was still a great deal of scientific and technological progress that was occurring in the centuries prior to Luther, and that the seeds of capitalism were also sown and growing long before there could have been a Protestant Ethic.  Rod explains that many of these notions were promoted by scholars who held an anti-Catholic agenda (e.g., Voltaire) and were uncritically accepted by scholars up to present day (although he also points out that many contemporary historians are setting the record straight).  All this then leads us to consider the purported rise of individualism and secularization in the modern (post-18th century) era.  Again, Rod emphasizes that Europe never really secularized because it always was relatively secular in terms of large numbers of people avoiding religious institutions, and what constitutes the notion of “individualism” today  has always been around in some form.

We finish off with a brief discussion of one of Prof. Stark’s other recent books, Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomenon.  His main critique here is that social scientists have typically approached religion as something that has nothing to do with God, citing the likes of Emile Durkheim who considered religion to be something other than an institutional connection to the transcendent or supernatural.  Rod corrects the record by noting that scholars need to take the actual beliefs of the people they study seriously, and if they say they are creating organizations for the purpose of worshiping God, then that must might be what they are doing.  He leaves us with some critical words of wisdom, which is always to be suspicious of the received wisdom.  Recorded: August 21, 2017.

(Note: Prof. Stark has always been one of my informal academic mentors, and was a close neighbor of mine when he lived in Washington State.  Following our formal interview, we had a nice chat about bears, bobcats, and coyotes in the area that I live.  We shared a number of other “everyday stories.”  It was a simple conversation, but a truly delightful one that should remind us about the importance of living one’s daily life.)


 Prof. Stark’s personal website with links to a list of his many books.

Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes, by Rodney Stark.

Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomenon, by Rodney Stark.

For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch Hunts, and the End of Slavery, by Rodney Stark.

Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, by Rodney Stark.

The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious than Ever, by Rodney Stark.

See Prof. Stark’s personal website (link above) or his Amazon author page for a full listing of titles.


Protestant Reformation Series.

Emily Fisher Gray on Luther’s 95 Theses.

Rob Sorenson on Martin Luther’s Life.

Steven Pfaff on the World of 1517.

Marion Goldman on Martin Luther and Spiritual Virtuosity.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Faith.

Rodney Stark on How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part I.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part II.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part III.

Rodney Stark on the Crusades.

Steven Pfaff on the Protestant Reformation.

Russell Kleckley on Religion, Science, and Johannes Kepler.

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