on December 11, 2005
An acquaintance who just took a medieval history course at a local junior college was quoted to me as saying something to the effect that "Anyone who knows anything about medieval history could never be a Christian." At least since Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", it has been fashionable to trash Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, blaming Christianity for every imaginable evil in the modern world.
While Christians have done their share of evil during history, Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) has done more than its share of good. In high school and college I learned that Greco-Roman Culture served as the cornerstone of Western Civilization, with the Jewish cult of Christianity serving as a religious veneer. Rodney Stark, in a trilogy of well researched, well reasoned books, turns that idea on its head. Christianity is the cornerstone of Western Civilization and Greco-Roman Culture is the veneer.
"The Victory of Reason" is the third in a series of books studying the influence of Christianity on Western Civilization, the first two being "For the Glory of God" and "One True God." Each of these books looks at different aspects of Western Civilization to determine how they were influenced by Christian theology. How were they influenced? Profoundly!
"The Victory of Reason" looks at the concepts of freedom and capitalism, and how they were natural outgrowths of both Christian theology and favorable economic conditions. Along they way, Stark makes some iconoclastic statements and backs them up with sound argument. e.g. The fall of the Roman Empire was a good thing. The Dark Ages were more progressive and enlightened than the Classical World.
Taken together, "The Victory of Reason," "For the Glory of God," and "One True God" make a very strong case for the proposition that were it not for Christianity (particularly the Catholic Church), we'd probably still be living in a pre-industrial, pre-scientific world dependent in large measure on slave labor.
Stark acknowledges the evil done in the name of religion, but unlike some of his fellow academics, he does not ignore the good. For a similar treatment of the influence of Christianity on Western Civilization, read Thomas Woods' "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization."
on June 4, 2007
The first paragraph alone is worth the price of this book. The paragraph clearly states the question that every educated person must frequently ask himself, but avoids discussing in public, i.e., why did other societies not advance as did the West? I have never seen an adequate treatment of this question.
Recently "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond claimed that geographic determinism is the dominant factor controlling cultural development. While one of the most interesting and entertaining books I have read in years, GG&S fails to convince, most notably in the case of China, the progress of which Diamond says was severly attenuated due to "Beaureaucratic" reasons. This is an insuffiecient answer. As Stark would say, the question needs to be asked, why did the beaureaucracy do this?
(As I have always wondered, why did the Chinese invent gunpowder, but not develop guns or cannon?, paper but not the printing press, books and a system of libraries?)
If readers can set aside our culturally sanctioned prejudices against Christianity and especially Catholicism, and approach the book with an open mind, they will be immediately captivated as I was from the first few sentences. Truly one of the most illuminating and rewarding books I have ever read.
on June 2, 2006
I was prepared to dislike this book. For one thing, I am not a fan of the "dismal science," and knew the story Stark was telling here was largely economic. Also, although I am a Christian, and even an apologist, it seemed to me that his last three books on the subject already proved that Christianity benefited Western culture. Enough, already! It seemed overkill to claim the Gospel led not only led to science, an end to slavery, a higher status for women, and better care for the sick, but also the Bank of America and Microsoft! And having read the book, I concede justice in some criticisms below. Stark (and others) persuade me that Medieval Europe was the freest, most prosperous great civilization on earth to date. He does not persuade me, though, that Rome never really fell; and while something may indeed have been gained for the common man in escaping the heavy imperial thumb, something was lost, too -- like literacy.
But never mind that. If you are thinking of reading this book, you may already have strong views on the effect Christianity has had on civilization. Those views will mislead you. Whether you agree or disagree with Stark's viewpoint, this book is worth reading. Why? Because it is chock full of interesting historical facts that you will not learn elsewhere. Because it connects those facts into a fascinating (even on economics!) history of the rise of Western civilization, from Italy to the "Low Countries" to England to America. Most of this book tells that story. You can ignore the argument at the beginning and end, and still profit and enjoy reading the tale, full of sound and fury, signifying much. Not that you should ignore the argument! I respect the Humanities prof below, who does not much cotton to Stark's Christian views, but learns from him anyhow, disagrees with respect, and retains an open mind about disputed claims.
