Skip to main content

Reasonable Religion

How Christianity Loomed Behind the Success of the West

WACO, Texas, JAN. 17, 2006 (Zenit) - The conventional wisdom that Western success depended on overcoming religious barriers to progress is "utter nonsense," says the author of a new book. Rodney Stark defends this thesis in "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success" (Random House).

Stark, a professor of social sciences at Baylor University, maintains that, in contrast to other beliefs that emphasize mystery and intuition, Christian theology privileges reason. This factor -- not geography, a more productive agricultural system, or the Protestant Reformation -- is behind the rise of the West, he argues.

The author observes that this view contrasts with the position of many 20th-century Western intellectuals. They maintained that the West surged ahead of other cultures precisely to the degree that it overcame religious barriers to progress. What credit they do give to religion was limited to acknowledging Protestantism's contribution, as if the previous 15 centuries of Christianity were of little import, says Stark.

In a chapter on the union between reason and theology in Christianity, Stark lays out why he disagrees with these intellectuals. The rise of the West, he contends, was based on four primary victories of reason:

-- Faith in progress within Christian theology;

-- The transmission of this faith in progress into technical and organization innovations, many of them fostered by monasteries;

-- Reason informed political theory and practice, allowing personal freedom;

-- Reason was applied to commerce, resulting in the development of capitalism.

A gift of God

From the first centuries of Christianity the Fathers of the Church taught that reason was a gift from God and the means for increasing understanding of Scripture and Revelation. Eastern religions, by contrast, lacked the figure of a conscious, all-powerful God who could be the object of theological reflection.

Judaism and Islam did have the concept of a God sufficient to sustain theology. But within these religions the tendency was toward a constructionist approach that conceived scripture as something to be understood and applied, not as the basis for further inquiry.

Christianity sees God as a rational being and the universe as created by him. Thus, a rational structure awaits human comprehension. And rising to the challenge have been theologians in the Catholic Church, who over the centuries engaged in careful reasoning that led to the development of Christian doctrine. Leading thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Stark explains, celebrated the use of reason as a means to gain insight into divine intentions.

So when the scientific revolution of the 16th century came along, it was not a sudden eruption of secular thinking. Rather, it stemmed from centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastic thinkers, and it was sustained by the 12th-century Christian invention, the universities.

Medieval progress

Stark dedicates a chapter to exploding the idea of the "Dark Ages." Long before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment came about, European science and technology had long surpassed the rest of the world. The idea that medieval times were a period of stagnation "is a hoax originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth-century intellectuals," writes Stark.

It was in these centuries that water and wind power were extensively developed, allowing for enormous advances in the manufacture of goods. And notable advances in agricultural technology increased yields that enabled the feeding of towns and cities.

Far from opposing such technical advances, Christianity welcomed and promoted them. By contrast, both the Ottoman Empire and China opposed the construction of mechanical clocks, for example.

Nor did economic activity have to wait for Protestantism in order to flourish, Stark contends. The monastic orders created a sort of proto-capitalism. Spurred by increases in productivity due to technological advances, the monasteries led the trend away from a subsistence economy, toward a system of specialization and trade. In turn, this facilitated the rise of a cash economy, as opposed to barter, and the creation of credit and moneylending.

Monasteries also developed a work ethic and an appreciation for the value of economic endeavor -- long before the advent of Protestantism.

Moreover, Christian (i.e., Catholic) theologians refined ideas in relation to the charging of interest and the just prices of goods -- elements essential to the development of capitalism. Stark also devotes ample space to outlining the development of capitalism in the Italian city-states, which spurred flourishing economies ...

1 | 2  Next Page

Rate This Article

Very Helpful Somewhat Helpful Not Helpful at All

Yes, I am Interested No, I am not Interested

Rate Article


Leave a Comment

Comments submitted must be civil, remain on-topic and not violate any laws including copyright. We reserve the right to delete any comments which are abusive, inappropriate or not constructive to the discussion.

Though we invite robust discussion, we reserve the right to not publish any comment which denigrates the human person, undermines marriage and the family, or advocates for positions which openly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is a supervised forum and the Editors of Catholic Online retain the right to direct it.

We also reserve the right to block any commenter for repeated violations. Your email address is required to post, but it will not be published on the site.

We ask that you NOT post your comment more than once. Catholic Online is growing and our ability to review all comments sometimes results in a delay in their publication.

Send me important information from Catholic Online and it's partners. See Sample

Post Comment

Newsletter Sign Up

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Thessalonians 5:1-6, 9-11
About times and dates, brothers, there is no need to write to ... Read More

Saint of the Day

September 1 Saint of the Day

St. Giles, Abbot
September 1: St. Giles, Abbot (Patron of Physically Disabled) Feast day - ... Read More