Book Learning: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries

This essay is part of a larger collection: Book Learning. These are not complete reviews but rather summaries of my favorite learnings or ideas. I read to exercise my brain. If you have any book suggestions, ideas, or feedback, please feel free to contact me directly.


I recently read The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. As a note for this book in particular, I am not a Christian nor do I necessarily endorse all/many/even some of the aspects of the Christian movement (as I imagine many are GREAT, for some people, and many are REALLY BAD, for other people). I read the book for other purposes—as is similar to most things I read (and write), it was primarily to LEARN.

The book traces the origin of Christianity (the religion) and attempts to explain _how_ and _why_ the movement gained so much traction (so quickly!). The author explores a number of questions about both Christianity (e.g. what made the ideas around the religion so special that it could pick up SO MUCH momentum?) and movements at large (e.g. who should your early adopters be?).

I am extremely interested in the latter topic, as I think it has direct applications in the modern world (e.g. how can you build a large organization that believes in a central idea). I also generally enjoy picking up pieces of history that make me feel surprised. I find that feeling surprised humbles me to an extent that increases my bias towards curiosity (rather than snap judgement).

The author begins the book by diving deep into the numbers—just how quickly did Christianity grow (as a movement) and who were the characters involved that drove the initial traction.

One thing that _shocked_ me about the rise of Christianity was just how SLOW things went early on. Over the first 100 years, the ENTIRE community _only_ grew from 1000 to 7350 participants. 100 years. You would think? (at least I would think) that things would move more quickly. Over the following 250 years, the movement would grow to tens of millions of people (and make up a large fraction of the European population). This makes me think about the idea that sometimes you need to go slow to go fast. Progress sometimes looks like an overnight success but reality is often far different. This applies to so many aspects of modern life—both external (like building a company) and internal (like having a six pack) successes are often the product of HARD WORK multiplied by LOTS OF TIME (lots in this case I am defining as more than you would perhaps expect). 100 years is much longer than I would expect for the movement to gain steam—but then again, I know that I am often one to underestimate timing (consistently).

The author also critiques 19th Century Historians who classified early adopters of Christianity (and honestly most religious movements at large) as LOWER CLASS PEOPLE DESPERATE FOR HOPE AND SUPPORT. At first glance, this notion appears reasonable. You could imagine that people without a lot going for them in life, and who are perhaps poorly educated, would be quick to jump to new ideas.

The author debunks what he believes to be a myth through a number of approaches as his strong hypothesis (aside, I do admire how the author leaves room for some amount of doubt by saying hey this is not FACT but here is my evidence—this is an aspect of great scientists—people interested in ascertaining the truth as their top priority—that I really admire).

He talks about how religion sells something that you cannot go out and buy. We can debate some of this at the margin but generally I agree with the notion that you cannot buy many of life’s most influential riches (like feeling fulfilled). As a result, wealthy people are still very much open to JOINING A RELIGION TO ESCAPE THE UNAVOIDABLE.

Another thing he explores is the delta between a cult and a sect. A cult he defines as a net new movement whereas a sect is a breakaway from an existing movement. Cults, he argues, are ATTRACTIVE to the MOST EDUCATED (and wealthiest) cohorts of people (even in modern times). He cites modern data around looking at the population of people, today, who participate in cults like Yoga, Scientology, and Mormonism. He says, on average, these groups lean more educated. Why is this the case? His argument is that wealthy people are actually LESS likely to currently be tied to a CULT. Therefore, they are likely to be the EARLY ADOPTERS of new ones before anyone else. Over time, the cults expand to the masses (as Christianity did), but to take the leap of faith on something new, he argues you need to be AVAILABLE and open to looking at new ideas.

He makes many more arguments—but another one that stuck out to me was how Christianity had a “differentiated value prop.” There was an underserved opportunity to SELL SOME SOLUTION TO DESPERATION in the light of DISASTER. The disasters of the time looked like widespread epidemics (that popped up many times). Christianity sold a unique sense of purpose (something that other religions neglected in various forms).

“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”

This made me think about how disasters provide opportunity. You could look at there being epidemics as a reason to shut down and stagnate the movement. But they did quite the opposite. In fact, without the BAD THINGS HAPPENING TO PEOPLE, it may not have been possible to spread Christianity (at least as quickly as it happened). A bit of a stretch, but this does bring me a bit to recent times where we have had *things* like the pandemic (thanks 2020-2021) and ~economic recessions. Many of the most enduring organizations/companies/trends of our times are built in the hardest of moments. Perhaps this is an interesting reminder of sorts.

