|How Christianity Loomed Behind the Success of the West
WACO, Texas, 14 JAN. 2006 (ZENIT)
The conventional wisdom that Western
success depended on overcoming religious barriers to progress is "utter
nonsense," says the author of a new book. Rodney Stark defends this
thesis in "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom,
Capitalism, and Western Success" (Random House).
Stark, a professor of social sciences at Baylor University, maintains
that, in contrast to other beliefs that emphasize mystery and intuition,
Christian theology privileges reason. This factor
not geography, a more productive agricultural system, or the Protestant
is behind the rise of the West, he argues.
The author observes that this view contrasts with the position of many
20th-century Western intellectuals. They maintained that the West surged
ahead of other cultures precisely to the degree that it overcame
religious barriers to progress. What credit they do give to religion was
limited to acknowledging Protestantism's contribution, as if the
previous 15 centuries of Christianity were of little import, says Stark.
In a chapter on the union between reason and theology in Christianity,
Stark lays out why he disagrees with these intellectuals. The rise of
the West, he contends, was based on four primary victories of reason:
Faith in progress within Christian theology;
The transmission of this faith in progress into technical and
organization innovations, many of them fostered by monasteries;
Reason informed political theory and practice, allowing personal
Reason was applied to commerce, resulting in the development of
A gift of God
From the first centuries of Christianity the Fathers of the Church
taught that reason was a gift from God and the means for increasing
understanding of Scripture and Revelation. Eastern religions, by
contrast, lacked the figure of a conscious, all-powerful God who could
be the object of theological reflection.
Judaism and Islam did have the concept of a God sufficient to sustain
theology. But within these religions the tendency was toward a
constructionist approach that conceived scripture as something to be
understood and applied, not as the basis for further inquiry.
Christianity sees God as a rational being and the universe as created by
him. Thus, a rational structure awaits human comprehension. And rising
to the challenge have been theologians in the Catholic Church, who over
the centuries engaged in careful reasoning that led to the development
of Christian doctrine. Leading thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas
Aquinas, Stark explains, celebrated the use of reason as a means to gain
insight into divine intentions.
So when the scientific revolution of the 16th century came along, it was
not a sudden eruption of secular thinking. Rather, it stemmed from
centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastic thinkers, and it
was sustained by the 12th-century Christian invention, the universities.
Stark dedicates a chapter to exploding the idea of the "Dark Ages." Long
before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment came about, European
science and technology had long surpassed the rest of the world. The
idea that medieval times were a period of stagnation "is a hoax
originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic,
eighteenth-century intellectuals," writes Stark.
It was in these centuries that water and wind power were extensively
developed, allowing for enormous advances in the manufacture of goods.
And notable advances in agricultural technology increased yields that
enabled the feeding of towns and cities.
Far from opposing such technical advances, Christianity welcomed and
promoted them. By contrast, both the Ottoman Empire and China opposed
the construction of mechanical clocks, for example.
Nor did economic activity have to wait for Protestantism in order to
flourish, Stark contends. The monastic orders created a sort of
proto-capitalism. Spurred by increases in productivity due to
technological advances, the monasteries led the trend away from a
subsistence economy, toward a system of specialization and trade. In
turn, this facilitated the rise of a cash economy, as opposed to barter,
and the creation of credit and moneylending.
Monasteries also developed a work ethic and an appreciation for the
value of economic endeavor
long before the advent of Protestantism.
Moreover, Christian (i.e., Catholic) theologians refined ideas in
relation to the charging of interest and the just prices of goods
elements essential to the development of capitalism. Stark also devotes
ample space to outlining the development of capitalism in the Italian
city-states, which spurred flourishing economies centuries before the
Freedom and equality
While the conditions for developing capitalism have existed in a number
of countries, sometimes the essential element of freedom was missing,
thus impeding economic progress. Freedom, Stark argues, is a victory of
reason and one supported by Christian theologians who had long theorized
about the nature of equality and individual rights. In fact, the work of
later secular political theorists, such as John Locke, often rested on
ideas developed by Church scholars.
Christianity in general teaches the value of the individual and
emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility in moral decisions.
Linked to this is the concept of free will. This was a radical change
from the past, evident, for example, in literature. Stark suggests
comparing the Greek tragedies, where the characters are captives of
fate, with Shakespeare, where the protagonists are clearly responsible
for their actions.
Stark further argues that the birth of democracy in Western Europe owes
its origins, not to a recovered Greek philosophy, but to Christian
ideals. The classical world provided examples of democracy, but these
were not rooted in assumptions of the equality of all citizens. The
ideals taught in the New Testament, however, laid the basis for
affirming the fundamental equality of all persons.
Property rights, another vital precondition for capitalism, also owe
their origins to Christianity. Both the Bible and major theologians
defend private property. Aquinas argued that owning property is inherent
in human nature.
Christian teaching also greatly contributed to the concept of the
separation of church and state, and to the limitation of a sovereign's
powers over citizens. These two factors enabled the West to avoid the
dead-end of a political system that leads to the arbitrary and unlimited
use of political authority, which hinders the development of a modern
Reason and faith
Stark does not lay claim to any great originality in his ideas. He
points out that eminent historians such as Henri Pirenne and Fernand
Braudel long ago established that historical facts contradict the notion
that the Protestant work ethic was the force behind capitalism.
Then, in 1925, noted philosopher and mathematician Alfred North
Whitehead declared that science arose in Europe because of the faith in
the possibility of science, in turn derived from medieval theology. Yet
these truths have been obscured by popular myths, says Stark.
In concluding, Stark asks if Christianity is irrelevant to modernity,
now that science and capitalism are so firmly established. But, he
hastens to inquire, If Christianity were irrelevant how can we explain
its rapid expansion in many countries?
Stark observes that in Africa Christian groups are booming, and in many
parts of the world Protestant churches are converting large numbers of
people, or perhaps more accurately, Christianizing many who previously
had not practiced their nominal religion. Christianity has also grown in
China, despite government opposition.
"For many non-Europeans, becoming a Christian is intrinsic to becoming
modern," Stark affirms. Reason and faith, it seems, are not destined to
be opposed, a truth that awaits rediscovery by many in the West.