A review of The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, by Rodney Stark

In The Rise of Christianity (1997), Rodney Stark, a professor of social science at Baylor University, argued persuasively that Christianity grew so explosively in the classical world because it brought superior benefits to rich and poor, men and women, slave and free, the young, old, and infirm. The ancient pagan physician Galen marveled, for example, that Christianity helped ordinary people attain virtues that only the rarest of philosophers achieved; the rabidly anti-Christian Emperor Julian lamented that Christian charity put pagan efforts to shame. Stark's book, published ten years ago, did not let us forget such witnesses.

His latest book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, continues along the same path, though with less persuasiveness. For all its contributions to the modern West, it would be difficult to say that Christianity "led to" the nice things with which Stark would like to credit it. Large historical currents just do not fit such neat conceptualizations. Yet despite his overambitious goals, he does manage to clear away a lot of historical junk. Two main prejudices—one stemming from the Reformation, the other from the Enlightenment—have distorted our view of the religious past. The Reformers, understandably, labored to portray Catholicism as both spiritually and materially benighted, and therefore tended to dismiss virtually the whole religious history of the West until the 16th century. Many of the Enlightenment figures in the 18th century were happy to join them, and to toss the additional 200 years of both Catholicism and Protestantism onto the same ash heap.

But we know a lot more about Western history today. Stark makes quick work, for example, of the old and still influential theory of the German sociologist Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5), who argued that the Reformation, particularly Calvinism, had generated the spirit of hard work, "this-worldly asceticism," orderliness, punctuality, reliability, rationality, and entrepreneurship that led to Western prosperity. So strong is Weber's influence that the anti-West crowd in the developed and developing nations often condemns Christianity for inspiring Western economic and political imperialism.

Influential sociology can still be bad sociology, however. Henri Pirenne had already observed in the 1920s that "all of the essential features of capitalism—individual enterprise, advances in credit, commercial profits, speculation, etc.—are to be found from the twelfth century on, in the city republics of Italy—Venice, Genoa, or Florence." These were not the successes of mere handicraft workers and spice traders, either. Hugh Trevor-Roper and many others have traced "large-scale industrial capitalism" back to its roots in the extensive networks of monasteries flourishing in the "Dark Ages," when the local monks preserved classical learning, reclaimed lands that had gone back to their wild state after the fall of Rome, and developed new techniques to make their lives and the lives of local villagers less burdensome, thereby freeing themselves up for contemplation. People in English- and German-speaking countries were willing to lend Weber an ear, however, because the center of European economic activity did shift north and west with the opening of the trade routes to the Orient around Africa, and the discovery of the New World. Fernand Braudel sums this up: "The northern countries took over the place that earlier had so long and brilliantly been occupied by the old capitalist centers of the Mediterranean. They invented nothing, either in technology or business management."

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The Enlightenment charge that Christianity is irrational superstition fares hardly better. Stark claims that Christianity's influence on the West took two particular forms. First, Christianity—though ultimately rooted in the unfathomable mystery of God and the equally mysterious presence of God in Jesus—is primarily a religion of reason and logic, not of intuition and mystery. In this perspective, Christianity did what ancient religions did not, placing the logos, the creative word or reason, which it equated with Jesus, at the very heart of things. As St. John famously put it at the very beginning of his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word [logos] and the Word was with God and the Word was God." John was using a Greek term here that means both word and reason. But Stark believes that Greek philosophy had little influence on Greek religion and that Christianity, by contrast, showed natural affinities for rational thinking.

Obviously, this is already a large claim that invites a multitude of questions and qualifications. Stark does not, however, leave things there. His second main contention is that the discipline of theology that arose among the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church demonstrates a belief in the possibility of progress in the knowledge of God, even though God is finally beyond our grasp. He contrasts this, in sweeping and unswerving generalization, with—basically—everything else:

assumptions concerning the fundamental inexplicability of the gods and the intellectual superiority of introspection dominated all of the other major world religions. But from the early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase their understanding of scripture and revelation. Consequently, Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past.

This is a deliberate challenge to the usual historiography that sees rationality and progress as the result of the abandonment of Christian thought. Stark's judgment of that Enlightenment self-evaluation is equally sweeping: "Nonsense. 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."

The "entirely" in this last sentence is just one of many generalizations that will give pause even to someone who sympathizes with Stark's overall effort. Somehow Stark believes that the Christian embrace of reason and progress—about which he is right, up to a point—also led to technology, more rational institutions, personal freedom, and capitalism. "These were the victories by which the West won." But there is a lot of blue sky between the basic principles and their real-world applications, and a fair reading of his own evidence, quite eye-opening at many points, does not lead to as clear a conclusion as he tries to draw.

