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on September 29, 2000
This authors of this book do not, as one reviewer rather superficially whined, claim that the religious perspective is the only valid perspective from which religion can be observed. Their argument is more simply for the validity or "rationality" of the religious perspective. They rightly dismiss the secularization thesis, and contend that religion is here to stay. Furthermore, as an enduring component of human life, religion (and the religious person) deserves to be treated with an appropriate seriousness. The scientific study of religion has for too long been plagued by the presupposition that all religion and religious sentiment is based on illusion or foolishness/irrationality. Stark and Finke, however, give religion and the religious person the respect they deserve by taking their claims at face value. There is no argument for the existence of God (or the validity of any particular truth-claims); instead, the authors put forth an argument for the validity and genuineness of religion as an enduring human construct. The question of transcendence they do not even approach. Finally, it should be noted that Stark and Finke do us a great service by specifying what they mean when they use terms like "religion," "miracle," "prayer," and, yes, "rational." Let there be no mistake: this book is written from the perspective of rational choice theory, and that can be distasteful to many--especially when the subject is religion. But Stark and Finke go a long way toward making their thoughtful, honest and cogent perspective more palatable to the rest of us.
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on September 22, 2010
Acts of Faith represents the culmination of more than 30 years of research in the sociology of religion by Rodney Stark (and also Roger Finke). It is Stark's magnum opus, putting together in one place the distillation of all of his important research, and is the single best book on the sociology of religion that I've come across. While no single theory, even a good one, can explain religion adequately, Acts of Faith represents the single best attempt I've yet seen. Like any good theory, it has power to explain a wide range of phenomenon. While it's not a book above criticism, many of the more negative reviews misunderstand what Stark and Finke are actually saying. I first came across this book when I was pursuing my Ph.D. in Religious Studies.

Stark and Finke begin by properly destroying the secularization thesis as it was taught for several decades. The old secularization thesis stated things such as "religion is false and harmful" and "religion is doomed." Stark and Finke's response is to properly understand the ways in which this older secularization thesis has been radically revised. Not only is religion alive and kicking in the world, but the religious piety of the past was also not as great as has been assumed.

The heart of the book deals with what the authors refer to as "the religious economy." While there are certainly other legitimate ways of analyzing religion, Stark and Finke's model has great explanatory power. For them, "a religious economy consists of all the religious activity going on in any society." One of the most important corollaries of this view is that "The capacity of a single religious firm to monopolize a religious economy depends upon the degree to which the state uses coercive force to regulate the religious economy." This statement is profoundly true and useful: it helps explain, for example, why religion can look strong in state-sponsored churches and yet be inwardly weak. It also helps explain how the Christendom of Europe could give way to the current atheism. In contrast to "religious economies" that are regulated by the state, countries that have unregulated religious economies have religious "competition," which leads to higher levels of religious commitment. This helps explain, for example, why religion is still a lot stronger in America (historically an unregulated religious economy) than in Europe (historically regulated religious economies).

Along the way, Stark and Finke help explain many other human factors associated with religion and religious behavior. One of the most important of all, which everyone should be familiar with, is the notion that the density of social networks helps explain religious conversion: we're much more likely to convert to a new religion or denomination if the people who are closest to us are involved with the new religion or denomination.

The book is tightly argued and clearly presented, but the best feature of all is the back of the book (pages 277-288) where Stark and Finke list, in order, all of the definitions and propositions they have made throughout the book. This is an amazing summary of the book and makes it very easy to rehearse their arguments and to access them for further thought and research. I wish every academic book had this feature!

There's a lot more here than I can explain in a review, but I highly recommend this book for anyone who is serious about the sociology of religion or wants to gain a better insight into the future of religion in the world. Other works by Rodney Stark are also worth reading, but this is the best of the best!
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on December 1, 2005
The main point of this book is that religious behavior conforms to the classic supply and demand economic model. Religions sell "products" and exact "costs." Cost/benefit determines why people join or leave religious groups.

Here is a partial summary of themes.

