The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
The Reason for Everything
A review by Alan Wolfe
"Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect," concludes Rodney
Stark in his new book, "most of you would not have learned to read and the rest
of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls." I had always known that Jesus
Christ was a pretty important person, but I had not quite realized that were it
not for him, there would be no one to buy Rodney Stark's books.
Jesus, Stark goes on, is responsible for more than liberating us from scrolls; to him goes the credit for all of Western civilization. If he had remained a Jew, we would live in a despotic world bereft of science and reason. Lots of women would die giving birth, and a significant percentage of children would not live past age five. Firmly ensconced in the dark ages, our societies would be horrendous places to inhabit, lacking "universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos."
Thought experiments have their place, but Stark's, it must immediately be said, is vile: even the most notorious anti-Semites give Jews credit for the banks. What respectable academic discipline would even consider Stark's ugly little scenario? It would not be called history. While there has been a flurry of interest in "counterfactuals" among historians -- would the world have been better off, Niall Ferguson has asked, if Britain had not entered World War I? -- most such efforts are little more than "parlor games," as E.H. Carr once characterized them. If they serve any serious purpose, it is to suggest the importance of caprice in human affairs. But Stark's counterfactual is triumphalist rather than tentative. We are not meant to reflect that any religion might have emerged out of the Roman Empire to become number one in the world rankings and that Christianity just happened to become the Duke among faiths. Stark proposes his hypothetical only to gloat over Christianity's inevitability. How foolish to think that the Jews -- like the unfortunate Arians, Nestorians, Donatists, or Manichees -- could have launched the modern world into being.
Of all kinds of historians, students of intellectual history would especially refrain from Stark's speculative fancy. Even after Jesus transferred away from the Jewish team, those obscure sectarians managed to produce Maimonides roughly a century before the Christians begat Aquinas. In this, they had something over the Arians after all. But because Stark wants to prove that "Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth," Maimonides, to whom Aquinas was more than willing to acknowledge his debt, makes no appearance in The Victory of Reason. Nor does the Jew Spinoza, born in the same year as John Locke, although Locke, a Christian, can be found three times in Stark's pages. Intellectual history would not leave out so many intellectuals.
Nor would social scientists allow their minds to wander where Stark's does. Max Weber did not write The Protestant Ethic and the Absence of Capitalism. The quintessential German mandarin, Weber laced nearly every conclusion he reached with qualifications. Even when searching for causality, he was sufficiently repelled by Marxism to avoid reducing all of history to one guiding mechanism. Filled with a Lutheran sense of responsibility, which Stark mistakenly describes as "academic anti-Catholicism," Weber cautioned social scientists to "recognize 'inconvenient' facts." Weber may not have had a sense of humor, but he did have an ironic disposition; he knew that human beings act rationally as well as irrationally, and he fully understood that those who try to do good in the world can end up doing bad.
Rodney Stark presents himself as the anti-Weber; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in his view, is not only wrong, it is so obviously wrong that no one could be expected to take it seriously. About that, Stark is mistaken; books such as Weber's make their contribution to ideas not by being correct in every particular, but by establishing whole new lines of inquiry that survive for decades. But Stark is right to contrast himself to Weber more generally, for missing in Stark's book is Weber's care and caution, while present in abundance is the simplification, the mono-causality, that Weber abhorred. Consider one sample of Stark's writing:
During the past century, Western intellectuals have been more than willing to trace European imperialism to Christian origins, but they have been entirely unwilling to recognize that Christianity made any contributions (other than intolerance) to the Western capacity to dominate. Rather, the West is said to have surged ahead precisely as it overcame religious barriers to progress, especially those impeding science. 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.
It would be difficult to imagine four sentences more antithetical to the spirit of Weber than those. When Stark chooses an adjective, he chooses the strongest one he can find: "entirely" appears twice in this passage. When he makes a generalization, he ignores evidence to the contrary; scholars such as Perez Zagorin recognize the contribution Christianity has made to tolerance. When he rejects the conclusions of others, he does so root and branch by calling them "nonsense." When he describes the party he favors -- the Christians -- he cannot help but call them "devout," which he always means as a compliment. Finally, Stark owes more to Lenin than to Weber; agitprop, disdain, perfect certainty -- all the Marxist arsenal is here, deployed not on behalf of class struggle but in the name of religious sectarianism.