Stark argues that Jews and Muslims primarily believe in revelation as a divine law to be applied. Christians, by contrast, he thinks of as living in a world to be progressively discovered and more accurately understood. In Augustine and the great medieval scientists, philosophers, and theologians, the gift of reason and its fruits are highly valued, so much so that, far from being irrational, the medieval Christian thinkers were quite prepared to use more reason than most of the world can easily bear. And this made the emergence of modern science, despite its conflicts with theologians, more natural in the West than the standard textbooks allow. Indeed, the old "war between religion and science" is not much supported by recent scholarship in the history of science. And every credible modern history of technology has uncovered how much of what we think of as Western innovation began in the so-called Dark Ages. 

Just a quick inventory of some of these advances is astonishing. Ninth-century Paris already had water-powered mills; England, in 1086, according to the Domesday Book, boasted 5,624 of them. Belgium and Holland could reclaim lands from the sea because windmills had constantly pumped out water for centuries, beginning in the Dark Ages. Standard textbooks are usually reliable about the improved horse collar, the three-field system, and other anonymous inventions that made a great difference to the West's advances. They much more rarely note the monasteries' fish farming (the major source of fish in Europe), agricultural diversification, and mechanical inventions. (Some ecologists, like the historian Lynn White, Jr., however, have discovered these facts only to deplore the Christian contributions to environmental problems.)

We tend to think of a monastery as a simple series of monk's cells. The English historian Christopher Dawson has pointed out that as early as 820 a large monastery such as St. Gallen in Switzerland was "a vast complex of buildings, churches, workshops, store-houses, offices, schools, and alms-houses, housing a whole population of dependents, workers, and servants like the temple cities of antiquity." Such establishments obviously had vast effects on the surrounding countryside as well. Of course, merchant ships, war, and the weapons of war were to give the West still other advantages, as did that peculiar medieval Christian invention, the university. In the Age of Discovery, Stark points out, only the West had eyeglasses and mechanical clocks. All this, he rightly says, was overlooked in the overblown Renaissance and Enlightenment notions about the "rebirth" of antiquity—which had never exhibited such progress in science or technology.

Furthermore, by the ninth century, the monks had developed many of the institutions needed for an international "capitalism," not merely the productive capacities but the managerial and financial instruments as well. By the High Middles Ages, for example, the Knights Templars served as a kind of American Express bank by issuing letters of credit that could be redeemed in, say, the Holy Land, so that pilgrims and other travelers did not need to run the risk of carrying money that could be stolen en route. The Templars had a high reputation for honesty, which made the system run smoothly. The larger monastic system of trade was refined and developed further by the great banking houses that grew up alongside commerce in Venice, Florence, and Genoa. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the banks were themselves involved in various industries and served a dual function, facilitating both the transfer of goods and the transfer of money across political jurisdictions.

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The problem with all this, however, is that Christendom is not the same as Christianity. Historical and economic forces at work in the former are not always and simply consequences of the latter. Stark makes it clear, for example, that the West benefited from the fall of Rome—which opened up spaces for small jurisdictions to operate with a certain degree of autonomy. But why did these developments not lead to the perpetual and self-destructive rivalries that had existed among city-states in ancient Greece? And what about those international networks of monasteries that managed and administered trade and finance? Stark points out the many interest groups involved in these networks, which played off one another and made liberty possible despite state pretensions. But what does this have to do with the religious basis of society?

And what of the parts of Europe that did not enjoy these advantages? Spain has long been the prime example of the wrong-headedness of a politicized Catholicism. All the silver and other wealth of the New World could not raise it up. Stark claims that Spanish Catholicism did not choke off development in Spain because Spain never rose in the first place. But this contradicts his thesis that Christianity is the source of rationality and progress. You may argue, as he does, that state tyranny in Spain and elsewhere retarded or blocked the Christian world view's basic dynamism. This is to admit, however, that there are many factors that can deflect a metaphysical orientation and, therefore, determine how or whether Christianity will produce its proper social effects.

Indeed, the shift in the center of European economy from the great central Italian cities to the Netherlands and Britain, though not the result of Protestantism, reflects how much depended on wholly non-religious factors. Global exploration, for example, spelled the beginning of the end for the vast empires of Venice, Florence, and Genoa as trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Though Stark invokes "tyrants" as partly the reason for Italy's decline, there are geographic factors involved as well, and it would seem odd to blame geography for the failures of Christian impulses towards freedom.

Rodney Stark's case, then, is a mixed one. As in several previous books, he uncovers many positive contributions of Christianity, both in its pre-Reformation and post-Reformation forms, to the civilization of the West. This is no small achievement, particularly when we are embroiled in a bitter debate about what the West is, where it is headed, and on what basis we shall proceed. But though he persuasively defends the free societies and economies that are permeated by the specific view of God, man, and the world stemming from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, he tries to make the religious tradition carry too much weight here. He deftly corrects one historical injustice, but at the risk of contributing to another.