1) Religious belief is rational because believers evaluate the costs and benefits of their religious participation. They conclude that the benefits outweigh the costs. Therefore they are rational actors.

This is really silly. It confuses participation with belief. Yes, the perceived cost/benefit ratio may justify participation from a narrow economic point of view, but this says nothing about whether the actual beliefs are rational. Under S&F's analysis, participation in suicide cults, the Flat Earth Society, and spaceship cults is rational because the believer thought about participating and then concluded that benefits outweigh costs.

The authors also fail to recognize the equivocal nature of the term "rational." They use it in a narrow economic sense. But those who think religious belief is "irrational" do not disagree with this. They say, rather, that religious belief goes beyond the evidence, requires unwarranted, blind, assumptions, etc. and is therefore irrational. S&F do not address this conception of rationality. Accordingly, skip the first chapter. It's a waste of time.

2) Religious participation is subject to market principles of supply and demand. Religions exact "costs" for their "products" and religious participants are rational actors who perform cost/benefit analysis prior to engaging in religious activity. (Costs are such things as $$$, donations of time, willingness to undergo tension with surrounding culture, celibacy, separation from society, etc. Benefits are not usually material, but involve emotional satisfaction and often expectations of rewards after bodily death.) "High tension" groups exact more costs from their participants. "Low tension" groups exact less. A bell curve shows that the MAJORITY of people want to be in medium tension groups, those in which they feel that they are making some sacrifices, (but not too many) and that they are different from the society around them (but not too different.) When Vatican II allowed nuns to dress in civies and live in apartments, recruitment dropped because nunhood was no longer so special. Women WANTED to pay the higher cost for a distinct and visible role in society. Post Vatican II they were just social workers and teachers who had to give up sex. People WANT to pay for a good religious product. If the product is watered down, they'll go somewhere else. Likewise if the product is too expensive, as in groups that require celibacy, separation from society, large financial donations, or that advocate doctrines that subject adherents to ridicule, members will leave. Thus, medium tension churches are the most successful.

When groups change from moderate tension to low or high tension, they tend to lose members. Liberal churches in the US are shrinking. When the Unitarian Universalists recently brought back some traditional elements of the liturgy, their numbers began to grow.

I would like to have been given more information on WHY folks are attracted to medium tension groups.

3) Free religious markets result in greater levels of religious participation. The United States is "the first fully unregulated religious economy." It has the highest level of religious participation. Countries with state monopolies on religion (most of Europe, including the Western democracies) have extremely low levels of participation. Pews are empty on Sunday in Sweden. Even though these countries are democracies, they restrict the abilities of unofficial groups to operate. This book contains some shocking information about the Western "democracies" and their repression and harassment of small, unofficial churches, like Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals.

Competition breeds increased religious participation because churches adjust their products to what the market wants. Also, the more supply, the greater likelihood that individuals will find a "vendor" that matches their preferences.

4) Religious preferences don't change much. Change in participation comes when the SUPPLY SIDE responds to existing demand. The US has had a 65% rate of church membership for decades, irrespective of economic conditions. When people change religions or churches, it is not because their beliefs (preferences) have changed. Rather it is because the new group better appeals to their existing preferences. (This is probably a controversial point. Do they REALLY mean that religious values don't change much?)

5) Secularization theory is all wrong. Those who say religion will die as society becomes more educated have been proven wrong. The industrialized world shows that this is not happening. Even in societies with low participation, "believing without belonging" is very high. (Western Europe has high rates of religious belief, but low levels of participation.) This section could be better. Perhaps secularization IS happening, it just doesn't manifest itself in more atheism. Perhaps god is becoming less anthropomorphic, less active, and therefore less real. This could still count as evidence of secularization in a given society. The authors don't do a good job addressing this subtle point.

Overall, this book offers a believable and coherent theory as to why religions succeed or fail, and religious believers will be disturbed to find that their purportedly sacred activities are government by crass economic forces of the Adam Smith variety. Ironically, the authors come across as very pro-religion, and pro-conservative religion to boot, even appearing subtly to offer advice to the Catholic Church on how to get its act together (though they say they don't.) Their clear preference for traditional religion is annoying and inappropriate. No need to call the Jesus Seminar an exercise in "preening silliness" or make repeated to references for the alleged vapidness of liberal theology. Their scholarship does not quite cross over into advocacy, but their sympathies are tastlessly and unprofessionally evident.