Stark's proper academic discipline is what used to be called apologetics. (It still is taught at an occasional seminary or faith-based college.) He would return scholarship to an era in which the techniques of inquiry were marshaled to defend one faith against another -- against all others. University Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University, Stark attributes the triumph of science to Christianity, but he does not tell us whether Jesus is also responsible for modern sociology. He should have pondered that question, for if an approach to the human sciences premised on disinterested inquiry and respect for the empirical realities of the real world represents one step in reason's victory, Stark himself has never been touched by the spirit of reason that he celebrates.
Let us begin at the beginning. Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Archimedes,
Euclid, Galen, Cicero, Plautus: none of them was Christian. Yet the classical
world produced two philosophers that would rank on any list of the world's greatest,
a superb literature both comic and tragic, art that remains on display in every
great museum, principles of geometry still taught today, the theory of the atomic
composition of matter, the basic principles of medicine, the art of rhetoric,
an empire or two, and engineering projects capable of inspiring awe. So the
first challenge facing Stark's thesis is the need to explain away the accomplishments
of classical civilization.
Greek science may seem impressive, Stark responds, but it was not really scientific;
instead, the Greeks pioneered "lore, skills, wisdom, techniques, crafts, technologies,
engineering, learning, or simply knowledge." Science, we are told, has two components:
theory and empirical research. Any Greek thinker who engaged in one never engaged
in the other: "either their work is entirely empirical or it does not qualify
as science for lack of empiricism, being sets of abstract assertions that disregard
or do not imply observable consequences." Stark concedes that Democritus was
on track when he proposed the atomic theory of matter, but he never was able
to "anticipate scientific atomic theory." As a result, his findings constituted
sheer luck, or, as Stark calls it, "a linguistic coincidence." The atomic theory
of matter is no more scientific then the speculations of Empedocles, who believed
that all matter was composed of earth, air, fire, and water.
There are many ways to evaluate the accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and
Romans. One -- the most obvious -- is to compare them with other civilizations
of their time. By that standard, their discoveries really do amount to a golden
age of creativity. Stark forbids himself to take such an obvious path, unprepared
as he is to accept that any non-Christian, under any conditions, could ever
rank number one (Stark's way of thinking really is this vulgar) in anything.
And so he proposes another method: modern science as we know it depended on
the scientific revolution launched in the sixteenth century; classical Greece
existed before the sixteenth century; therefore classical Greece's accomplishments
were not scientific. This is like saying that the Greek god Mercury, however
swift, was a failure because he holds no running records in the National Football
Not only is Stark's reasoning anachronistic, it knows nothing of how scientific
discovery really works. Yes, there was a great scientific revolution in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There may, for all we know, be another
one in the twenty-second or twenty-third century. If that were to occur, many
of the conclusions that contemporary scientists have reached will be overturned.
But this does not make the theory of relativity or natural selection unscientific
now. What we know now about the natural world is the best available knowledge
to us. What the Greeks knew then about their world was the best available knowledge
to them. Scientific revolutions do not obliterate what scientists used to believe
so much as they build upon -- and then radically surpass -- earlier contributions.
When Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants, Stark tells us, he
could not really have believed such a thing, because it was not reflected in
his work. I think we can reliably trust Newton's reflections on the debts he
incurred more than Stark's efforts to put words into Newton's mouth.
Unlike Stark, the earliest Christians were impressed by the achievements
of the Greeks. That is why they tried to suppress them. Paul did not know much
about Plato and Aristotle, but he knew enough to worry that logoi would
be less compatible with the Christian theology he was expounding than muthos.
Paul, writes Charles Freeman in The Closing of the Western Mind, "may
have been unsettled by his confrontation with the pagan philosophers in Athens.
