The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

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9781400062287: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
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Many books have been written about the success of the West, analyzing why Europe was able to pull ahead of the rest of the world by the end of the Middle Ages. The most common explanations cite the West’s superior geography, commerce, and technology. Completely overlooked is the fact that faith in reason, rooted in Christianity’s commitment to rational theology, made all these developments possible. Simply put, the conventional wisdom that Western success depended upon overcoming religious barriers to progress is utter nonsense.

In The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark advances a revolutionary, controversial, and long overdue idea: that Christianity and its related institutions are, in fact, directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, political, scientific, and economic breakthroughs of the past millennium.

In Stark’s view, what has propelled the West is not the tension between secular and nonsecular society, nor the pitting of science and the humanities against religious belief. Christian theology, Stark asserts, is the very font of reason: While the world’s other great belief systems emphasized mystery, obedience, or introspection, Christianity alone embraced logic and reason as the path toward enlightenment, freedom, and progress. That is what made all the difference.

In explaining the West’s dominance, Stark convincingly debunks long-accepted “truths.” For instance, by contending that capitalism thrived centuries before there was a Protestant work ethic–or even Protestants–he counters the notion that the Protestant work ethic was responsible for kicking capitalism into overdrive. In the fifth century, Stark notes, Saint Augustine celebrated theological and material progress and the institution of “exuberant invention.” By contrast, long before Augustine, Aristotle had condemned commercial trade as “inconsistent with human virtue”–which helps further underscore that Augustine’s times were not the Dark Ages but the incubator for the West’s future glories.

This is a sweeping, multifaceted survey that takes readers from the Old World to the New, from the past to the present, overturning along the way not only centuries of prejudiced scholarship but the antireligious bias of our own time. The Victory of Reason proves that what we most admire about our world–scientific progress, democratic rule, free commerce–is largely due to Christianity, through which we are all inheritors of this grand tradition.

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About the Author:

Rodney Stark is University Professor of the Social Sciences, Baylor University. Before earning his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, he was a staff writer for several major publications. Among his many books are the influential studies The Rise of Christianity and One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter one

Blessings of Rational Theology

christian faith in progress

theology and science

China Greece Islam

moral innovations

the rise of individualism

the abolition of medieval slavery
Theology is in disrepute among most Western intellectuals. The word is taken to mean a passé form of religious thinking that embraces irrationality and dogmatism. So too, Scholasticism. According to any edition of Webster’s, “scholastic” means “pedantic and dogmatic,” denoting the sterility of medieval church scholarship. John Locke, the eighteenth-century British philosopher, dismissed the Scholastics as “the great mintmasters” of useless terms meant “to cover their ignorance.”1 Not so! The Scholastics were fine scholars who founded Europe’s great universities and launched the rise of Western science. As for theology, it has little in common with most religious thinking, being a sophisticated, highly rational discipline that is fully developed only in Christianity.

Sometimes described as “the science of faith,”2 theology consists of formal reasoning about God. The emphasis is on discovering God’s nature, intentions, and demands, and on understanding how these define the relationship between human beings and God. The gods of polytheism cannot sustain theology because they are far too inconsequential. Theology necessitates an image of God as a conscious, rational, supernatural being of unlimited power and scope who cares about humans and imposes moral codes and responsibilities upon them, thereby generating serious intellectual questions such as: Why does God allow us to sin? Does the Sixth Commandment prohibit war? When does an infant acquire a soul?

To fully appreciate the nature of theology, it is useful to explore why there are no theologians in the East. Consider Taoism. The Tao is conceived of as a supernatural essence, an underlying mystical force or principle governing life, but one that is impersonal, remote, lacking consciousness, and definitely not a being. It is the “eternal way,” the cosmic force that produces harmony and balance. According to Lao-tzu, the Tao is “always nonexistent” yet “always existent,” “unnamable” and the “name that can be named.” Both “soundless and formless,” it is “always without desires.” One might meditate forever on such an essence, but it offers little to reason about. The same applies to Buddhism and Confucianism. Although it is true that the popular versions of these faiths are polytheistic and involve an immense array of small gods (as is true of popular Taoism as well), the “pure” forms of these faiths, as pursued by the intellectual elite, are godless and postulate only a vague divine essence—Buddha specifically denied the existence of a conscious God.3 The East lacks theologians because those who might otherwise take up such an intellectual pursuit reject its first premise: the existence of a conscious, all-powerful God.

