Rodney Stark on Conversion

Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity has sat neglected on my bookshelves for a few years now. After the book came up several times in conversations this past semester, I decided it was time that I read it.

The book is quite interesting, although the first chapter has left me with a couple of questions. On page 18, Stark writes:

Conversion to new, deviant religious groups occurs when, all things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to nonmembers.

As a followup to this, he continues on page 19:

New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.

My main question involves how such criteria might apply to what we know about one of Christianity’s earliest converts, Paul. That is, neither of these statements seem to mesh with what we know (or think we know) about Paul’s conversion. He does not seem to have had particularly strong connections to Christians before his conversion (or at least he never really speaks of them), and he certainly does not seem to have come from among the ranks of the religiously inactive (although I’m aware of some who would argue that he was dissatisfied with the ‘offerings’ of the Jewish tradition of the time). I can see how these criteria are valuable when examining ‘deviant’ religious groups that have already attained some sort of respectable footing, but they leave some dangling ends when you’re dealing with a group (like 1st century Christianity) that barely has its foot in the door.

I’m not far enough along in the book to be able to judge whether or not Stark resolves (or even addresses) this point, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of the book plays out!

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