ISR News & Events

Celebrating Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences

Longtime Baylor University professor Rodney Stark passed away at his home in Woodway, Texas, on July 21, 2022. One of the world’s preeminent figures in the sociology of religion, in 2004 Stark joined the faculty of Baylor as Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences. In 2005, he agreed to become co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) with Byron Johnson.

Stark grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, and began his career as a newspaper reporter. Following a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, he received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He left Berkeley to become Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, where he taught for 32 years before retiring in 2003.

Stark was a prolific and pioneering scholar and is widely considered a father of the modern field of the sociology of religion. He published 40 books and more than 150 scholarly articles on subjects as diverse as prejudice, crime, suicide, and city life in ancient Rome. However, the greater part of his research and writing was on religion. It is what he was most known for and what he will be remembered for.

Stark was a past president of both the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. He also won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. He twice won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, for The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (1985) and for The Churching of America 1776–1990 (1992). His most celebrated book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (1997), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

While at Baylor, in 2006 Stark became the founding editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal for Research on Religion(IJRR), published by ISR. The final publication of his career appeared in the journal in 2022, co-authored with several Baylor colleagues, and used national population data to debunk the prevailing narrative that religion in the U.S. is on the decline.

Stark’s move to Baylor, following his earlier retirement from Washington, surprised many people because, as he noted on many occasions, he did not like universities. But he accepted the opportunity to join Baylor not because the world needed another great university, but because he felt the world needed a great university that was Christian. His decision to accept Johnson’s invitation was a bellwether of the rise of ISR as the academic world’s leading institute for social, historical, and policy-related research on religion. Throughout his career, he trained many of the leading social scientists of religion, including Baylor’s Paul Froese, all of whom revere him and are perpetuating his legacy.