The West and Modernity

Freedom, Property Rights, and Religion

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The unique contribution of Western civilization to world history is the theme of Rodney Stark’s latest book, “How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity,” (ISI Books).

In his previous book, “The Victory of Reason,” Stark examined in detail the contribution made by Christianity to Western civilization. His new book concentrates more on general cultural factors, without ignoring the contribution made by Christianity.

His book, he noted in the introduction, is “remarkably unfashionable.” Typically, today in universities, courses in Western civilization are depicted as being excuses for Western hegemony and oppression.

Why is it, Stark asked, that the Western Europeans were able to achieve such a remarkable level of technological superiority compared to other regions of the world? While factors such as climate and natural resources can play a role, Stark focused above all on the role of ideas.

How is it, he asked, that science developed to the degree that it did only in the West? “We owe this belief partly to the ancient Greeks and partly to the unique Judeo-Christian conception of God as a rational creator,” he said.

Stark then goes on to an extensive historical overview, ranging from Greek and Roman society, through the following centuries up to the scientific developments in the early modern world, the period of colonization, the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution.

Faith and progress

In relation to the role of religion Stark said that “faith in progress was fundamental to western Christianity.” This was in contrast, he noted, to Orthodox Christianity and to Islam.

Stark also offered interesting reflections on the role of Christianity in the rise of capitalism. The Bible may well condemn greed, but it does not condemn commerce, he noted. Evidence of the positive role of Christianity is the flourishing of the Italian city-states.

The Christian conception of God, he continued later, “continually prodded the West along the road to modernity.”

Stark concluded by observing that building a modern society depends on much more than just owning cell phones and drinking Coca-Cola. Democracy is sorely lacking in Middle Eastern countries and in China, he noted.

“A substantial degree of individual freedom is inseparable from Western modernity, and this is still lacking in much of the non-Western world,” he commented.

Western modernity has its limits and defects, Stark admitted, but it is better than any of the alternatives. This is so not so much because of its superiority in technological matters, but because of its commitment to freedom, reason, and human dignity.

Law and ethics

The fact that religion had a crucial role to play in the development of Western civilization was recently highlighted in the inaugural lecture in England by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who last week spoke on the topic of Ethics and the Bible at King’s College, London. The topic was “The relevance of the Bible for law and ethics in society today.”

In his lecture, the press release of March 19 explained, he spoke about seven aspects of biblical ethics, “each of which, he argued, played a part in the development of the Judeo-Christian ethic that led the West to develop market economics, democratic politics, human rights and the free society.”

The seven characteristics were: human dignity; freedom and responsibility; the sanctity of life; the concept of guilt as opposed to shame; the significance of marriage as the matrix of society; society as a covenant; and since every society is the result of the covenant, it means all human power, all political authority, is subject to the transcending authority of the Divine.

He concluded by saying, in words that echo many statements made by the Catholic Church, that: “‘If we no longer make a distinction between law and morality, if we rely entirely on the market economy, on laws and on regulatory bodies we will have the kind of economic malfunctioning that we have today with greater and greater inequalities and economic behaviour that should be unacceptable.”

At the beginning of his lecture Lord Sachs quoted a conversation by historian Niall Ferguson with a member of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences.

This person was dealing with the question of why the West overtook China in the 16th century and went on to achieve much greater industrial and scientific progress.

“At first, he said, we thought it was because you had better guns than we had. Then we thought it was your political system. Next we thought it was your economic system. But for the past twenty years we have had no doubt: it was your religion.”

The tragedy today would be for society to turn its back on religion, supposedly in the name of progress, only to find that it has shut off the greatest source of its success.

YouTube video of lecture by Lord Sachs –

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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