In contrast, Christian theologians have devoted centuries to reasoning about what God may have really meant by various passages in scripture, and over time the interpretations often have evolved in quite dramatic and extensive ways. For example, not only does the Bible not condemn astrology but the story of the Wise Men following the star might seem to suggest that it is valid. However, in the fifth century Saint Augustine reasoned that astrology is false because to believe that one’s fate is predestined in the stars stands in opposition to God’s gift of free will.4 In similar fashion, although many early Christians, including the apostle Paul, accepted that Jesus had brothers,5 born of Mary and fathered by Joseph, this view came increasingly into conflict with developing theological views about Mary. The matter was finally resolved in the thirteenth century, when Saint Thomas Aquinas analyzed the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth to deduce that Mary did not bear other children: “So we assert without qualification that the mother of God conceived as a virgin, gave birth as a virgin and remained a virgin after the birth. The brothers of the Lord were not natural brothers, born of the same mother, but blood-relations.”6

These were not mere amplifications of scripture; each was an example of careful deductive reasoning leading to new doctrines: the church did prohibit astrology; the perpetual virginity of Mary remains the official Catholic teaching. As these examples demonstrate, great minds could, and often did, greatly alter or even reverse church doctrines on the basis of nothing more than persuasive reasoning. And no one did this better or with greater influence than Augustine and Aquinas. Of course, thousands of other theologians also tried to make their mark on doctrines. Some succeeded, most were ignored, and some of them were rejected as heretics: the point being that an accurate account of any aspect of Christian theology must be based on major, authoritative figures. It would be easy to assemble a set of quotations to demonstrate all manner of strange positions, if one selectively culled through the work of the thousands of minor Christian theologians who have written during the past two millennia. That approach has been all too common; but it is not mine. I will quote minor figures only when they expressed views ratified by the major theologians, keeping in mind that the authoritative church position on many matters often evolved, sometimes to the extent of reversing earlier teachings.

Leading Christian theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas were not what today might be called strict constructionists. Rather, they celebrated reason as the means to gain greater insight into divine intentions. As Quintus Tertullian instructed in the second century: “Reason is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason—nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason.”7 In the same spirit, Clement of Alexandria warned in the third century: “Do not think that we say that these things are only to be received by faith, but also that they are to be asserted by reason. For indeed it is not safe to commit these things to bare faith without reason, since assuredly truth cannot be without reason.”8

Hence, Augustine merely expressed the prevailing wisdom when he held that reason was indispensable to faith: “Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Augustine acknowledged that “faith must precede reason and purify the heart and make it fit to receive and endure the great light of reason.” Then he added that although it is necessary “for faith to precede reason in certain matters of great moment that cannot yet be grasped, surely the very small portion of reason that persuades us of this must precede faith.”9 Scholastic theologians placed far greater faith in reason than most philosophers are willing to do today.10

Of course, some influential churchmen opposed the primacy given to reason and argued that faith was best served by mysticism and spiritual experiences.11 Ironically, the most inspiring advocate of this position expressed his views in elegantly reasoned theology.12 Dissent from the priority of reason was, of course, very popular in some of the religious orders, especially the Franciscans and the Cistercians. But these views did not prevail—if for no other reason than because official church theology enjoyed a secure base in the many and growing universities, where reason ruled.13

christian faith in progress

Judaism and Islam also embrace an image of God sufficient to sustain theology, but their scholars have tended not to pursue such matters. Rather, traditional Jews14 and Muslims incline toward strict constructionism and approach scripture as law to be understood and applied, not as the basis for inquiry about questions of ultimate meaning. For this reason scholars often refer to Judaism and Islam as “orthoprax” religions, concerned with correct (ortho) practice (praxis) and therefore placing their “fundamental emphasis on law and regulation of community life.” In contrast, scholars describe Christianity as an “orthodox” religion because it stresses correct (ortho) opinion (doxa), placing “greater emphasis on belief and its intellectual structuring of creeds, catechisms, and theologies.”15 Typical intellectual controversies among Jewish and Muslim religious thinkers involve whether some activity or innovation (such as reproducing holy scripture on a printing press) is consistent with established law. Christian controversies typically are doctrinal, over matters such as the Holy Trinity or the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Of course, some leading Christian thinkers have concentrated on law and some Jewish and Muslim scholars have devoted themselves to theological issues. But the primary thrust of the three faiths has differed in this respect and with very significant consequences. Legal interpretation rests on precedent and therefore is anchored in the past, while efforts to better understand the nature of God assume the possibility of progress. And it is the assumption of progress that may be the most critical difference between Christianity and all other religions. With the exception of Judaism, the other great faiths have conceived of history as either an endlessly repeated cycle or inevitable decline—Muhammad is reported to have sa...

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