His response was to hit back with highly emotional rhetoric, the only weapon
at hand. So for Paul, it is not only the Law that has been superseded by the
coming of Christ, it is the concept of rational argument, the core of the Greek
intellectual achievement itself." (Freeman's book, which highlights the many
ways early Christians stood in the path of reason, puts Stark's conclusions
and evidence to shame. Stark does not seem to know of its existence, though
it appeared only a few years ago.) Paul gave Christians what they desperately
needed to survive as an embattled community: faith. His greatness is not to
be doubted; there is, Freeman continues, a depth and a power in his letters
that is missing in the more placid writings of the Stoics and Epicureans. But
one should never confuse Paul's passion with logic and empiricism.
It was only later, most strikingly in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas,
that Christian theologians began to make their peace with reason. Stark can
hardly restrain his enthusiasm for both these thinkers. A naïve believer, he
remarks, may conclude from the story of the Wise Men that astrology is a valid
science, but Augustine was too rigorous a thinker to accept such a conclusion.
Using the power of reason, he deduced that astrology must be false: a God who
gave human beings free will could not also have accepted that a human being's
fate can be determined by the stars. Augustine's greatness, according to Stark,
lies in his optimism; God's "unspeakable boon" was to endow human beings with
a "rational nature."
With Aquinas, Stark continues, "the Christian commitment to progress through
rationality reached its heights." Christian doctrines were not to be accepted
merely because they had a scriptural basis; they had to be proved through logic.
Like Augustine, Aquinas found a "profound humanism" in God's creatures; God
did not reveal each and every truth through his word but left behind hints that
allowed, indeed required, human beings, using the powers of reason, to interpret
and understand his intentions.
Stark is certainly correct to emphasize the accomplishments of these remarkable
figures. But to do so, he violates the methods he used to evaluate the contributions
of the Greeks. Recall that Stark never judges Greek thinkers by comparing them
with their contemporaries. This, however, is exactly what he does with Augustine
and Aquinas; their accomplishments are lorded over the inability of theologians
from other traditions to achieve the same level of brilliance. There were no
theologians in Eastern religions at all, according to Stark, because all such
religions, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, lack the idea of an
all-powerful God whose essence is nonetheless understandable. Jews and Muslims
do share with Christians such an idea of God, he goes on, but these faiths are
handicapped by their legalism -- another hoary and unpleasant stereotype. They
lack an idea of progress. (No idea of progress, in Judaism?) They do not pose
questions of ultimate meaning. (Yes, he really says that.) They debate precedents
rather than engage in doctrinal controversy. They are the religions that encourage
scriptural literalism because their great prophets, Moses and Muhammad, unlike
Jesus, left written texts behind. (Yes, he says that as well. Clearly he knows
nothing whatsoever about the ancient and medieval opposition to literalism in
Judaism.) Only Christians could advance the cause of reason, because only Christians
believed in progress and possessed a theology encouraging human curiosity.
In a similar way, Stark, who claims that the Greeks could not advance the cause
of modern science because they lived before the scientific revolution of the
sixteenth century, claims that the work of Augustine and Aquinas, one of whom
lived in the fourth century and the other in the thirteenth, "was the key to
many intellectual undertakings, among them the rise of science." Newton, it
would seem, stood on the shoulders of giants after all.
In Stark's book, players can never be identified without a scorecard;
it is as if all great thinkers carry around a placard announcing their religion,
and then they are all sorted into those who helped thought move forward and
those who held it back. Nowhere in such a treatment is there room for the possibility
that any particular thinker could find himself in two camps at once. But Augustine
certainly did. In his Confessions, we see a thinker who understood that
if men were created by God, the greater the men, the greater the God; but the
tone of Augustine's later writings is much darker. This more orthodox thinker
was not afraid to attribute increasing importance to the doctrine of original
sin, thereby taking back much of the free will he had once attributed to human
beings. Once a critic of Manichaeism, Augustine became more sharply dualistic.
