_Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief_, by sociologist and religious critic Rodney Stark (who has written extensively on Christianity from a sympathetic perspective), is an account of the origins of religious belief and how such belief may be seen as progressing towards a "discovery of God". One of the advantages of this book is that unlike many of the recent books which have come out on the topic of religion, this book examines religion in a respectful and sympathetic manner. While the book surveys religion from "primitive" beliefs through the world's "great religions", it ultimately reveals the importance of religious beliefs and the manner in which such beliefs have led man to God. The book also is highly sympathetic to Christianity and its truth claims (so that some have seen it as an apologetic piece for Christianity) and although some of the author's interpretations may be suspect, I believe he makes an excellent case for the importance of religion. Further, the book covers "primitive" religions in a sympathetic manner and shows how primitive monotheism may underlie much of mankind's religious inheritance. In addition, the author argues for a free-market theory of religion, subscribing to "rational choice theory", and maintaining that under unimpeded conditions the best religions will thrive and survive. Finally, the book addresses the concept of whether God exists, finding evidence in support of the existence of God and for Intelligent Design in the universe. As such, this book offers an excellent and timely study in comparative religion and the evolution of religious belief from a sympathetic perspective that is certain to provide one with a profound understanding of the world's religious traditions.
The author begins in the Introduction to this book by examining "Revelation and Cultural Evolution". The author finds fault with much of the study of comparative religion, arguing that the field has been largely taken over by militant atheists. In particular, the author argues that revelation serves as "divine accommodation" arguing that "God's revelations are always limited to the current capacity of humans to comprehend". The author also examines evolving conceptions of God and the idea of natural selection explaining the difference between such notions as found in Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer and relating these to the development of religious belief. The author then traces the evolution of belief from "primitive" beliefs to the world's great religions, noting such problematics in understanding God as dualism and the "problem of evil". The first chapter in this book is entitled "Gods in Primitive Societies" and deals with the origin and development of "primitive" religions. The author explains primitive beliefs as found in Neolithic cultures, the rotund mother goddess figurines found throughout Europe, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and the fact that religion is a universal feature of human cultures. The author then turns to attempts to reconstruct primitive religions, noting the earliest instances by European explorers and Jesuit priests when faced with the primitive beliefs of the Native Americans and Aztecs. The author considers naturism (the idea that religions have their origins in the personifications of natural forces and objects and popularized by Max Muller), animism (the idea that primitive beliefs are such that literally everything is inhabited by spirit and popularized by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor), ghost theory (the idea that religious beliefs originate in dreams where "ghosts" are seen by the living and popularized by Herbert Spencer), totemism (the idea that religious beliefs originate in the attempts by a tribe to identify with an animal), Durkheim's aboriginal religion, and Freud's "incestuous approach" to religion. The author also considers the universality of religion, noting biological and cultural explanations. The author also contrasts religion to magic and considers claims for religious credibility. Perhaps most interesting are the theories of such individuals as Andrew Lang and the Jesuit priest Wilhelm Schmidt on the proliferation of "High Gods" and primitive monotheisms. The second chapter of this book is entitled "Temple Religions of Ancient Civilizations". Here, the author considers the dawn of history at Sumer and the influence of temple religions and idols. The author notes the importance of priests and rituals and sacrifices to such early temple religions. In particular, the author mentions gods from various religions including those of ancient Greece and Rome and the religions of the Aztecs. The author also mentions the importance of myths, noting the pejorative meaning that the term "myth" has come to take on. The author notes the role of myth in such stories as those concerning the Flood, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Birth of Huitzilopochtli. The author also notes the role of morality, the afterlife, and tombs mentioning the great building projects used to house rulers. The author notes the role of the priests and shows their relationships (often synonymous) to those of the rulers. The author also notes the attractions of polytheism and the difficulty in adhering to monotheism (maintaining that many of the primitive early monotheisms became corrupted) as well as mentioning the role of sacrifice (including human sacrifice). The third chapter of this book is entitled "Rome: An Ancient Religious Marketplace". The author notes the role of religious markets and explains the origins of religious pluralism. The author also notes how the Roman religious market developed. The author also mentions the role of competition, mentioning some of the factors that contributed to those choosing a religion, and notes some of the important Roman religions (such as Bacchanalianism, the cult of Cybele, Isis worship, Mithraism, and the arrival of Christianity). Further, the author proposes his rational choice model for religious commitment. The fourth chapter of this book is entitled "The "Rebirth" of Monotheism". The author notes the role of primitive monotheism among the followers of Aten and the pharaoh Akhenaton, the role of Zoroastrianism (and dualism as a resolution to the "problem of evil"), and finally ancient Judaism (mentioning the role of Moses and "Temple Judaism"). The fifth chapter of this book is entitled "Indian Inspirations". The author focuses on early Indian religions as well as the complications of Hinduism (mentioning the Vedas and the caste system). The author also mentions such offshoots of Hinduism as Jainism and Buddhism (noting the decline of Buddhism in India and its rise elsewhere). The sixth chapter of this book is entitled "Chinese Gods and "Godless" Faiths". The author mentions the role of such Chinese religions as those surrounding Confucius and Lao Tzu (Taoism), noting the problematic of apparent "godlessness". The author also notes the role of Chinese Buddhism as well as Chinese folk religion. The seventh chapter of this book is entitled "The Rise of Christianity". The author mentions the role of the so-called "quest for the historical Jesus", emphasizing the role of the New Testament, and the pagan surroundings of Christianity. The author explains Christianity's successes, the role of St. Paul, and the role of conversion. The author also dismisses the claims of the Gnostics and the recent revival of interest in Gnosticism. The eighth chapter of this book is entitled "Islam: God and State". The author notes the role of the prophet Muhammed and the milieu in which he arose from. The author mentions the beliefs of Muslims as well as the role of an Arab state. The author also compares Islam to the temple religions of earlier times (which may be problematic) in its support for the Islamic state. The Conclusion discusses the issue of "Discovering God?". The author examines the "axial age" (a concept first developed by German philosopher Karl Jaspers), noting the role of sin in maintaining social control. The author also examines the criteria for a divine revelation and the possibility of an inspired core to the world's great religions. Finally, the author examines the question of whether God exists, noting the relationship between religion and science, and finding evidence in favor of the existence of God.
This book offers an excellent study in comparative religion that offers a sympathetic portrayal of many of the world's religious systems. The book is especially unique for what it has to say about "primitive" beliefs as well as the role of Christianity and an inspired core of belief. Ultimately, the questions raised by this book are thought provoking and it is certain to increase one's knowledge of the world's religious systems and beliefs.