I was recently informed that Rodney Stark passed away. For the uninitiated, Rodney Stark was a force of nature in the sociology of religion. His interests ranged from early Christianity to UFO movements, and agree with him or not, he was a giant in every field he engaged. His theories helped shape the strategies of the Church’s research division for a while, and he always had a soft spot in his heart for Latter-day Saints.
He didn’t win any popularity contests in sociology as an institution, but frankly that’s more to his credit in a field that doesn’t brook a lot of heterodoxy (either ideologically or in terms of subject matter). He blazed his own path and didn’t care one wit what others thought; he was a true iconoclast, and people will read Rodney Stark years after his more mainstream contemporaries are footnotes to footnotes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I believe I’m the last postdoc or student who had the opportunity to work with him. I don’t want to exaggerate our connection; he didn’t come into the office that much, and my memories involve a handful of meetings. As he was independently wealthy both from his textbook sales (as a former journalist he knew how to write, and disdained academic gobbly-gook) and his wife’s business, he could have retired decades ago, but he kept working even as his health started to decline.
A lot of anecdotes are being passed around online about Rodney Stark right now, so I’ll give mine. I had an idea for a paper that had the potential to be controversial and I was worried about what the mainstream sociologists would think; in our conversation I mentioned that I wasn’t of the X school of thought (I forget the exact context), and he immediately responded “well, I’m of the screw you school of thought!” And that, in addition to his copious use of “complete horsesh**!,” pretty much sums up the man. Following that lead, I continued to just research what I wanted, and while that didn’t lead up the well-tread, conventional academic path, I’ve ended up in a professional space and with a life that’s better than my wildest dreams in graduate school, and I think Rod would be proud of me.
Rod wanted to be a man of faith, but like many he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe despite tasting the goodness of religion. I would have loved to have been there a few moments after he drew his last and realized that the God he had spent half a lifetime defending did, in fact, exist.
Rod, until we meet again.
“he always had a soft spot in his heart for Latter-day Saints.”
In “The Rise of a New World Faith” (1984), Rodney Stark said that Mormons could number 267 million members by 2080. Ah, um, probably not. But that’s some pretty serious cheerleading even for 40 years ago.
Sure, everybody gets some right and some wrong. For many in Ex-Mormon Reddit land, that factoid is probably the only thing they know about his work.
Regarding the controversial 200 million Mormons quote, he didn’t say that to predict growth for the church and pat us on the back, but to stick his finger in the eye of the mainstream religions that dislike us. That perspective pairs pretty will with the “screw you” quote cited above. He was using his best (worst!) case estimate as a way to tell the mainstream the Mormons are going to eat their lunch.
His books are full of fresh perspectives and backed by considerable research. “For the Glory of God” and “The Rise and of Christianity” are two favorites. Thank you for noting his work and passing.
My review of his work was that there was a high and a low number given in the growth. We’re still in the low section, much to the chagrin of those who want to claim the Church is shrinking. The recent book titled Grass Roots in Mexico talks about the significant growth in that country. While acknowledging the numbers likely show a lot of those who’ve left the Church or whose activity is minimal to non-existent, the book points out (rightfully) that the number of stakes and other units are increasing. Those reflect the growth is more than just imaginary or transitory numbers. I think that could be applied to overall Church growth. Stark’s work on world religions has been endlessly fascinating for me. RIP.
Thanks for the news and reminiscence.
Also, it’s well-trod (or trodden) . . . path. Tread is present tense.