Formerly appreciative of the contributions of non-Christians, he became more
insistent on the need to correct their false doctrines. An early optimist, he
became increasingly pessimistic. Augustine remained fascinating to such twentieth-century
thinkers as Arendt and Niebuhr because he wrestled with both the liberating
and the oppressive aspects of his faith. Such a complicated figure cannot be
placed into Stark's own Manichaean intellectual history.
Compared with Augustine, Aquinas is a model of consistency. Yet it makes as
little sense to fence off Aquinas as merely a "Christian" thinker as it does
to maintain that Augustine was as committed to reason late in his life as he
was earlier. In the world in which Aquinas wrote, Greek, Jewish, Islamic, and
Christian thought all borrowed from one another. "Accept the truth, whatever
the source," Maimonides insisted, quoting the Talmud, and as David Novak has
pointed out in First Things, this was a dictum to which Aquinas, who
"treated with respect all great theologians and philosophers irrespective of
religious differences with them," adhered. Searching for a way to bring to Christians
a greater respect for the intellect than they had inherited from Paul, medieval
scholars such as Aquinas turned back to the Greeks, and in so doing they paid
their debts to the Muslim scholars who had preserved Europe's classical heritage.
All theologies at the time took what they liked and abandoned what they did
One of the examples Stark proposes to justify his attribution of
special status to Christian theology illustrates this theological bricolage.
Was Jesus born to a virgin? The early church leaders were not sure; Paul, for
one, thought that Jesus had brothers, which would make the case for Mary's virginity
difficult to argue. Aquinas, Stark writes, was able to step in and settle the
matter. Using his powers of reason and deduction, he concluded that the brothers
of Jesus were not blood relations and that, as a result, Mary was a virgin after
all. The whole controversy, as Stark tells the story, testifies to Christianity's
intellectual superiority. Aquinas was able to do what no theologian from any
other religious tradition could do, which was to use "persuasive reasoning"
to alter church doctrine.
Although the Catholic Church would revere Mary and insist on her virginity,
Mary's story in fact owed a great deal to non-Christians. For one thing, Mary's
virgin birth has what Freeman calls a "shaky" scriptural basis, given that the
Gospels mention her siblings and that one of them, John, does not mention her
at all. There is a verse in Isaiah proclaiming, "Behold a virgin will conceive,"
but this verse, as Freeman continues, comes from the Greek version of the Old
Testament, and uses the word parthenos, which could also mean young girl,
rather than the Hebrew almah. When Christian thinkers in the fourth century
developed their love for Mary, moreover, they borrowed extensively from paganism,
especially the Greek goddesses Rhea and Tyche, as well as the Egyptian goddess
Isis. Given this background, arguments on behalf of Mary's virginity testify
as much to the needs of so many religions to contrast good and evil -- in Christianity's
case, Eve's original sin with Mary's later purity -- as they do to powers of
logic and reason.
As benefits a work of apologetics, Stark continuously relies on double
standards and creates absurd classifications. Cicero, a non-Christian, believed
in free will, while strict Calvinists committed to predestination were fatalists.
Rather than admit any discrepancies in his airtight conclusions, Stark simply
throws out the former's commitments as "an obscure philosophical matter" and
takes the Christian commitment to free will as a given, even though it took
Jacobus Arminius to bring the idea of free will to parts of Christian Europe
under the spell of Calvinistic determinism. Augustine was an optimist about
human nature at least some of the time, while John Chrysostom was a pessimist
nearly all of the time, but for Stark they both played a role in advancing the
Christian commitment to reason. (Needless to say, Stark makes no mention of
the latter's virulent anti-Semitism -- "the synagogue is not only a whorehouse
and a theater; it is also a den of thieves and a haunt of wild animals" -- because
no mention is made of the entire history of Christian hatred toward the Jews,
which was not exactly one of reason's achievements.)