Some reviewers seem less open-minded. One pastor comments,
"Most appalling is that Stark would use Christianity to support a system (capitalism?) which is detrimental to the poor, outcast, and marginalized." This is absurd. Stark shows in great detail that nothing has helped the poor more than capitalism, and nothing hurt them worse than statism. Someone else (perhaps reading that comment!) remarks, "To equate Christianity with reason is a bit of a stretch." To make that equation more plausible, see the anthology of comments by great Christian thinkers entitled "Faith and Reason" on my web site, christthetao.com. A few reviewers use the words "Galileo" and
"Inquisition" like a charm, to ward off the force of Stark's arguments. They need to read Stark more carefully, not only this book, but also For the Glory of God and perhaps One True God. I also highly recommend his remarkable essay,
"Secularization, RIP." The fun thing about Stark, even the early, agnostic Stark (of A Theory of Religion and The Rise of Christianity), is his extraordinary talent for thinking outside the box, and for coming to original, counter-intuitive, yet surprisingly plausible conclusions. Stark is, without a doubt, one of the most original and interesting thinkers in the world today.
author, Jesus and the Religions of Man
on December 27, 2005
In an essay that recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, author Rodney Stark explained the thesis of his book "The Victory of Reason" this way:
"A series of developments, in which reason won the day, gave unique shape to Western culture and institutions. And the most important of those victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth. Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy. But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions. Those remained typical mystery cults, in which ambiguity and logical contradictions were taken as hallmarks of sacred origins. Similar assumptions concerning the fundamental inexplicability of the gods and the intellectual superiority of introspection dominated all of the other major world religions."
Other reviewers, seemingly bogged down in the particulars of precisely when a "reason-friendly" breakthrough occurred, are missing the point; Christianity, specifically the Christianity long-protected by the Catholic Church, built the arena in which "the victory of reason" could take place. It *always* did. Like all things Catholic, this victory or development flowered over centuries, with collections of blooms gathering here and there to prove the point, e.g., the capitalistic and Catholic cities of twelfth and thirteenth century Northern Italy.
Stark's book continues a growing line of historical correction whose pace has accelerated in recent years. Michael Novak debunked Max Weber's unsupported "Protestant ethic" almost twenty years ago, while authors Thomas Woods ("How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization") and, just recently, Michael Foley ("Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?") have offered worthwhile contributions in recent months. May the trend continue.
Readers seeking a copy of Stark's Chronicles essay should perform a Google search of the words "How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and the Success of the West".
on April 28, 2006
Christianity led to a desire to know. For example, theology developed in Christianity to a greater extent than other religions because Christianity favored reason. In contrast, Islam and Judaism favored orthopraxis (correct religious practice) over orthodoxy (religious reasoning).
Reasoning also eventually led to the rise of science in the West. In other cultures, including ancient Greece, science only grew to a small extent before stagnating. Scientific discoveries in non-Christian cultures never led to long-term self-sustaining scientific pursuits because they were viewed as received wisdom to remember instead of received wisdom to test and improve upon. Stark soundly refutes the Dark Ages canard, an invention of 19th century antireligionists. He lists numerous scientific advances that occurred during the so-called Dark Ages, and how they propelled Europe far above ancient Greece or Rome, and above other contemporary cultures.
The concept of human liberty is often incorrectly traced to 18th-century freethinkers. In actuality, the concept of human liberty, an idea utterly foreign to most cultures, developed gradually out of Christian teachings on the dignity of the human person. Stark shows, for example, that John Locke, who wrote on the natural rights of man, developed his ideas from earlier Christian thinkers on this subject.
Stark devotes considerable attention in his book to the development and growth of capitalism. He shows that capitalism, at least the sustained variety, cannot exist in the absence of freedom. In such situations, wealth is not invested for the growth of additional wealth. Instead, despots confiscate the wealth for themselves, and those without power are encouraged to produce as little to get by as necessary while concealing whatever wealth they get in fear of its confiscation. (Although Stark does not mention this, his statements make us wonder about the Big Government schemes afoot in the US and the way they stifle the growth of wealth in American capitalism).