It also makes me think about how powerful the HUMAN DESIRE (I think?) is in finding purpose in life. People will go to great lengths—in the case of the Christian movement, they will radically change their life—in order to find a purpose. And once they do, they have the potential to be consumed by it. To have it rule every decision they make and a large portion of their thoughts every day. I am not commenting on if this is good or bad—moreso that the whole notion does interest me. I am curious HOW do you build a THING—a sense of purpose or movement or trend—that makes people FEEL A TYPE OF WAY.

This purpose was a belonging to a community and a duty to help scale the religion (and help the community prosper). This duty was given NOT ONLY to the men of the community but also to the women in various capacities.

This led to the eventual rise of the community. The community grew through friends of friends. Referrals. That was the most common channel for growth. People saw the community growing and had a big fear of missing out. So, they joined the community and eventually the Christian movement began to amass power.

“for many people conversion is simply a matter of aligning their religious life with that of their family, friends, and neighbors who already have joined—thus creating a self-sustaining network of growth. Finally, for many people of privilege and ambition, their abandonment of paganism was a matter of opportunism—many people professed Christianity or were discreet about their paganism in order to gain social and political advantages.”

The book then segues into the impact of having a centralized Church of sorts. And, if you read a lot of history, particularly the history of science of sorts, you will find a common theme: THE CHURCH PLAYED A MASSIVE ROLE IN THE ADVANCE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. You cannot understate this influence quite enough—having a centralized identity (the church) with funding, resources, and influence made a really big impact on the world.

“Not only were science and religion compatible, they were inseparable–the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars. ”

“That new technologies and techniques would be forthcoming was a fundamental article of Christian faith. Hence, no bishops or theologians denounced clocks or sailing ships–although both were condemned on religious grounds in various non-Western societies. ”

“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the rise of science is not that the early scientists searched for natural laws, confident that they existed, but that they found them. It thus could be said that the proposition that the universe had an Intelligent Designer is the most fundamental of all scientific theories and that it has been successfully put to empirical tests again and again.”

“Science arose in the West—and only in the West—precisely because the Judeo-Christian conception of God encouraged and even demanded this pursuit.”

“The European Middle Ages collected innovations from all over the world, especially from China, and built them into a new unity which formed the basis of our modern civilization.”

The Church eventually also played a large role in selling that WE WILL HELP YOU INCREASE YOUR QUALITY OF LIFE.

“But following these Stone Age discoveries, progress was slow. It is estimated that in terms of the standard of living, things were pretty much the same for the next seven thousand years.1 People ate about the same amount, lived about the same lifespan, and buried about the same high percentage of their children. Even in the West, as recently as the seventeenth century life was hard and short. But then an era of immense and stunningly rapid progress began in Britain, with a wave of inventions and innovations transforming nearly every aspect of life. From 1750 to 1850 the standard of living of the average person in Britain doubled. And that was just the start.”

One interesting observation made by the Church was the need to have more humans (and how having a larger population, particularly a larger population of Christians), would drive success (and honestly, wealth). So they started encouraging people to have kids. This was not the first time people were trying this. Caesar is said to have given land to anyone who had 3+ kids. But this did not work. It did not work for various reasons but one was that people did not look at marriage as an attractive measure (the author even called it a lame construct). Abortions were extremely common at the time (and extremely dangerous, often damaging people’s ability to have kids). This was a challenging circumstance to navigate and the Church played a large role in being helpful.

Overall, this was not my number one favorite book in the world, but I would recommend people at least skim through the book. There are a few ideas you can learn, and try to take with you as you are reading other books of history or even in your day to day life as you are thinking about WHAT MOVEMENTS YOU BELONG TO and also WHAT MOVEMENTS YOU WANT TO CREATE.

None of this is to say the Church was/is all good. I focused primarily on interesting net new learnings I had from reading the book. There are a few chapters dedicated to a lot of the violence exhibited by the Christian movement that I think is worth reading if you are curious about the impact that violence may play in both this instance but also more broadly on civilization’s development. One reality I accept is that most things in life are not BINARY—not all good and not all bad. Surely they did at least some positive things for some people (and also many bad things). But as I said above, I am not making a religious argument that you should explore being Christian in any capacity (I am not Christian!).


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