Perhaps the most striking example of Stark's distortion of the historical record
is his treatment of the Spanish Inquisition. This is, after all, the most famous
example in history of a church that set itself up against reason, condemning
along the way such luminaries of scientific method as Galileo. Stark loves to
provoke: at one point he denies that Latin America ever became a Catholic continent,
and at another he describes the whole notion of the Dark Ages -- the ones we
would be living in had Jesus remained among the Jews -- as a "hoax" imposed
on the world by eighteenth-century philosophers. But evidently the existence
of the Spanish Inquisition is not a fact that he is willing to take on; he never
refers to it by name, and in the one sentence that he devotes to the anti-intellectualism
of the Counter-Reformation, he laments its legacy for "fostering misconceptions
about religious opposition to science," as if it were all Galileo's fault that
the Catholic Church got its awful reputation for putting him on trial.
And so it goes. Only Christians viewed slavery as sinful, Stark writes, although
he acknowledges that a few Jewish thinkers did as well; the fact that Brazil
and the American South were Christian and slave-owning is not important. (But
posit that Brazil was not Catholic, and you solve half your problem.) Only Christians
believed in human rights; all other faiths "minimize individualism and stress
collective obligations," as if both the Catholic Church and Martin Luther were
models of tolerance. Jews and Christians both shared the idea that history moves
in a particular direction, yet "the Jewish idea of history stressed not progress
but only procession, while the idea of progress is profoundly manifest in Christianity."
This is to scholarship as Red Sox Nation is to fandom; I can fully understand
why my fellow Bostonians would claim that David Ortiz is the greatest hitter
in the world, but it staggers the imagination that a presumably serious scholar
would make such a claim about one religion, and one religion only, in a world
that has gotten at least a smidgeon of its ugly history of sectarian violence
and faith-based hatred under control.
Reading Stark's book, it is important to remember that no major voice in American
religion speaks in such triumphalist terms these days -- not the Vatican under
Benedict XVI, not the theologians at evangelical institutions such as Fuller
Seminary, not the Muslims who have issued fatwas against Wahhabism, not even
members of the Christian right who have persuaded themselves that they are Israel's
greatest friends. Rodney Stark writes in an age of reason to advance the cause
of prejudice. I am all for challenging conventional wisdom, but sometimes wisdom,
even of the conventional sort, has its virtues. Christianity has brought some
great things into the world, but not everything it brought has been great. Other
faiths made their contributions to reason as well. Wise people know this; blowhards
and bigots do not.
Most of Rodney Stark's book deals not with theology, but with economic history.
He sets out to prove that Christians, having invented reason, applied their
intellectual powers to the world around them and created technology, capitalism,
democracy, and modernity. Here is where Weber enters the discussion. He famously
insisted that certain theological notions associated with the Protestant Reformation,
such as the Calvinist idea of election, helped to fuel capitalist growth. The
trouble this poses for Stark is not hard to see: Protestantism came along roughly
fifteen hundred years after Christianity began. So if Weber is right, Stark
is wrong. Christianity cannot explain capitalism if Christianity had existed
for nearly three-quarters of its life on this earth without it.
All of which means that the inklings of capitalism growth must be sought in the early church -- if not the one that existed before Constantine, which even Stark admits was radically otherworldly, then the one that grew up around and after him. This is why Stark denounces the idea of the Dark Ages as a hoax, as "an incredible lie that long disfigured our knowledge of history." The notorious non-believer Gibbon imposed this absurd idea on us, and it is time to rid ourselves of it. Never one to practice the Christian virtue of humility, Stark writes that "no one has ever provided an adequate summary of what really took place" between the fall of Rome and the invention of capitalism. And so, in forty or so pages, he will do the job.
The so-called Dark Ages, it turns out, were years of remarkable innovation and progress. For the first time in human history, machines allowed production to take place powered by something other than human effort. New methods of warfare developed, encouraged by "the Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason." (Stark never explains how the unreasonable Muslims were able to defeat those reasonable Christians throughout the entire period he is describing, although Lepanto, which the Europeans won, does get a mention. Nor does he take seriously the link between Confucianism and the development of military technology in China.) Polyphonic music was invented. Gothic architecture and painting far surpassed (whatever that means) Greek art. Vernacular languages were used by such intellectual giants as Dante and Chaucer, putting to rest any ideas of "Dark Age illiteracy and ignorance." (Only much later does Stark get around to mentioning that the Catholic Church opposed translating the Bible into vernacular languages.)
