Sunday, May 8, 2016

Rodney Stark and "Distinguished Bigots"

Rodney Stark is  Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, co-director of the university's Institute for Studies of Religion, and founding editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. He has written over thirty (30) books including his latest: Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History.

The publisher, Templeton Press, describes the book:

As we all know and as many of our well established textbooks have argued for decades, the Inquisition was one of the most frightening and bloody chapters in Western history, Pope Pius XII was anti-Semitic and rightfully called “Hitler’s Pope,” the Dark Ages were a stunting of the progress of knowledge to be redeemed only by the secular spirit of the Enlightenment, and the religious Crusades were an early example of the rapacious Western thirst for riches and power. But what if these long held beliefs were all wrong?

In this stunning, powerful, and ultimately persuasive book, Rodney Stark, one of the most highly regarded sociologists of religion and bestselling author of The Rise of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco 1997) argues that some of our most firmly held ideas about history, ideas that paint the Catholic Church in the least positive light are, in fact, fiction. Why have we held these wrongheaded ideas so strongly and for so long? And if our beliefs are wrong, what, in fact, is the truth?

In each chapter, Stark takes on a well-established anti-Catholic myth, gives a fascinating history of how each myth became the conventional wisdom, and presents a startling picture of the real truth. For example,
  • Instead of the Spanish Inquisition being an anomaly of torture and murder of innocent people persecuted for “imaginary” crimes such as witchcraft and blasphemy, Stark argues that not only did the Spanish Inquisition spill very little blood, but it was a major force in support of moderation and justice.
  • Instead of Pope Pius XII being apathetic or even helpful to the Nazi movement, such as to merit the title, “Hitler’s Pope,” Stark shows that the campaign to link Pope Pius XII to Hitler was initiated by the Soviet Union, presumably in hopes of neutralizing the Vatican in post-World War II affairs. Pope Pius XII was widely praised for his vigorous and devoted efforts to saving Jewish lives during the war.
  • Instead of the Dark Ages being understood as a millennium of ignorance and backwardness inspired by the Catholic Church’s power, Stark argues that the whole notion of the “Dark Ages” was an act of pride perpetuated by anti-religious intellectuals who were determined to claim that theirs was the era of “Enlightenment.”
In the end, readers will not only have a more accurate history of the Catholic Church, they will come to understand why it became unfairly maligned for so long.
Bearing False Witness is a compelling and sobering account of how egotism and ideology often work together to give us a false truth.

Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report interviewed Stark via email:

CWR: You begin the book by first noting your upbringing as an American Protestant and then discussing "distinguished bigots". What is a "distinguished bigot"? And how have such people influenced the way in which the Catholic Church is understood and perceived by many Americans today?

Dr. Rodney Stark: By distinguished bigots I mean prominent scholars and intellectuals who clearly are antagonistic to the Catholic Church and who promulgate false historical claims.

CWR: How did you go about identifying and selecting the ten anti-Catholic myths that you rebut in the book? To what degree are these myths part of a general (if sometimes vague) Protestant culture, and to what degree are they encouraged and spread by a more secular, elite culture?

Dr. Stark: For the most part I encountered these anti-Catholic myths as I wrote about various historical periods and events, and discovered that these well-known ‘facts” were false and therefore was forced to deal with them in those studies. These myths are not limited to some generalized Protestant culture—many Catholics, including well-known ones, have repeated them too. These myths have too often, and for too long, been granted truthful validity by historians in general. Of course secularists—especially ex-Catholics such as Karen Armstrong—love these myths.

The interview concludes with this great exchange:

CWR: You emphatically state that as a scholar with a Protestant background working at a Baptist university you did not write your book as "a defense of the Church" but "in defense of history." Why is that significant? And, finally, do you think most Americans actually give more credence to history than to the Church? 

Dr. Stark: I think the distinguished bigots will have a hard time accusing me of being a Catholic toady, trying to cover up the sins of the Church. The only axe (sic) I have to grind is that history ought to be honestly reported. As to your final point: I don’t think ‘most Americans’ will ever know that this book was written. I can only hope that I will influence intellectuals and textbook writers—maybe.


  1. Hmmm. Now I must get this book if only to discover who these “distinguished bigots” are.
    I know of a Paul Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale, but they were never in any academic pantheon.

    1. From the excerpt posted on, he cites James Carroll and John Cornwell.

  2. The article is confusing..what are you saying

    1. I'm quoting an interview and providing info from the publisher.