Worth reading, but you may not need to now that you've read this review.
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on April 25, 2005
I'm not sure whether to give this book a 4 or a 5...but to play it safe I'll make it a 4.

One of the main points of this book is that religion/religious groups far from being a display of "irrationality" are very rational and based in logic of members...and these same groups hold many benefits for their members.

Moreover, the author shows how "fundamentalist" churches have more to offer their adherents and thus are growing, while on the otherhand "mainline" churches have less to offer and are thus shrinking.

He moreover goes on to discuss the structure of the successful "mega" churches. He notes that while they are technically one big church, they are in reality a bunch of smaller fellowships (about 40-80 people large) within a bigger church. It's these intra-church fellowships which are the real facilitators of growth, not the huge sunday morning studies where people feel lost in the crowd.

Anyways, what I just mentioned is the tip of the iceburg in regards to this book. It also goes into issues of religious economy, how that economy differs from nation to nation, conversion vs natural increase, and many other aspects concerning the dynamics and organization of religious groups
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on June 26, 2001
My thinking on the subject of church dynamics has been strongly influenced by other works of Stark (The Rise of Christianity) and of Stark and Finke (The Churching of America).
This latest in their combined efforts is also quite good. HOWEVER, I have found that a conservative bias is beginning to show. In my opinion, they have let biases against Liberal Theology taint an excellent exposition of research. I will support this statement with an example.
They have some excellent numbers which compare the success of Evangelical ministers with in the United Methodist Church to Ministers within the UMC which were co-officiants at a particular homosexual union ceremony. The data clearly indicates that there is stronger growth among the Evangelical ministers. This is used as evidence that "Liberal" (whatever that abused word means) theology is damaging to church growth. I would believe that a better interpretation of this is: Those who go to pick apples get more apples than those who simply seek to polish apples.
As long as Stark and Finke stick to their last, they are wonderful, but when they wander over trying to do theology they faulter.
I would encourage anyone who is interested in Church Growth and Dynamics to buy this book, but please be sure to be on the alert for the conservative bias.
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on December 11, 2007
The authors propose that religion is analogous to a commodity that people buy. Religious behavior is said to be the result of people acting in their own interest. It is reinforced by dogmas claiming that good behavior will be rewarded in this life and the afterlife. Feelings of solidarity, friendships between parishioners, and other social interactions also reinforce religious behavior. These factors are most likely to be found in conservative religious groups. These assumptions allow the authors to account for many features of religion in contemporary society.

One of their most interesting arguments is that the absence of satisfactory sellers of religion suppresses church attendance in Europe whereas the abundance of denominations in the US stimulates church attendance. An equally interesting topic is the way they account for the decline in the number of people wishing to join Roman Catholic religious orders following Vatican II.

The treatment is very compelling but dry and academic. Much of the evidence derives from the authors' own research which focuses on the US and Europe. Latin America, Canada, Australia, and Islamic countries are not adequately covered. The rest of the world is not covered at all.

The book is marred by occasional criticisms of liberal religions, apparently because the authors perceive a bias against conservative religions in the literature. I would have preferred a more objective approach.
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on September 27, 2004
This book is packed with arguments, facts, theories, and ideas that anyone in the sociology of religion will be interested in. Stark and Finke are leaders in their discipline, and their work demands attention.

There is a lot that is good here. For example, their illustration of the ways in which social networks determine religious identity is key. I also appreciate the whole "religious economy" metaphor; indeed, religions do compete for customers these days and definitely "market" themselves, which I agree does cause more people to actually get involved. In short, advertising works -- and religions have figured that out.

