In my local library I stumbled across "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success" by Rodney Stark. Since he seems to be a popular writer among some Christians who contribute to this forum, I thought I would take a look.
In his book, Stark argues that Christianity is responsible for reason, freedom, and science. He says that "the success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians." In a startling counter-factual claim, Stark announces: "had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls". Stark adds that if it wasn't for Jesus, we would live in a world where "most infants do not live to the age of five and many women die in childbirth".
These are pretty strong claims for Christianity: the success of the West rests ENTIRELY on religious foundations, and all the people who brought it about were DEVOUT Christians. For Stark's thesis to stand, he needs to address several challenges to it, and unfortunately I think his book does not satisfactorily address those challenges.
The first challenge facing Stark's thesis is the need to explain away the accomplishments of pre-Christian classical European civilisation - the achievements of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Stark ascribes freedom, individualism, democracy, science and technology to Christianity, yet these concepts are not promulgated in the New Testament, but ALL of these concepts are strongly and clearly advocated in pre-Christian Ancient Greek thought.
The Ancient pre-Christian world of the West produced Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Archimedes, Hippocrates, Euclid, Galen, Cicero, Plautus. It somehow managed to do all of this without Jesus and without the Bible.
Personally, I do not recall much praise of intelligence in the Gospels. In contrast, Ancient Greece's leading thinkers were notable for their defence of reason, perhaps in contrast to the New Testament, which frequently instructs people to embrace "faith".
Stark's grasp of the achievements of the Ancient world is tenuous. He says that "Ultimately, Greek learning stagnated of its own inner logic [what does that mean?] . After Plato and Aristotle very little happened beyond some extensions of geometry". But some of the greatest work in Greek science, e.g. Ptolemy in geography and astronomy and Galen in medicine, took place over the four hundred years after Plato and Aristotle. How can Stark leave out Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Plotinus, Galen, Hipparchus, all of whom were writing in the centuries after Aristotle? Most historians of science give the Greeks precedence in science, but Stark says he knows of no real Greek achievements after Aristotle, which is when much of the greatest Greek work in science took place. If one wanted to be harsh, one could say that this level of ignorance disqualifies Stark from being taken seriously.
The next challenge for Stark's thesis is to explain why Christian Medieval Europe was not obviously superior to the other great centres of Eurasian civilisation at that time, such as China, India and the Muslim world. Stark would also need to explain away the accomplishments of these non-Christian civilisations, which happened with little or no influence from Jesus or the Bible.
During the Middle Ages (from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century to the beginning of the Early Modern period in the 16th century) Christianity dominated European intellectual life. One could argue that the civilisational accomplishments of Europe in this era were inferior to those of the Ancient European era that preceded it, as well as to the Modern European era that followed it. In fact, before the spread of the water-mill after 900 AD, Medieval Christian Western and Northern Europe contributed hardly anything in terms of innovation - and even between 1000 and 1450 the flow of philosophical ideas and technological innovations was predominantly from the Muslim world (and elsewhere) to Christian Europe, rather than vice versa. The reason for this? The non-Christian centres of Eurasian civilisation frequently had more to offer Christian Europe, than Christian Europe had to offer them.
To take the most obvious example, Medieval China was technologically more advanced than Christian Medieval Europe. China had invented the iron plough, matches, the compass, gunpowder, paper, printing - many of these technological advances only became known in Europe towards the end of the Christian Middle Ages. China's naval power was also superior to that of Europe during this period. All in all, China's cultural achievements (Confucianism, Taoism etc.) had not been noticeably inferior to those of anywhere else. China managed to accomplish all of this without Jesus and without the Bible.
Nevertheless, the Christian world did have some accomplishments during the thousand years of the Middle Ages, and it would be churlish not to recognise them. But it would also be churlish not to recognise that, when these accomplishments occurred, many of them were very strongly influenced by non-Christian sources. For example, the greatest Christian thinker of the Middle Ages (Aquinas) owed much to the pagan Aristotle and the Muslim Averroes - so much so that in his writings Aquinas referred to the former as simply The Philosopher, and the latter simply as The Interpreter. Aquinas's cosmopolitanism and open-mindedness to non-Christian sources is a refreshing contrast to Stark's blowhard "it-was-all-down-to-Jesus" nonsense.
Another point: if the West's supposed "innovation" and "superiority" in the Middle Ages can be attributed to Christianity, then why were the same "advances" not realised in the Byzantine east, where Christianity also reigned? In other words, any unusual advances (if they occurred) in Medieval Western Europe need to be explained by factors other than Christianity, since Byzantine Europe was also Christian.