Stark rebuts the common belief that capitalism grew out of Protestantism. He shows that earlier stages of capitalism developed in such countries as Italy and England as early as the 11th century, long before the Reformation. He traces the relative poverty of many Catholic countries like Spain to despotism, not Catholicism.
on May 29, 2007
I had a tremendous time reading this book. The historical information is well written and documented, and a thrill to read. The thesis of the book is radical--in terms of what is acceptable in most circles--and compelling. The notion that Christian theology, when allowed to have its way, lifts the human condition through deep-rooted beliefs in reason and human dignity will not surprise Christian theologians, but it clearly surprises plenty of others.
I had not noticed how colored my own view of Western history was until this book. Stark convincingly challenges the standard view that religion, specifically Christianity, was the great progress-inhibitor of an enlightened ethic. Because of its view that reason is a gift given by God to be used by humans to investigate the world and free humans to be who they were created to be, Western society flourished wherever a Christian worldview thrived. Stark goes to great pains to show that the moments of regress in Europe and the New World were not primarily a result of church oppression, but of despotism, command economies overthrowing capitalistic societies, and the suppression of church influence.
Many of the negative reviews of this book take shot at a straw man. Stark does not argue that every contribution the Christian church made to Western society was good--as if every Bishop or Pope was wholly good. In fact, he notes a few of the problems along the way. A second error some of the negative reviews make is mistaking Stark's basic argument. Stark argues that Christian theology is uniquely suited for a belief in reason and progress, and that that is what lead to the basic components necessary for the development of Western society. To argue, in light of Stark's thesis, that Europe advanced like it did because of the printing press, religious freedom, or any other traditional theory, is like saying that we have automobiles because there are automobile plants. Using this analogy, Stark's argument addresses why Western society built automobile plants and nobody else did. His answer is that Christian theology laid groundwork that no other religion or society had the resources to lay.
This is a wonderful book that has the capacity to enthrall the reader with what feels like new discovery.
on March 19, 2006
Rodney Stark's "The Victory of Reason" is a startling, original, and masterful refutation of the arrogance and disinformation that masquerades as progressive thinking within the academy, especially that which concerns the rise of civilization in the West. As the author illustrates with many well documented examples and case histories, the so-called Dark Ages were anything but dark, and the high culture that arose in Europe during the Middle Ages was unique, unprecedented, and never duplicated in any other culture, East or West.
All civilizations rise from religion, and the Christianity which emerged from the ashes of the Roman empire fostered independent thinking, respect for the worth of the individual, a commitment to liberty and autonomy, the ideas of progress and exploration, as well as the foundations of modern commerce from which capitalism would naturally evolve. The author provides a capsule of the thinking of Augustine, Aquinas, and the Church Fathers that informed the age, demonstrating how faith in a living God who rewards virtue and punishes sin helped to mold the character of Europeans during a most remarkable millennium.
While Stark concedes there were missteps at various times and places, when prelates overstepped their roles and authority, Christianity reflexively opposed slavery and oppression and championed free will, accountability, and compassion. Stark writes that "Christianity was founded on the doctrine that humans have been given the capacity and, hence, the responsibility to determine their own actions." In such a world, fatalism was impossible and reason was essential. Comparisons presented in the text with the reasoning of other faiths - pre-Christian paganism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Communism, and secular humanism - provide an eye-opening contrast.
The lengthy middle section of the book presents a chronicle of the birth of commerce and self-governance in Italy and central Europe, revealing the degree to which reason combined with trial and error led to the formation of the modern world. Eighteenth-century intellectuals - Voltaire, Rousseau, and the like - advanced the canard that all the world was immersed in ignorance, superstition, and darkness before their time. They claimed responsibility for awakening the human mind from the Dark Ages: in truth, the anti-authoritarian, anti-clerical, anti-rational world they created turned out to be a somber and blood-stained affair - leaving behind a tragic view of life that sadly haunts the academy to this day.
In this work, Rodney Stark demonstrates persuasively how "Christianity created Western Civilization," and he describes with compelling insight the process by which the engines of reason and progress were combined to transform our world. His review in the concluding chapters of the explosive growth of Christianity around the world is captivating, even as it raises many troubling questions about the intellectual and moral decadence of Christian culture and the West today. The author's reputation as one of the most insightful analysts of the emergence and consequence of Christianity is well deserved. This imminently readable volume ought to be essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the roots of contemporary culture and how our world came to be as it is.
on January 9, 2007
In Part I: Foundations Rodney stark makes a strong case for the way distinctly Christian ideas led to rational (as opposed to magical) thought, technical and cultural progress, and personal (as well as socio-political) freedom. His thoroughly footnoted and succinct summaries make for interesting reading. The introduction through page 69 is worthwhile reading and does justify the purchase of this book.
