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Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief Paperback – 2 Dec 2008


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  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; Reprint edition (2 Dec 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061626015
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061626012
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15.1 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 815,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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11 of 19 people found the following review helpful By C. Baily on 29 Jun 2010
Format: Paperback
I bought this book on the back of having read some years ago Stark's 1997 book The Rise of Christianity. It treated the growth of Christianity in the Roman world until its official adoption by Constantine not as some kind of miraculous mass recognition of a long-awaited truth, or the working out of a divinely pre-ordained destiny, but as the fairly predictable result of a set of social and ethical characteristics of the Christian community operating in the context of the later Roman Empire. This struck me as a breath of fresh air, and the claim in the subtitle of this later book to consider the `evolution of belief' suggested a further contribution to the territory occupied by such as Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell and David Lewis-Williams' Conceiving God. So I parted with my money.
How wrong I was. I very nearly didn't get beyond the Introduction, where not a paragraph is allowed to pass by without some gross misconception, distortion or category error, some unexamined assumption or display of ignorance. He remarks, for example, after referring to the final defeat of the Persian empire by (presumably) Alexander, that `Had the Greeks lacked highly disciplined phalanxes, there may never have been any Greek philosophers' - cheerfully ignoring the fact that in their heyday two centuries earlier the Ionian cities which were the powerhouse of early rational and scientific thought had spent the second half of the 6th century under Persian control, while their intellectual vigour continued undiminished.
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Amazon.com: 37 reviews
79 of 84 people found the following review helpful
Apologetic, brilliant and controversial book 22 Oct 2007
By César González Rouco - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In the last few years I have been searching books offering a general overview of the past, and I have realized that many books entitled "History of ...whatever" only provide information about the West, the rest of the world being almost ignored. Rodney Stark 's "Discovering God" is different, it is truly a global work which will join a number of important new works on religion this Fall (for instance, Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age").

Stark, a professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University, is a prolific author and renowned scholar in the field of sociology of religion. This his new book is a history of the origins of religions covering prehistoric primal beliefs, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as the religions of Sumer, Egypt, Greece, early Rome and Mesoamerica. And, of course, Christianity and Islam.

Pursuant to him, God does exist and the evolution of religion is the story of how humans perceive God's revelations; over time, "human images of God will tend to progress from those having smaller to those having greater scope" and "humans will prefer an image of God[s] as rational and loving."

Defending that religious belief can be defended along more-or-less rational and ethical lines, and scolding monopoly religious organizations and temple religions which existed only to serve a small elite, not the common people, he argues for a free-market theory of religion (in a nutshell, religious competition increases the overall religiousness of the population) and that under unimpeded conditions, the most authentic religions will survive. Not surprisingly given his previous books, Stark concludes that Christianity offers the most "complex and nuanced" vision of God and the most "comprehensive doctrine of salvation"; judaism comes in second; and he does not consider Islam an "inspired" faith.

Stark's retelling of the origins of the world's great religions is fascinating and excellent, but most likely will become very controversial, with many of his statement certainly needing more nuancing. Maybe I am wrong, even unfair, but there is not much humility to be found in the pages of Rodney Stark's provocative new book. He seems prone to consider ludicrously biased, stupid and/or post-modernist most opinions coming from atheist or agnostic persons (and excellent scholarship that allowing him to back his ideas). He openly accepts that Muslims will condemn his judgment which "of course it is merely my judgment, upon which matters of taste and faith intrude." And in the last pages he ends up with a defence of Intelligent Design which probably does not add but detract to the strength and reliability of plenty interesting facts and theories developed in his book.

All that and much more is developed in 414 pages (plus notes and bibliography), the book being divided in the following parts and chapters: Introduction: Revelation and Cultural Evolution; 1.- Gods in Primitive Societies; 2.- Temple Religions of Ancient Civilizations; 3.- Rome: An Ancient Religious Marketplace; 4.- The "Rebirth" of Monotheism; 5.- Indian Inspiration; 6.- Chinese Gods and "Godless" Faiths; 7.- The Rise of Christianity; 8.- Islam: God and State; Conclusión: Discovering God?; Ancient Religious History Timeline; Glossary.

Other books on religion that I would recommend reading would be the following: "The Phenomenon of Religion: A Thematic Approach," by Moojan Momen and "Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion" by Brian Hayden (both of them astonishingly encyclopedic and readable); "Islam. History, present, future" by Hans Küng (the best and the brightest on Islam, a masterpiece); and (more or less related to the matter) "A Social History of Dying" and "Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion" by Allan Kellehear.

