Rodney Stark: A Reckless Eclectic Remembered

Submitted by Ari Asercion on

Article by Ulrika O'Brien

July saw the passing of Rodney William Stark, Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion, who formerly served in the University of Washington Department of Sociology for 32 years. He was 88.

Rod Stark loomed larger than life, both in his person and in his work. He cast a long shadow; left an indelible impression on those who knew him. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to claim that he single-handedly altered the direction, tenor, and importance of the sociology of religion as a subspecialty of the field. He wrote with a beautiful and compelling clarity seldom rivaled among social scientists. This is all the more impressive given how vastly prolific he was. He was a man of tremendous writerly and scholarly discipline, though frequently impatient with those less disciplined. A man of deep contradictions, he was capable of great and lasting loyalty and generosity of spirit, while periodically alienating almost everyone who knew him. Many of his colleagues experienced virtually the same relationship with him: they disagreed with him on practically all points yet owed him a profound debt of gratitude for what he taught them of scholarship and approach, and for what he brought to the collegial relationship. Rod Stark contained multitudes.

Stark was not a universal taste. Never anodyne, he was prone to strong opinions, strongly worded. He delighted in tossing the cat among the canaries by taking up controversial, unorthodox views and following them all the way to their logical conclusions. He was always happy to lock horns with anyone who wanted to disagree with him, and though it was possible to change his mind with a sufficient weight of good evidence and rigorous argument, Stark was not one to back down readily, or even gracefully, once he’d staked out his position. Those who first encountered Rodney Stark through his careful, measured, and respectful writing expressed considerable surprise on meeting him in person, where he was large, boisterously loud, and unapologetically contrarian.

Originally a journalist by training, Stark read broadly and wrote on many topics, both in and out of the academic milieu. One might call him an early pioneer of “public sociology,” writing books gauged for lay audiences, including his most translated work, The Rise of Christianity. On the breadth of his interests, he said, “I am a dedicated, even reckless eclectic.”

Recollections of Rodney Stark from His Students and Colleagues

Robert Crutchfield, Department of Sociology, University of Washington:
“Rod took me under his wing when I arrived in the department. We didn’t agree on much, if anything, socially or politically, but we found common ground in studying social structure and crime. He didn’t care much about our differences of opinions, but was always happy and willing to engage in spirited arguments. More importantly for me, he pushed me and encouraged me in my early work and was a champion for me in the department.”

Tony Gill, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington:
"I learned of Stark’s work in graduate school and was completely delighted…that I would be hired at the same university. While Rod was never a formal mentor to me, he had great influence on the way I think and write about the world. He took an academic iconoclastic position on social science, crossing interdisciplinary boundaries and being willing to ask big questions that mattered…though he conducted quantitative research, Rod always put the question and the theory first…Rod understood that scholarship should not remain solely in the recreational playground of academia, but rather should reach a broad audience. Beginning with The Rise of Christianity he realized that there was a real hunger for scholarship that spoke to people outside the ivory tower. More people should take Rod’s scholarly life to heart.”

James Wellman, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington:
“My time with Rod Stark always changed me, and the man never held back. His stories are epic. I didn’t always agree with Rod, but at least he gave you a point of view, and he could discuss things and if he found a point well made he was willing to change his mind…I have great admiration for his work and person.”

Steven Pfaff, Department of Sociology, University of Washington:
“Rod was one of the most gifted, hardworking, and incisive sociologists to have served the discipline. Along with scholars such as William Bainbridge and Roger Finke, Rod did fundamental work extending exchange theory to the sociology of religion and broadening the reach and power of sociological rational choice theory…Rod helped to define the now burgeoning field in the economics of religion.

“Rod's writing never lacked for brio. He was careful and judicious in his writing but never captured by academic niceties or, worse yet, a tendency toward boring or colorless writing.

