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Book Review


Stark, Rodney. One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton University Press, 2001). 319 pp, $24.95.

      "Granted, germs, geography, printing, sailing ships, steel, and climate have mattered, but probably none of them so much as human ideas about the Gods" (1). Rodney Stark's contention that "history is not shaped by 'material' factors alone" (1) will seem gratuitous to world history teachers who have reviewed world history textbooks in recent years. However, the opening quotation reveals the ambition behind this book. Stark offers it specifically as an alternative to world history titles such as Jared Diamond's bestselling monograph, Guns, Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997). Despite the offhanded reference to Diamond's work, One True God is similar to Guns, Germs and Steel both conceptually and in its execution. Both works articulate broad interpretations of world history by non-historians (Diamond is a physiologist; Stark is a sociologist), are explicitly aimed at the general reader, and offer a retrospective explanation for attributed material or spiritual advantages realized in the Mediterranean, Europe, or more broadly "the West," through the course of history. 1
     The goal of One True God is, as indicated in the subtitle, an analysis of the historical consequences of monotheism or the belief in "One True God." Stark divides this project into two parts. In a companion volume, he argued that monotheism was the motivating force behind such "cultural" changes as the Reformation, the rise of science, and abolitionism (For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton University Press, 2003. Reviewed in World History Connected 2.2.). This first volume proposes to "be more purely historical" (3); in effect, it examines the sociopolitical processes of the development of monotheism. 2
     The first chapter defines monotheism and lays out the conceptual premises ("A Theory of Gods") of later chapters. Stark adopts a rational-choice perspective and posits that humans care about gods because they provide access to things humans desire. Humans, because they make rational choices in their pursuit of the things they desire, tend to prefer gods that are rational, responsive, and dependable. This preference for rational gods coincides with a general historical trend towards monotheism. Stark usefully points out that monotheism is rarely absolute. In all three major monotheistic traditions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - monotheism developed over long periods of time, and remains dualistic at its core due to the need for a rational explanation of evil. 

     Chapter Two argues that only monotheistic religions produce missions. Based on a wide range of secondary sources covering two millennia of history, Stark concludes that the exclusive commitment to one god and the drive to convert others are commensurate with the scope of one god's power. He adds that only "authentic missions," those that are organized as person-to-person networks, "get results" (85). The comparisons with non-monotheistic faiths in this chapter are adduced as illustrations for the argument that conquest, exchanges of women, trade, migration, and travel diffuse such faiths (37). 4
     From an "admirable" (35) aspect of monotheistic faiths, Stark moves to a less desirable one in Chapter Three. Stark presents a series of theoretical principles, which provide a theory of religious conflict. Following Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, he hypothesizes that "religious conflict will be maximized where a few powerful and particularistic religious organizations coexist" 122). During periods of religious conflicts among such organizations, "toleration will be withheld or withdrawn from nonthreatening but nonconforming religious groups" (123). Stark effectively uses the latter hypothesis, called the principle of collateral conflict, to explain the persecution of Jews and heretics in medieval Europe. 
     Chapter Four turns from the expansionist drive of monotheistic religions to the militant persistence they have demonstrated as minority traditions. In this chapter, Stark takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Jewish diaspora, from medieval Europe and imperial China to twentieth-century New York, arguing along the way that regular participation in rituals that tie communities together as well as the exclusivity of such rituals determine religious persistence (184). Ironically, Stark interprets the assimilation of the Chinese Jews as evidence of the persistence of monotheistic traditions: they only assimilated when "their conception of God became increasingly vague" 195). 
     In the last chapter, Stark addresses the question whether monotheistic militancy is compatible with pluralism and civility. The question appears to be in large part rhetorical, as this chapter reads more like a manifesto for monotheistic pluralism American-style than a global history of twentieth-century monotheism. The theoretical principle here is again based on Adam Smith: competition among more religions is key to religious civility. The historical application of the principle leads to rather questionable forecasting: "If these trends ['the immense American-based mission to 'Christianize' Europe'] do produce pluralism, then we may observe the appearance of religious civility in European nations" (259). 
     Stark's broad investigations into the historical consequences of monotheism merit the attention of world history teachers and researchers interested in the spread of religious and intellectual traditions. Additionally, the employment of his interpretations and hypotheses can also be useful in discussions of missionary activity, religious conflict, and the persistence of nonconforming (religious) minorities. They are fraught with methodological and interpretive problems, but also carry potential. First, historians and researchers in religious studies will question Stark's rational-choice premises. For one, the psychology of religion has amply illustrated that the images of god among followers of monotheistic religions far from coincide with Stark's representation of god as a rational, dependable, and responsive being. Second, this historian wonders whether the theories of missionary activity, conflict, and persistence developed in this work are historical consequences of monotheism exclusively. Do they also apply to movements espousing social and political causes? In addition, are they patterns of development intrinsic to monotheism, or, are they, rather, articulations of a combination of religious, political, social, or economic factors? 
     In sum, One True God is a thought-provoking read for world historians interested in the historical development of monotheistic and non-monotheistic religions. Some will balk at the tirades against "secularists" who fail to take religious motivations seriously (166-168) or violate the standards of monotheistic civility (Chapter 5). These are, in a manner inconsistent with the standards of scholarship upheld elsewhere in this book, based on outdated and unrepresentative scholarship (166-168), or on opinion (250-256). Regarding classroom use, I may assign selections from it in undergraduate classes, but I would not assign the entire monograph. 
Hilde De Weerdt
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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