Additionally, as a complement to Stark's book (and hoping that will be of use for those looking for a broad framework to understand the past) I would also recommend to read the following works, whose scope is amazingly global: 1. Agrarian cultures: "Pre-industrial societies" by Patricia Crone; 2. Economy: "The world economy. A millennial perspective" (2001) plus "The world economy: Historical Statistics" (2003) by Angus Maddison (a combined edition of these two volumes is to appear on December 2007); 3. Government: "The History of Government" by S.E. Finer; 4. Ideas: "Ideas, a History from Fire to Freud", by Peter Watson; and 5. War: "War in Human Civilization" by Azar Gat.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
A Fine Study in Comparative Religion. 18 Dec 2007
By New Age of Barbarism - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
_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.
33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
entertaining, but some fraudulent scholarship 12 April 2008
By Alexander Kemestrios Ben - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book is entertaining, well written, and tendentious. One of those books you wish to throw at the wall as you read it. The book attempts to use a rational choice theory to explain the development of various religious doctrines and movements in history. On this account, it is informative--even if you disagree with the provocative hypothesis of Stark--and enjoyable.

However, it should be noted-- and I have not seen this pointed out yet-- that the scholarship undergirding this book is close to fraudulent. I will present one example.

On pages 40-41, Stark 'reviews' Pascal Boyer's work 'Religion Explained.' For some reason, Stark believes Boyer is hostile toward religion in the same manner that Richard Dawkins is. This is, of course, false.

Stark's quasi-precis of Boyer's view of religion reads as follows:

"Religion is thus a "parasitic" rider on valuable mental circuitry that evolved for valid reasons, but has the unfortunate "side effect" of prompting supernatural beliefs, which involve "the sleep of reason" since religion is, of course, an illusion." (Stark, pp. 40-41)

The first thing the reader should notice is Stark's use of normative phrases: "valid reasons," "unfortunate 'side effect,'" etc. Boyer uses no such language. His book is objective and scholarly. The phrases are obviously intended to turn Stark's religious readers off to Boyer. A little poisoning of the well; except Boyer's well contains no such anti-religious toxins.

Now, anybody who has read Boyer is perfectly aware that he is agnostic on whether or not God(s) exist. In fact, he does not care. His book is an attempt to explain why religious belief is so natural, not an attempt to assess its truth value. Interestingly, his friend and co-researcher in the field, Justin Barrett, is a traditional Christian.

Returning to Stark's summation. If you check the endnotes of Stark's book, they give page 28 as the source of these 'quotes' from Boyer. However, if you look at Boyer's book, you will notice that the terms "parasitic," and "side effect," are not to be found on page 28. More egregiously the 'quotes' that Stark pulls from Boyer to make it appear that he is hostile toward religion- i.e. "the sleep of reason," and "an illusion"- are misused. In Boyer's book the 'quotes' come from a header which reads "THE SLEEP OF REASON: RELGION AS AN ILLUSION." Since Stark is purportedly making a direct quote, it is not appropriate to change the case of the letters. Nor does standard scholarship allow Stark to split the quote apart to serve his own ends. This is fraudulent. The actual quote from the book serves as the heading of a section where Boyer responds to the common argument that religion is superstitious goo, believed only by the ignorant or gullible. On page 29, after summarizing these arguments, Boyer states EXPLICITLY, "I find all of these arguments [for religion as 'an illusion,' and 'the sleep of reason'] unsatisfactory." (Boyer, p. 29) So Stark has Boyer saying the opposite of what he actually says!! This is amazing. One begins to wonder if Stark actually bothered to read the book. One is also inclined to wonder at how many other 'mistakes' stark made against scholars he disagrees with.

I hope more people become aware of this distortion. If they do, perhaps Stark will revise this book and acknowledge his misrepresentation. He should also apologize to Boyer, as his hatchet job is something he would certainly flunk one of his students for.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
One of the best books on religion I've read. 28 Dec 2008
By David Marshall - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read hundreds of books on religion, and written five myself; among the former group, this is one of the most interesting.

Rodney Stark has been one of America's leading sociologists of religion for a long time. (Cited by skeptics as well as religious believers.) His marketplace model of religions, which he has been developing for decades (it goes back at least to his Theory of Religion) is a powerful tool of understanding: it may revolutionize the way you see the world, as it did for me. In Theory of Religion, and then his series on the rise of Christianity, Stark developed and tested a series of general postulates about the social nature of religion, seldom however writing too boldly about its ontological basis.

This book pulls many of the threads of Stark's storied career together,introduces interesting new topics -- especially "temple religion," and a thoughtful take on Lang's "High Gods" -- and poses a few questions about the truth or falsehood of religion as well.

Over the past 24 years, I have researched many of the topics Stark covers in this book. What impresses me about this book is that Stark so often gets it right where the "conventional wisdom" gets it wrong. I begin with specific claims, then will comment on Stark's story of religion:

"Where religious monopolies prevail. the overall level of public religious involvement will be low."