I had problems with a lot of their assertions. For one: secularization. They claim that secularization theory is dumb, dillusional, and dead. Are they serious? C'mon. Just look at the data. The evidence is strong and clear: belief in God and church attendance are CLEARLy declining in places like great Britain, France, Holland, Germany (especially east germany), Czech Republic, and religion is at an all-time low in Scandinavia (!!) -- and also Japan. Secularization may not be happening in the U.S. or much of the world, but to deny its reality in most of Europe is simply blind. Look also at Jews -- most are now non-believers, even in Israel. Compare that to Jews 200 years ago -- yet another major example of secularization that S and F avoid dealing with. And also see the rates in Canada, where belief is also down (see Reginald Bibby)....for the evidence of secularization in selected countries, see the work of Steve Bruce, Grace Davie, and even the recent World Values Surveys from Inglehart, et al.

Another problem with this book is the wacky "rational choice" silliness. Please -- and these guys claim to have degrees in sociology? Rational choice theory is so pithy, so lame, so weak it is hard to believe ANYONE takes it seriously. The bottom line is that "costs" and "rewards" are subjective. And to say that people "choose" their religion is obviously true on some basic level, but it obfuscates broader cultural, historical, and social forces that make up the heart of the sociological imagination - see Phil Zuckerman's solid critique in his latest book on soc. of religion.

Finally, their clear argument in the Introduction that only persons of faith can be "truly scientific" when studying religion is laughable.
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on February 12, 2015
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on September 9, 2000
Begins with hot-headed academic axe-grinding. Tone gets more reasonable as book progresses. The authors repeatedly assert that persons of faith are more "truly scientific" in their study of religion than non-believers, that irreligious scholars cannot truly grasp religion and are thus inherently less qualified to study it than scholars of faith -- all of which is pithy, preening nonsense. If only people of faith are capable of studying religion, does that mean that only farmers can study farming, cops study policing, unions members study unions, racists study racism? If so, let's just give up on this whole social science thing and stare at our belly buttons! The bottom line is that religious people have a unique perspective on religion that the outsider cannot ever grasp, and conversely, the outsider sees things in a way the believer cannot; neither has a monopoly on truth, and both veiwpoints are essential. To earnestly suggest that only scholars of faith are to be trusted is not only self-serving and ad-homonym in nature, but it is downright frightening. One supposes that if Stark and Finke had their way, we'd all have to display our recently validated "faith certificates" before being allowed to get through the doors of the next SSSR! And be forewarned, they have an overt penchant for Protestant Christians, so if you happen to be a witch from Sweden, look out! The authors constantly declare that religion is RATIONAL. But what is "rational," exactly? Rational is one of those words like "beautiful" -- meaning so many different things to so so many different people. Is falling in love rational? Sitting in traffic everyday? Wearing a rabbit's foot? Denying penicillin to your dying child because your religion forbids it? Arguing that religion is "rational" is banal and ultimately teaches us nothing. All this insistence on RATIONAL and yet one wonders -- would the authors contend that ANY belief without evidence/data is rational, or just "religious" belief? Would someone who blindly accepts Freud's theories be considered "rational" in their eyes? Why then is someone considerd "rational" who blindly accepts the theories of Joseph Smith? Indeed, if one person belives something for which there is no evidence and that no one else belives, we call that person self-delusional, insane, or irrational. And yet if 200 or 20,000 people suddeny share the very same belief, we call them "religious" and rational. Go figure. On this whole rational matter, the authors clearly protest too much. The authors do a great and convincing job of digging deep and revealing the "real"/social causes of various religious phenomenon, such as Moonie conversion, Mormon growth, high US religion rates, etc. -- but in doing so, they flatly contradict themselves; they earlier chide scholars for dismissing religious explanations in favor of searching for the "real" causes of religious pheonomenon. Stark and Finke thus do (very successfully!) exaclty what they had earlier criticized in others. I really liked chapters 5 and 7. Chapter 8 was most interesting, and Chapter 9 was solid and intelligent. I learned a lot by the end -- but was distracted by all the initial arrogance and persistent internal contradictions. The book would have been much more powerful and convincing as sound social science had the first chapters with all their silliness and condescension been edited out.
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