Monday, September 12, 2011

The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark

Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. New York: Random House, 2005.

Rodney Stark argues in The Victory of Reason that the West grew to prominence in science, technology, commerce, and power because of its foundations in Christianity. Personal freedom, democracy, and capitalism grew and eventually flourished in Western Civilization because Christianity provided a philosophy and set of beliefs that such things were possible, achievable, and valuable. These things failed, stumbled, and declined in other parts of the world because the cultures, particularly religions, that prevailed there supported philosophies and beliefs that lead another direction.

It starts with a notion of God that is almost unique to Christianity: God is a being of reason. Therefore they could use human reason, however imperfect, to understand God and increase our understanding of Him. Christian theology wasn’t simply asserting scripture, but reasoning about God and His Word to increase, refine, and improve knowledge and doctrine.

The Christian faith embraced progress through reason in doctrine. Christians looked forward to becoming progressively better believers. God is immutable, but those who believe Him can grow in understanding as they mature and with successive generations. This religion of belief contrasted with religions of practice, which inherently looked backward to established law.

These foundational beliefs in reason and progress carried over into Christian views of the physical world. It was a real place made by God. In addition, because God created the world using His reason, we can understand it using ours, just as we can use reason to increase our understanding of God. This belief gave impetus to modern science. Some credit goes to the ancient Greek philosophers, some of who had faith in reason and others in experimentation, though not both at the same time. Islamic philosophers admired, preserved and closely studied the Greeks. However, it was Christians who took these resources and added their own worldview to create modern science. Early scientists were Christians, often supported by the church directly or through universities, which were connected to the church at the time. Western nations gained a lead in science that they still hold.

Progress carried over to social and political issues as well. In particular, Christian beliefs about human equality made the church a leader in the abolition of slavery in Europe and later the Americas. It also gave rise to increasingly democratic governments, personal freedoms, and property rights. This created an environment where capitalism could flourish. Capitalism love technological development, and it didn’t hurt that it was growing in cultures that were amenable to science, and these things grew together creating new levels of freedom, opportunity, and wealth. Christian theologians had the flexibility and reasoning power to adapt doctrine to these new developments while remaining true to received scripture.

Stark supports his arguments with examples from history. One of the more interesting things about the book is the way he compares examples from the Christian world to counterexample from other cultures, such as China or Islam. China was a prominent, technologically advance culture that did not hold its lead. Islam preserved Greek knowledge during Europe’s supposedly dark ages, but did not advance. It was the late bloomers in the Christian West who had the philosophical tools to build success upon success. He also contrasts the winners and decliners in Europe and the Americas, showing how successful and wealthy nations became that way by embracing religious liberty, democracy, and capitalism, while those that declined held to or recreated feudal systems.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
Copernicus’ Secret by Jack Repcheck
Descarte’s Secret Notebook by Amir D. Aczel
God Wants You to Be Rich by Paul Zane Pilzer
How We Got Here by Andy Kessler
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization by Anthony Esolen
The Richest Man Who Ever Lived by Steven K. Scott
The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek