The story with Rodney Stark's work is a little more complicated than the story with Malina and Neyrey. First of all, Stark isn't a specialist in the New Testament or even in Roman history, but rather a sociologist whose work draws on the study of modern religious groups.
Holding makes two claims about Stark's work in his original essay:
1) "the critic is confounded by the fact that -- as has been observed by Stark and Meeks -- Christianity as a movement was top-heavy in the social status area"
2) "Rodney Stark has shown in The Rise of Christianity why the movement continued to grow once it got a foothold, but this does not address how it managed to get a foothold in the first place. So how did it happen?"
Carrier also uses Stark in a way that does not directly challenge Holding's use of his work when he looks at the question How Successful Was Christianity? At the same time, Carrier says Stark got things wrong without arguing this in detail; he takes for granted that ancient historians have already sorted out what Stark got right and wrong. I haven't been able to check Carrier's sources on this point, but I did read the William Harris anthology and the Keith Hopkins article, and what Carrier says seems to check out. Note that Holding's response to this section consists of nothing but a link to a TheologyWeb thread. I looked and the first couple pages and couldn't find anything to take even half-seriously. Maybe there's something requiring a response on page 32 of the discussion, but until someone bring it to my attention, I'm not going to worry much about defending Carrier's conclusions here.
A sketch of Stark's thesis
The essence of Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity, is that Christianity grew at a steady rate of about 40% per decade (comparable to high-growth modern groups) from a few thousand people in the first century to a significant fraction of the Roman Empire in Constantine's day, at which point Constantine facilliated the raising of the figure to %100 (note that this eventually involved violence). The growth rate Stark postulates is not unprecedented, but it is still quite strong, and he spends most of the book explaining this. Here's a chapter-by-chapter sketch:
Chapter 1: In addition to estimating the numbers, suggests social networks were important to Christianity's growth.
Chapter 2: Christianity appealed to upper and middle class persons, who were more susceptible to strange religions for a number of reasons. For example, they would have been more aware of the weaknesses in existing religions.
Chapter 3: Suggests that the non-Palestinian Jewish groups provided an important instance of the social networks alluded to in chapter 1, and that evangelism of Jews was even more important to Christianity's growth than is now realized.
Chapter 4: Argues plagues provided an opportunity for Christianity to grow. By simply providing food and water to eachother during outbreaks instead of fleeing to the country side as pagans did, Christians would reduce their mortality rate and increase their relative numbers, in addition to attracting pagan converts.
Chapter 5: Argues that Christianity's sexual norms both increased fertility and attracted female converts (in a world where women can be forced to have potentially lethal abortions by male relatives, women will welcome a ban on abortion).
Chapters 6 and 7: Talks about the importance of cities for early Christianity. Emphasizes that they were unpleasant places, and that the despair would provide a nice contrast for Christianity's message.
Chapter 8: Argues that the demands that Christianity placed on members helped it by keeping out free-rides and making the religion seem more credible. Martyrs exemplified this. The decision of martyrs was not totally irrational, typically persecutions focused on leaders who knew they would be immortalized in death.
Chapter 9: Explains how Christianity's exclusivism gave it an advantage in the excessively pluralistic pagan setting.
Chapter 10: "A Brief Reflection on Virtue." Unsurprisingly brief, does some summary work, emphasizes that Christianity benifited from the nature of its doctrines.
Because this sketch is brief and I'm relying to a significant extent on memory, there's considerable imprecision here. Nothing hinges on most of these details, where one of these points is important, I'll be more precise below.
Importantly, Holding doesn't dispute that Stark's explanations are good ones, he just says Stark has left unexplained how Christianity got going. So first question: is that true?
Short answer: no.
Longer answer: Stark gives no reason to think so, and drops many hints he thinks his ideas apply to all of Christianity's history.
Full answer: On page 3, Stark poses a rhetorical question: "Did Christianity grow so rapidly that mass conversions must have taken place—-as Acts attests and every historian from Eusebius to Ramsay MacMullen has believed?" This suggests he will be dealing with all of early Christian history. Then on page 5, he argues Acts is wrong: "according to Acts 21:20, by the sixth decade of the first century there were 'many thousands of Jews' in Jerusalem who now believed. These are not statistics. Had there been that many converts in Jerusalem, it would have een the first Christian city, since there probably were no more than twenty thousand inhabitants at this time."
