Reasonable Religion

How Christianity Loomed Behind the Success of the West

WACO, Texas, JAN. 14, 2006 ( 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 Reformation — 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 freedom;

— Reason was applied to commerce, resulting in the development of capitalism.

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.

Medieval progress

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 Reformation.

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 economy.

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.

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