Christianity's link to scientific, political and economic progress
THE VICTORY OF REASON
by Rodney Stark
(Random House, 2005, 281pp, hardback, $49.95. Available from AD Books)
Many Western nations today are anxious to distance themselves from their Christian heritage and ever-eager to apologise for Christianity's alleged crimes or excesses of the past. The European constitution - fortunately rejected by France and Holland to date and still languishing - makes no mention of Europe's Christian roots, despite John Paul II's efforts in the years before his death in 2005.
In many countries in Europe, North America and Oceania, Christianity has been increasingly marginalised from the public square to the realm of private religious practice.
The present book, The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, an American university professor of social sciences and Berkeley graduate, comes as a breath of fresh air, setting the historical record straight and overturning a host of myths that have grown up in recent decades regarding Christianity as an enemy of progress in past centuries.
Not surprisingly the book has been attacked in the United States and elsewhere by the upholders of political correctness averse to letting facts get in the way of a good story.
This difficult-to-put-down book examines the success of the West and how it was able to leave the rest of the world behind by the time of the Middle Ages. The key factor was that faith in reason, integral to Christianity's commitment to this understanding of the world.
Professor Stark advances the revolutionary, controversial and long overdue idea that Christianity and its related institutions were directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, political, scientific and economic breakthroughs of the past millennium.
Christian theology, says Stark, is the very font of reason. While the world's other great belief systems emphasised mystery, obedience or introspection, Christianity alone embraced logic and deductive thinking as the path towards enlightenment, freedom and progress.
There were no Dark Ages, he argues, as this period was the incubator of the West's future glories. Encouraged by the Scholastics and embodied in the great medieval universities founded by the Church, faith in the power of reason permeated Western culture, stimulating the pursuit of science and the evolution of democratic theory and practice. The rise of capitalism was, says Stark, "also a victory for church-inspired reason, since capitalism is in essence the systematic and sustained application of reason to commerce - something that first took place within the great monastic estates."
Myths that Muslim Arab civilisation kept the flames of civilisation burning while Europe languished in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages are put to bed. While Islamic scholars kept ancient Greek and Roman learning alive, their culture did nothing with it.
Stark reminds us that during the "Dark Ages", there were such key inventions as clocks and bells to tell the time and deep-earth ploughs that revolutionised agriculture. European "round" ships, and compasses to tell direction at sea, enabled international transport, communication and travel to occur at an increasing rate.
At the same time, Christian ideas about personal freedom and individual rights led to the abolition of slavery and the enshrining of property rights in the Magna Carta.
The long-held belief that the Protestant work ethic was responsible for kick-starting capitalism in England and Holland is debunked. In fact the medieval Catholics of Venice, Genoa and other Italian city-states invented capitalism and representative government centuries before England and Holland.
There is much more in this fascinating, thought-provoking book.
In his conclusion Stark notes that many in China - which is now embracing the West's capitalism, if not its democratic institutions as yet - have been converting to Christianity. According to a leading Chinese scholar, among other things, it is because Christianity is inseparable from modernity - something no other world religion or secular creed can claim.
"In the past 20 years", he says, "we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this."
It is ironic that belated recognition of Christianity's link with world progress is coming from outside the West, just when the West has developed a hatred of its proud past.