Midway through Chapter 6, on evangelism of the Jews, he opens a section on "Networks" by saying, "Let us put ourselves in the position of the evangelists: here we are in Jerusalem in the year 50... (p. 61)" How would you go about getting converts? Go to Hellenized Jews: "In all the major centers of the empire were substantial settlements of diasporan Jews who were accustomed to receiving teachers from Jerusalem. Moreover, the missionaries were likely to have family and friendship connections within at least some of the diasporan communities (p. 62)." This shows that early Christians could have gotten a foothold in many major cities with nothing more than the Palestinian Jewish-Christians they had in 50 A. D. This is even more problematic than the first passage. If Holding is to claim he's using Stark honestly, he must say that it is these original Jewish-Christians that were the inexplicable foothold he was refering to. Yet this is hardly plausible, since that group would have been dominated by pre-crucifixion followers of Jesus, and Holding gives no indication that his argument is of the "how did Christianity survive the crucifixion" sort. Maybe Holding thinks it was vitally important for them to gain the several hundred converts they (maybe) gained in between 30 A. D. and 50 A. D., yet these can be explained with only a slight extention of Stark's social-networking thesis.
The essence of the problem here: Stark claims to be able to provide an account of Christianity's growth without ever referencing miracles, and rather than deal with him, Holding engages in a bunch of handwaving, saying Stark left the earliest part of Christianity's growth unexplained, without any argument or basis in what Stark actually said. It would have been more honest to simply ignore Stark.
Just to throw in one more kicker: When discussing the role of plauges in Christianity's growth, Stark suggests that the religion's (naturalistic) exploitation of the circumstances might have been attributed to the supernatural: "As Kee has so powerfully reminded us, miracle was intrinsic to religious credibility in the Greco-Roman world.. Why then should we not accept that 'miracles' were being done in New Testament times too, and that people expected them as proof of religious authority?... Against this background, consider that a much superior Christian survival rate hardly could seem other than miraculous… and who was to day that it was the soup they so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them, rather than the prayers the Christians offered on their behalf? (p. 90)" Note the scare quotes around "miracle": Stark is talking about things we have no clear reason to think of as real divine interventions events. Though he doesn't argue the matter in detail, there is no real question that religious figures can convince others that they have healing powers without doing any real healing. I see no need to argue this myself, since Holding's writings already contain disparging references to modern Christian healers; I can rest my case by pointing out that this is another instance where Stark argues he can explain even the earliest parts of Christianity's story.
First, let's see if we can sort out who's right on the facts of this issue (as opposed to the explanations for the facts). Stark claims that Christianity did well among the middle and upper classes for two main reasons. One, an appeal to authority: "Since Judge first challenged the proletarian view of the early church, a consensus has developed among New Testament historians that Christianity was based in the middle and upper classes (p. 31)." On the contrary, Keith Hopkins, an actual historian cited by Carrier, says, "It seems generally agreed that Christianity did not initially attract converts from among the ruling strata of senators, knights and town-councillors, or not in significant numbers, at least until the third century." He expresses some ambivalence about this view, but seems to ultimately think it probable, since he later introduces an argument with the clause, "if our argument is granted that almost no Christians, in the first two centuries c.e., were recruited from the ruling elite of senators, knights and town-councillors..." So Stark is mistaken about the scholarly consensus.
It's the nature of Stark's second argument, however, that's really problematic for Holding:
pp. 37-38: Here it is sufficient to point out that as weaknesses appear in conventional faiths, some people will recognize and respond to these weaknesses sooner than others... Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the more privileged.What Holding needs is hard evidence that Christianity appealed to the upper classes, and no naturalistic explanation. What he in fact has with Stark is an argument that it makes perfect sense for Christianity to have done well among the upper classes. Holding is inventing a mystery here.
But skepticism does not entail a general immunity to the essential supernaturalism of all religions… Moreover, people who report their original religious background as 'none' are extremely overrepresented in the ranks of converts to new religious movements...
But can it really be true that it is the priviledged who are most likely to embrace new religious movements? This is precisely what we ought to expect when we realize that conversion to a new religion involves being interested in new culture—indeed, in being capable of mastering new culture.
When this is put together with Holding's use of Maline and Neyrey, we begin to see a pattern: Holdine mines legitimate scholars for ideas that he can use in his mystery mongering, and either ignores or waves away their explanations for the phenomena under discussion. Once again, I repeat: Holding is not to be trusted.