"Why did none of these three 'major' religions, nor even all of them together, actually become the religion of most Chinese?" (As a China scholar, and author of True Son of Heaven, I see that as a great question -- though by my count, China has traditionally had some eight "major" religions.)

"This ethnic barriar to conversion probably was the sole reason that the Roman Empire did not embrace the God of Abraham."

"Intellectuals always form factions and have such fallings out."

"(Gnostic) Scriptures were properly dismissed as a last-gasp effort to incorporate Christianity within traditional polytheism." (I wrote a book on this subject last year, reaching the same rather rare conclusion.)

"The long decline of European Christianity, beginning with Constantine's establishment of it as the subsidized state church." (Stark has written brilliantly, and with great explanatory power, on this over the years.)

"The notion that sometimes a story might really be about candles or even about a hole in the clouds is disdained." (Often an iconoclast, Stark takes Freud to the woodshed here, especially his ridiculous theories of the origin of religion.)

"People will more readily join an exclusive religion to the degree that it minimizes their loss of religious capital." (An interesting take on some ideas that have been kicking around among Christians since Paul's speech on Mars Hill -- I call it "fulfillment theology," and have done quite a bit of research and writing on it, but found Stark's "market" formulation of the idea fascinating.)

But this short collection of sociological aphorisms does little to express the wealth contained in this book. What Stark attempts is nothing less than a religious story of mankind, from the Stone Age to the present. He renders Stone Age tribes more respect than static but powerful agrarian empires like Egypt and Sumer and the Aztecs. Stark describes the rise of modern, reformist religions in the Axial Age, and tries (with less than complete success, IMO -- I don't think Confucius and the Brahmans had much in common, or that one borrowed from the other) to explain this sudden outburst of religious creativity. His history of the great religions is frequently surprising, even to thosase who have heard the story many times before -- and he often adds something fundamental.

Some readers below criticize Stark for engaging in "apologetics." (Or even for his brief mention of ID.) This is specious; he only argues for Christianity as the highest understanding of God at the very end of the book, and then only modestly, and admitting others will differ. Christians are likely to find some of his ideas quite challenging. Any open-minded skeptic, who isn't allergy to contrary views, should be able to recoup the price of the book ten times before that point. And the deadliest thing Stark does to Islam is not to criticize it -- he does little of that, actually -- but to describe in detail the treacherous career of its founder.

In some ways, Stark reverts to older, 19th Century theories of religion here -- the closest parallel I can think of (very imperfect) is J. N. Farquhar. I don't agree with all of Stark's claims -- aside from sometimes unconvincing speculation about the "Axial Age," I think Stark identifies the European mission enterprise too closely with colonialism, underestimates the strength of Christianity in Europe during the age of Wesley and Wilberforce, and is wrong to identify the ancient Chinese Shang Di as "the eldest ancestor" (see the Cambridge History of China, Shang dynasty volume). But it is fascinating to watch the continuing development of Stark's thought. I learned as much from this book as from any I have read in years.

author, Jesus and the Religions of Man
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Unique, brilliant--asks big questions, get incredible answers 6 Jan 2008
By Jeri Nevermind - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I can't think of another book anything like this. It really is unique. Stark unflinchingly tackles some of the biggest questions in the world and--surprise!--doesn't come up with any of the stale old answers.

That said, I don't think Stark was well served by the cover of the book, which suggests this is just another study of comparative religions. There are thousands and thousands of those, and, by golly, most of them are dull as ditch water. And too cowardly to admit their point of view.

Whereas Stark can hardly wait to take a point of view. His perspective is firmly Judeo-Christian.

One of the first things Stark mentions is that "God's revelations are always limited to the current capacity of humans to comprehend" (p 6). It is not God who evolves throughout time, or throughout the bible; only man's capacity to understand.

Primitive man, to the extent we have records, believed in a High God. Yet, when mankind developed cities, a lush polytheism took over. Why? Stark suggests an answer in "the monumentalism so often found in despots" (p 104). In the small gods of polytheism, with all their failings, humankind was worshiping itself, just as the despots from time immemorial wanted to be seen as God-like.

Hinduism even today continues to believe in multiple gods, while many of the religions of the east had no belief in god and can just as easily be described as philosophies. Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism and even the political philosophy of Confucius, taught people resignation. Desire was bad, and a cold pessimism seemed the only solution. Even in Hinduism the goal of life was to be released from the cycle of rebirth.

Compared to them, Christianity argues in an historical Jesus, the reality of the miraculous resurrection, a final solution to the problem of evil, and life everlasting.

And these are only some of the areas Stark delves into. For anyone who is seeking answers, this is a wonderful book.
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