Fact, fable, and Stark

Posted on July 18, 2008


One of the things David Sloan Wilson suggested that I should look at is Rodney Stark’s work on religion. Wilson, in his own work, makes quite a bit of use of Stark’s explanation of religious practices in terms of transactions for scarce or unavailable goods such as eternal life. Looking through the Internet I did find an interesting article by Stark entitled “Reconceptualising religion, magic, and science” in which he runs through some of the standard ways of distinguishing between the three kinds of social practices and then suggests his own approach – I am still to make up my mind on what he says. In looking around, however, I found a couple of articles written by Stark that have undermined my own willingness to take what he says at face value. Rather than sociology of religion, Stark’s usual discipline, those articles deal with evolutionary theory. The conclusion Stark reaches is, to say the least, surprising:

I believe that one day there will be a plausible theory of the origin of species. But, if and when that occurs, there will be nothing in any such theory that makes it impossible to propose that the principles involved were not part of God’s great design any more than such a theory will demonstrate the existence of God. But, while we wait, why not lift the requirement that high school texts enshrine Darwin’s failed attempt as an eternal truth?

It is a brave sociologist who feels that he is competent not merely to state that evolutionary biologists are all lying about the most important element of their own discipline but to then go on to confidently predict what the outcome of future science will be; that kind of lack of hubris usually goes with being a philosopher of science such as myself. Jokes aside, the concluding paragraph by itself contains so many errors and misrepresentations that it is hard to know where to begin. Despite his claim not to be a creationist, Stark accepts wholesale the language and the mendacious talking points of the creationists. I have no intention of going through the problems with Stark’s articles as others have done a good enough job already, and as there is little in the articles that does not echo the standard creationist misrepresentations. Rather, I ask myself the question that is most relevant to my own interest in Stark’s work: Should I let my evaluation of his articles on Darwin colour my approach to his work in the sociology of religion?

The first reaction one might have is that scientific articles stand or fall on their own merits. It is perfectly possible that Stark’s sociological work is insightful and significant even while what he writes about evolution is laughable. Many senior scientists have compromised themselves by assuming that their competence in one area is sufficient grounds to claim competence elsewhere. However, given bounded rationality, one has to make strategic decisions about where to invest time and the assessment of an author’s competence is vital to that judgement.

The situation is made all the more complex by the fact that Stark’s sociological research appears to consistently make claims about religion that are radically out of step with what appears to be the standard view: in every case tending towards a particularly sanguine outlook on Christianity. Stark claims, for example, that the Middle Ages were a period of great progress and that Europe developed thanks to the rationalist nature of Christianity. Also, he argues that we are now living in a particularly religious time, counter to the standard sociological secularisation view. Of course, every scientist has particular personal beliefs that are sure to direct their research. Discounting someone’s research on religion because they have pro-religious views would be foolish. However, the situation changes when they have let these views undermine their objectivity, as Stark does in the case of his essay on Darwin.

However, the most troubling element of Stark’s essay on Darwin is not the side he takes. Rather, it is the lack of understanding for how science works that he shows when he talks about ‘scientific secrets’ or ‘eternal truths’. While acknowledging that science is a human practice and, therefore, open to misuse and malpractice, it must be stressed that it has evolved – and I use that term quite purposefully – a set of institutional controls second to none in order to avoid, minimise and counter such short-comings. In talking about scientific secrets Stark is, in effect, claiming something akin to a world-wide conspiracy in a group whose membership counts in the hundreds of thousands and which is designed to be open. In talking about eternal truth Stark denies the central value of fallibilism that has made scientific progress possible. To point this out is not to idealise science but to acknowledge how it works, how it has achieved the rational progress Stark likes to write about. Perhaps the best example of Stark’s failure to understand science comes when he states that:

When a thoroughly ideological Darwinist like Richard Dawkins claims, “The theory is about as much in doubt as that the earth goes round the sun,” he does not state a fact, but merely aims to discredit a priori anyone who dares to express reservations about evolution.

Whatever motivates Dawkins, the claim made by him is factually correct. Neither the heliocentric model nor evolutionary theory are logically necessary, but they are extraordinarily well confirmed by the uncountable results of a plethora of different experiments and, perhaps even more importantly, by the continued success of technologies whose viability depends upon their accuracy. In other words, both heliocentric and evolutionary theories are very much a posteriori and have nothing to do with the a priori that Stark brings up. Dawkins, therefore, is quite right to make the claim Stark ridicules:

It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

When a creationist mistakes the continued discussion among scientists who are working on extending evolutionary theory for fundamental disagreement about the truth of that theory it can often be understood in terms of the lack of an opportunity to learn about the way science works, and as an effort to understand it in terms of the social mechanisms of religion. When a professor of sociology misrepresents science in a similar way it must raise the question of how they, themselves, practice science.