Stark, Rodney. "Chapter 8: The Martyrs: Sacrifice as Rational Choice."The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997, 163-189.
Stark quotes Eusebius extensively as he describes early Christian martyrs who, in his opinion, "did not merely confront the threat of execution, for the governor was determined to break the Christian movement by using torture to force its leaders to recant" (Stark 1997, 163). While sources in antiquity considered Christian martyrs to be brave and despise death, Stark observes that modern analysts have suggested there were "obvious symptomos of psychopathology" (Stark 1997, 165). Social scientists, trying to explain people who make sacrifices for religion often conclude that the behavior is irrational. Stark sees this as a bias extending to all sorts ofreligious behavior, including "prayer, observance of moral codes, and contribution of time and wealth" (Stark 1997, 166). Stark finds considerable evidence that many religious behaviors are based on rational choices rather than on an irrational element. This premise allows for actual scientific study of behavioral patterns (Stark 1997, 167). Stark therefore considers that conversion to Christianity may be related to rational choices.
Stark begins "with a theoretical proposition: Religion supplies compensators for rewards that are scarce or unavailable" (Stark 1997, 167). The scarce reward, in this case, would be something unavailable in our earthly existence. The compensator would be the proposed method for receiving the reward. He admits the challenge in a religious claim of eternal life that the reward itself is invisible in this world. The ultimate claims cannot be evaluated with certainty (Stark 1997, 169).
When we consider choices, rationality is normally assumed. In light of the compensation and our expectation of an outcome, we decide whether or not we will participate in the offer (Stark 1997, 169). Different people, in different circumstances, will make different decisions. Yet in general, people make reasoned choices. Stark is clear that some of the rewards people find in religious behavior seem very costly, such as taking on a life of wervice to the poor. Yet it is insulting to say that Mother Teresa did not find her work rewarding and worth the cost (Stark 1997, 171).
The compensators, or inducements, to participate in a religious life, are normally made known by a community in which the religion is practiced. Stark suggests that seeing a community collectively promoting the religious view is a strong argument to adopt that religious faith (Stark 1997, 172). Purely personal expressions of faith are very tenuous. They have no contextual support. For this reason, Stark expects to see high levels of commitment in groups "that are very strict about their confessional requirements of membershiop. Doubters lower the value assigned to compensators" (Stark 1997, 173). Additionally, Stark sees value in the personal testimonials of tangible benefits, such as improvement in quality of life, family relationships, or, for instance, the ability to resist temptation to drub or alcohol abuse. In Stark's assessment, religious martyrs, who gain nothing in earthly terms for their faithfulness, are the most powerful testimony to the value they place on their faith (Stark 1997, 174).
One of the problems often experienced in communities is "the free-rider problem" (Stark 1997, 174). In this situation, some who join with the organization do so only to reap the benefits but not to contribute to its work. The solution Stark proposes is that successful religious movements make rather costly demands (Stark 1997, 176). These costly demands are not necessarily monetary costs. Taking on a potential social stigma may be effective, as would making a social sacrifice. As examples Stark mentions shaving heads or wearing unusual clothing (Stark 1997, 176). Those who participate do so in such a way as to take on some of the identity of the group.
Stark goes on to consider the cost and commitment of early Christianity. The first Christians had a considerable list of prohibitions, as well as a number of activities they would engage in, to "care for the sick, infirm, and dependent, for example" (Stark 1997, 179). However, the possibility of torture and death stand out as very high commitments, especially for a reward which is intangible. Stark notes that many early Christians recanted when faced with torture. He also sees persecutions as somewhat rare and not always resulting in death (Stark 1997, 179). Even severl hundred deaths in a persecution in a large city is a small fraction of the population. However, it was a real possibility and was faced by some without hesitation (Stark 1997, 180).
Stark uses Ignatius as an example of a martyr. He was already a leader, the bishop of Antioch. On the way to his execution he journeyed through Asia Minor with ten soldiers. They allowed him time to preacha nd meet with Christians, but those who met him did not seem in danger of arrest (Stark 1997, 180). Stark notes that Ignatius' letters depict a person who is victorious and on his way to his final destination (Stark 1997, 181). In many ways Ignatius is similar to other martyrs, later associated with "the cult of the saints." Martyrdom was seen as the final step of fame and honor (Stark 1997, 182). The average Christian was apparently in little danger. The outstanding leader would potentially gain the honor of being one of the few martyrs.
Christianity holds out a proise of eternal life. Stark sees in the earliest Christian teaching an expectation that the end would come very soon (Stark 1997, 184). The simple fact that Christians were aging and dying may have challenged this message. Loss of hope may have been increased if the Christian movement did not seem to be expanding very quickly. Stark suggests that, according to the pattern of growth he charts, the first generation may have only seen a few thousand converts, at least after the initial growth spurt. Many religious movements will revise their promises about the end of the first generation (Stark 1997, 185).
Stark sees the martyrdoms of James, Peter, and Paul, all in the sixties, as a strong factor in identifying martyrdom as a sign of honor (Stark 1997, 186). The fact that the three primary leaders of Christianity laid down their lives willingly in hope of the future resurrection would serve as a very credible testimony of their belief (Stark 1997, 188).
Stark adds that the Christian life was also considered rewarding from an earthly perspective. Christians engaged in loving worship, giving to the poor, and care for the sick and dying. These activities were doine within the Chrisitan community first, then directed outward. Christians could expect help in times of need (Stark 1997, 188)l They also had a culture of respect for family and of honor directed across the lines of social and economic chasses. These temporal benefits, along withe the promse of eternity, must have been powerful motivators to join with the Christians.