I was recently informed that Rodney Stark passed away. For the uninitiated, Rodney Stark was a force of nature in the sociology of religion. His interests ranged from early Christianity to UFO movements, and agree with him or not, he was a giant in every field he engaged. His theories helped shape the strategies of the Church’s research division for a while, and he always had a soft spot in his heart for Latter-day Saints.
He didn’t win any popularity contests in sociology as an institution, but frankly that’s more to his credit in a field that doesn’t brook a lot of heterodoxy (either ideologically or in terms of subject matter). He blazed his own path and didn’t care one wit what others thought; he was a true iconoclast, and people will read Rodney Stark years after his more mainstream contemporaries are footnotes to footnotes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I believe I’m the last postdoc or student who had the opportunity to work with him. I don’t want to exaggerate our connection; he didn’t come into the office that much, and my memories involve a handful of meetings. As he was independently wealthy both from his textbook sales (as a former journalist he knew how to write, and disdained academic gobbly-gook) and his wife’s business, he could have retired decades ago, but he kept working even as his health started to decline.
A lot of anecdotes are being passed around online about Rodney Stark right now, so I’ll give mine. I had an idea for a paper that had the potential to be controversial and I was worried about what the mainstream sociologists would think; in our conversation I mentioned that I wasn’t of the X school of thought (I forget the exact context), and he immediately responded “well, I’m of the screw you school of thought!” And that, in addition to his copious use of “complete horsesh**!,” pretty much sums up the man. Following that lead, I continued to just research what I wanted, and while that didn’t lead up the well-tread, conventional academic path, I’ve ended up in a professional space and with a life that’s better than my wildest dreams in graduate school, and I think Rod would be proud of me.
Rod wanted to be a man of faith, but like many he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe despite tasting the goodness of religion. I would have loved to have been there a few moments after he drew his last and realized that the God he had spent half a lifetime defending did, in fact, exist.
Rod, until we meet again.