“I was lucky enough to have overlapped briefly with Rod when I joined the department. I was intimidated at first, but he proved to be a tough but fair critic and mentor. I mourn his passing and hail his legacy.”

Michael Hechter, School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University
“Rod was a big man – he had the look of a tight end – and was voluble, to a fault. On his arrival, he corralled a number of junior faculty to write chapters on an intro sociology text. I thought the enterprise was tacky – motivated primarily by pecuniary considerations – but the text was published and had many subsequent editions. I didn’t pay much attention to Rod’s scholarship, and I don’t think most of the department did, either…

“At some point after I left the Department, I read The Rise of Christianity (1996) and was startled to appreciate that it was a terrific book – both extremely well-written and intellectually compelling. I think the book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I came to the belated realization that I had seriously underestimated Rod. He was a singular force and we won’t see his like again.”

William Lavely, Department of Sociology, University of Washington
“Rod was a passionate scholar and teacher. He worked hard at engaging students in his large lecture classes. He had a larger-than-life, somewhat boisterous personality. Not everyone enjoyed that, but I did.”

Roger Finke, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Penn State University
“Rodney Stark was a powerful force. His theories and research have reshaped the sociology of religion and continue to have an impact on the entire discipline of sociology. His books and articles have been translated into 18 different languages, with The Rise of Christianity alone translated into 12 different languages. Along with his seismic impact on the research community, he was a master educator. He lectured to classes of 700, wrote a best-selling Introduction to Sociology textbook that went through 10 editions, wrote five workbooks/textbooks using data analysis tools, and with Lynne Roberts launched an educational software company. All his educational endeavors emphasized “doing sociology,” allowing students to “look over his shoulder” and giving them a chance to do sociology on their own. Rod’s personality was also a powerful force. A grad student once noted that when Rod walked into a room, everyone else was relegated to the audience. After writing with Rod for more than twenty years, and speaking with him on a nearly weekly basis, I thought he would eventually fail to surprise me. He never did. About year 20 I learned that he played baseball and football against Roger Maris in North Dakota. Shortly thereafter, I found a recording of him interviewing Louis Armstrong on a Jamestown, ND radio station when he was 18 years old. Rod was filled with surprises. Perhaps the greatest surprise for many, was that Rod was often a kind person.”

Paul Froese, Department of Sociology, Baylor University
“His thought and writing revolutionized the sociology of religion with original insights and broad implications. Religion, which had long been of central concern for classical theorists, had become blandly synonymous with ignorance and poverty when Stark started his graduate studies at Berkeley in the early 1960s. Stark, however, began to question the wide-spread assumptions of his contemporaries and would ultimately blend ideas from criminology, economics, network theory, and rational choice theory to provide a much-needed revitalization to the scientific study of religion. 

“Rod was an impressive scholar and had the ego to go with his scholarship. He was confrontational, provoking, and even baiting. This could be fun, but some also found it hurtful.”

Christopher Bader, Department of Sociology, Chapman University
“Rod was a larger-than-life figure. Cantankerous and bombastic, with a huge ego; he could devolve into being a jerk, but he was also enormously kind. I literally owe my career to him. When I graduated from Evergreen, I already knew I wanted to study with him at the University of Washington, but because I was coming from Evergreen I had no GPA, no grades. I couldn’t get into UW. Rod encouraged me to go get grades by getting a master’s degree at Bowling Green. While I was there, he kept in touch; he gave me his home number to reach him. He believed in me, and I feel certain that he pulled the strings that got me into UW. I don’t know what made Rod choose a particular person, but once he did, he was in your corner. Throughout my career, he always knew what I was doing. Whenever we got in touch, he had already read my latest work, and was prepared to discuss it with me at length. In a way, he was like family. Not that we were emotionally close, but there was no one else who could make me that angry whom I kept in touch with. There were multiple year periods when we didn’t speak. But Rod was always willing to mend fences.”

Rodney Stark Obituary from Christianity Today

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