Never mind that the idea of the illiterate medieval centuries is just another of Stark's many straw men. Christians could do all these wondrous things during the so-called Dark Ages because they made three great contributions to the modern world. First, there was the idea of equality. Stark reaches back to a third-century theologian to illustrate this commitment. An important component of justice, wrote L. Caecilius Firmanius Lactantius, "is equality.... But someone will say, 'Don't you have poor and rich, slave and masters in your community?' 'Aren't there distinctions between one member and another?' Not at all. This is precisely the reason that we address one another as 'Brother,' since we believe we are one another's equals." Second, there was the reality of property rights. True, there were oddball Franciscans with their absurd vows of poverty and their troublesome saints; but as the church became as preoccupied with securing economic and political order as it did with the salvation of souls, and as it began to realize that property rights in general could justify its considerable holdings in particular, less was heard about God wanting all human beings to hold property in common. (This also means that less was heard about equality, at least in the radical form expressed by L. Caecilius Firmanius Lactantius, but Stark is never troubled by such inconsistencies.) And third, Christians, in rendering different things to God and Caesar, separated church and state. "Silly textbooks," Stark writes, tell their naïve readers that Christians endorsed the divine rights of kings, but in reality they were closet regicides, willing to consider defiance of stately authority if it conflicted with God's commands. (Into the dustbin of history go Richelieu and Mazarin and ... well, most of the history of Christianity's relationship with power.)
Armed with these Christian weapons of progress, Stark continues, capitalism flourished in full form in the great Italian city-states. Venice, Genoa, Milan -- each gets its page or two. The discussion of Florence is most typically Starkian. "An enormous amount of snobbish nonsense has been written about Florence," he bristles. This time the nonsense was the work not of Max Weber but of Jakob Burckhardt. (Stark does not stand on the shoulders of giants, but he does love to throw stones at them.) The nonsense maintained that Florentine creativity opened a path out of the Dark Ages, a view that Stark cannot accept since there was nothing dark about the medieval centuries for the modern era to leave behind. And what about Savonarola? Where does his darkness fit into Stark's centuries of Christian light? Lavishing praise on the Medicis for their protection of property rights, Stark ignores the monk who believed that Jesus Christ was the true king of Florence -- and who was condemned to death by church and state working in tandem. Savonarola joins Francis of Assisi, indeed nearly all of those who practiced Christianity in its ascetic versions, in Stark's purgatory. Otherworldliness, a distinct feature of all religions, including Christianity, is shunted aside by Stark whenever it threatens his relentless insistence on his own religion's accomplishments of worldliness.
Impressed by the achievements of the Italian city-states, travelers from northern Europe then brought capitalism to Flanders and, from there, to the British Isles. But do not think that any of this had much to do with the Protestant Reformation! Antwerp, a capitalist enclave that Stark especially admires, "was a profoundly Catholic community" in its golden age. (How many of those Catholics were actually Jews who had fled from the Spanish Inquisition is not discussed, because, of course, the Inquisition itself is not discussed.) Ultimately, though, Stark is not interested in assigning significant status to any specific branch of Christianity; Amsterdam and London, he concedes, took over the lead from Antwerp when they were primarily Protestant. Catholics and Protestants fought furiously with each other in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries over such matters as indulgences, biblical authority, the role of liturgy, baptism, and the requirements for salvation, but none of these differences matters much to Stark, whose case for Christianity is oddly irreligious. For him, Christianity is as unified within itself as it is distinct from every other religion. All Christians, whatever their sect, made the modern world; all non-Christians, whatever theirs, did not.
