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Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Church and the Coronavirus

In the 1990s the sociologist, Rodney Stark, sought to answer the question: "Why did an obscure religious sect (Christianity) evolve into a dominant religious institution in just a few centuries?" The result was his book, "The Rise of Christianity," which over the course of several chapters, he speculates on a number of possible factors.

One of the more intriguing chapters concerns the effect that the epidemics that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries of the Common Era had on Christianity and its religious competitors. Briefly, Stark, who at the time considered himself an agnostic, argues that Christian doctrine enhanced the ability of the early Church to better survive the epidemics, and consequently, its social networks emerged from the plagues relatively intact, while those of its competitors did not. This, in turn, increased the likelihood that the early Church would attract new converts (because of an increase in the ratio of personal ties to non-Christians), which helps explain part of its success. It also raises issues to how today's Christians will respond to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Explanations and Effectiveness

Why reasons does Stark offer to back up his argument? First, he argues that the church offered better explanations for and appeared more effective in combatting the epidemics. Stark notes that social scientists have long believed that natural and social disasters often produce crises of faith because they can challenge the legitimacy of dominant religious traditions. This can happen in at least two ways: First, when a dominant religion is incapable of offering adequate explanations of a disaster, and second, when it may be, or at least appears to be, ineffective in the face of the disaster. When crises of faith do occur, societies often turn to “new” religions that provide better explanations and appear more effective. Moreover, people almost always prefer explanations that help make life, even in the face of a disaster, coherent and understandable.

Stark believes that a crisis of faith (or faiths) occurred when the epidemics hit the Roman Empire. He argues that neither the pagan priests nor the philosophers offered adequate explanations as to why the plagues occurred, why some people died, and so on, but the early Christian church did. It offered “a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed” (McNeill 1976:108, quoted in Stark 1996:80–81).

As we will see in the next section, however, not only did Christianity offer its adherents better explanations, but Stark also believes that it appeared to be, and probably was, more effective in combatting the epidemics. Because of doctrines that insisted that Christians minister to the sick and dying, it is likely that Christians enjoyed higher survival rates, and this would have been seen by many non-Christians as nothing short of miraculous. Moreover, the higher survival rates would have produced a larger proportion of Christians who were immune to the disease because those who contracted it and recovered were protected from further infection. Thus, they could “pass among the afflicted with seeming invulnerability” (Stark 1996:90), and this was almost certainly seen by some non-Christians as evidence of the superiority of God, or at least the Christian God.

Christian Charity and Differential Survival

Second, Stark argues that the Church's doctrines concerning love, charity, and social service led to higher survival rates among Christians than among its competitors. He notes that although at the time science offered no cure for the epidemics, “elementary nursing” would have greatly reduced the mortality rate. “[The s]imple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably” (McNeill 1976:108, quoted in Stark 1996:88).

Unfortunately, according to Stark, between “a quarter and a third” of all Roman citizens perished because they did not receive such nursing (Stark 1996:76), and a primary reason was because when the plagues struck, most people, or at least those with the resources to do so, fled. Why? Because, Stark believes, the dominant religions of the time possessed no doctrines that claimed that people were obligated to minister to the sick and dying. Christianity, however, did. And, according to Stark, these ideas translated into action. In particular, they led Christians to nurse those who became infected, which in turn, led to higher survival rates among those they nursed, both Christians and non-Christians. But, since Christians were more likely to stay behind (and receive nursing), they probably had higher survival rights.

Differential Survival and Network Ties

Finally, Stark argues that the Church's higher survival rate left its social networks (not to be confused with Facebook) undamaged for the most part, while leaving those of its competitors in disarray. This probably would have enhanced its ability to recruit new followers. Why? A wealth of research has found that people are far more likely to join a new religious movement, especially when it involves a tremendous amount of personal risk, if they already know (have a tie) to someone who is a member.

A colleague of mine (Robert Schroeder) and I used computer simulations to test Stark's argument and found that, given his assumption, it has merit ("Plagues, Pagans, and Christians: Differential Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity"). In particular, we found that Christian social networks survived the epidemics more intact than did the social networks of its religious competitors. The differences between the two were not as dramatic as Stark originally hypothesized, but they are not substantial nonetheless. Christians lost fewer ties and gained almost as many converts as they would have done if the epidemics had never occurred. By contrast, their competitors lost more ties, most of which were to non-Christians, which increased the probability they would've converted to Christianity.

The Church and the Coronavirus

A number of scholars have challenged Stark's assumptions, from whether the differences between Christianity and its competitors were as substantial as Stark believes to whether the nursing of those infected had as much of an effect as he claims. Nevertheless, Stark's analysis raises the issue of how today's Church responds to the Coronavirus pandemic that's sweeping through today's world. Will we, as Stark believes that members of the early Church did, consider the welfare of others above our own? Will we, to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr,
Have the courage to change the things we can,
The composure to accept what we can't,
And the wisdom to know the difference?
I pray that we will because we could be facing another crisis of faith. Let's hope the Church responds as it once did.


Sean F. Everton and Robert Schroeder. 2019. "Plagues, Pagans, and Christians: Differential Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 58(4):775-89. doi: 10.1111/jssr.12631

William H. McNeill. 1976. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Reinhold Niebuhr. [1944] 2015. "Serenity Prayer." Page 705 in Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, ed. by Elisabeth Sifton. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Rodney Stark. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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