In Part II: Fulfillment the author discusses the rise of capitalism in Italy and the spread of the capitalistic system throughout Europe. This is treated in a mostly linear fashion that is fairly easy to follow. He describes how the ascetic or "puritanical" ideas of frugality and humility and the "protestant work ethic" have often been said to have created an environment conducive to capitalism. His belief is that Christianity did NOT contribute to capitalism because of puritanical docrines, but rather through encouraging individuality and freedom. While I tend to agree with his thesis here, the second half of the book may have bitten off more than can be "chewed" in the scope of this project. The history is a bit too complex, and he starts getting into sectarian differences which really obscures the picture. The segment about "Catholic" anticapitalism as related to Spanish and French despotism was a little confusing and I'm not sure if it contributed strongly as an argument for the ideas put forth in the second half of the book. A good background in Occidental history would be very helpful if you hope to read this section critically.
Overall, it was an interesting book: it was well-written, thoroughly documented, and clearly organized. I would have liked to see the topics weighted more heavily towards the freedom and rationality angles, and less heavily towards the capitalism angle. Even so, I would say that this book is an excellent rebuttal to the fashionable tendency to "bash" Christianity for all the ills of the world.
on February 4, 2006
Rodney Stark's book is a spirited, thought provoking and cogently argued defense of the historical role Christianity has played in shaping the values and ideas which have been central to the Western idenity from the fall of the Roman Empire to the present day. It is also a great read.
Most interestingly perhaps is the fact that, quite contrary to the remarks of some of Stark's more critical reviewers, the book is NOT written from the perspective of a "conservative" or dogmatic Christian. Stark, himself a secular sociologist and self described agnostic, grounds his argument that Christianity was essential to the formation of modern science and all that flows from it in the perspective of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead, who first made this case in the 1920s, was clearly one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and far from a traditional "conservative" Christian. It seems that those reviewers who have mischaracterized this book as merely being biased in favor of conservative Christianity have done little more than reveal their own bias and agenda instead. Either that or they have simply misread and thus mischaracterized Stark and his Victory of Reason.
For those who are interested in a very readable yet academically sound book (some of Stark's previous books have been published by Princeton University) on the role of Christianity in shaping Western Civilization I highly recommend this book. Ignore those reviewers who are more interested in advancing their own agenda then they are in fairly reviewing and critiquing Starks's work. The book is a great intellectual adventure for the fair and open-minded reader.
on June 10, 2007
In the Acknowledgments, Rodney Stark says he intends this book for the general reader. If he means the casual reader, I'd say not quite. It's a bit too textbooky. I found myself engrossed by his thesis, and then kept reading to find evidence of it, of which there is plenty. Once he actually got into the nuts and bolts of Capitalism, and the history thereof, I got somewhat bogged down.
What I mainly learned from this book, to quote a Firesign Theatre record title, is that everything I know is wrong. I'm one of the few who learned the wrong things almost from their original sources, having read them in classes at college. These wrong things are generally believed, but most people never actually read these sources. One of them is that Capitalism arose from the Protestant work ethic after the Reformation. The other is the sustaining myth of the modern world, the Enlightenment (who named it that?) invention of the Dark Ages. What else didn't I know? That slavery was virtually wiped out of Europe by the end of the tenth century, and that when it returned in the New World, the pope excommunicated anyone who trafficked in slaves. The Enlightenment writers didn't mention that fact, since they were slave owners.
For me, the word "Capitalism" summons up the sort of abuses that Chesterton was always arguing against. But Stark, in very lengthy passages, explains its theory so that even this reader, with zero economic prowess, can grasp it. He shows that it can only flourish in a relatively free society, hence the "Western Success" of the subtitle. He also considers the paradox of "religious economies", concluding that state- established churches stagnate, while religious belief thrives in an environment of freedom and pluralism. The common core underlying that belief in the West is that the Creator has made a reasonable world that can be discovered by reason, a radically liberating idea that led to "Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success" in the Bright Ages.