As capitalism began to flourish in Protestant northern Europe, it seemed to take a regressive step in Catholic Spain. And so Stark jumps in to deny that the backwardness of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain had anything to do with its Catholicism; empire and absolutism were the causes. Still, Spain did have the foresight to colonize the New World, thereby giving the capitalist revolution a whole new place to take root. Here Stark radically compresses his story, hopping from the Old World to the New even more quickly than he hopped from the medieval world to the early modern one. Spaniards themselves, he writes, realizing how dangerous the voyage across the ocean could be, did not come in any great numbers, but the British did, and from this point on Stark hurries toward his obvious conclusion: the most religious country in the modern world, our own, turns out to be the most successful capitalist society in human history. Religious freedom and economic freedom go together, Stark harrumphs, and only Christianity is responsible for both.
It is only after Rodney Stark brings us into the New World that we realize what he has omitted from his history of the West: modernity itself. Love it or leave it, nearly everyone agrees that the industrial revolution, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the whole course of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history, constituted a radical break with the past, introducing a world in which individualism reigned, and rights were demanded, and economies were expanded, and reason was unleashed. In Stark's book, however, there was no transition to modernity, because all the work of modernity had been done in the period between Augustine and Aquinas.
The implications of this point of view are as staggering as they are absurd. Diderot wasted his time on the Encyclopedia, because the Enlightenment had been anticipated by Christian theologians centuries earlier. Adam Smith need not have made a case for laissez-faire capitalism, because the Catholic Church had already done that for him. Kant and Mill were simply redundant. It is as if the most significant change in human history since the founding of Christianity had never taken place, because the founding of Christianity had rendered it unnecessary.
Stark claims that Christianity gave us the idea of free will (has he read any Judaism?), but he himself believes in a kind of predestination that would make John Calvin blush. Once the Christian theologians began to ponder theological mysteries, human history was set on a continuous course from which it never varied. Alone among religions, Stark argues, Christianity is oriented to the future. Not so; but what is so is that, alone among social scientists, Rodney Stark is trapped in the past. His history is so shoddy because, when you come right down to it, history does not matter to it. All that matters is Jesus.
The Victory of Reason is the worst book by a social scientist
that I have ever read. Stark's methodology has nothing to do with history, or
the logic of comparative analysis, or the rigorous testing of hypotheses. Instead
he simply makes claims, the more outrageous the better, and dismisses all evidence
that runs contrary to his claims as unimportant, and treats anyone with a point
of view different from his own as stupid and contemptible, and reduces causation
in human affairs to one thing and one thing only. How in the world, I kept asking
myself as I read this book, could someone spend so much of his life trying to
understand something as important as religion and come away so childish?
In a most inadvertent way, however, Stark does perform a public service with the publication of this dreadful book. For much of the postwar period, academic disciplines, including the social sciences, ignored religion, despite the fact that giants of social-scientific discovery such as Weber and Durkheim made the subject central to their understanding of the world. Turning back to those roots, scholars have begun to produce important work that helps us to understand why, if the United States is any indication, increasing prosperity did not bring increasing secularization in its wake. It is difficult not to notice that there is a religious revival taking place in the United States; indeed, a religious revival seems to be taking place everywhere in the world, with the exception of western Europe. So it is no wonder that there is a revival taking place also in the academic study of religion.
But the religious revival in the academy faces a difficult dilemma. Since many of the scholars intent on paying more attention to religion are themselves religious, or at least religious enough to care about the subject, there is often advocacy in their work. Their role, as they understand it, is to argue against those who claim that people who believe in God are somehow ignorant, biased, and soon to be extinct. Such advocacy is not contrary to contemporary academic convention. To say that religion is an important but neglected field is no different from economists claiming that their methods can help understand non-economic activities such as love and leisure; in both cases, advocacy is on behalf of a field of study as opposed to the thing one is actually studying.
No, the real problem is that most believers do not believe in religion. They believe in Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism -- in a specific faith. For them, being a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew is what matters, and while they may feel that they have more in common with devout members of other faiths than with lapsed members of their own, they retain highly particular texts, creeds, rituals, liturgies, hymns, and homilies. They, too, are advocates, even if some of them, such as evangelicals, advocate their faith more persistently than others. But they do not explore their convictions in the way academics test hypotheses. There are no statistical tests that would lead a believer to conclude that everything he has believed must be thrown out because his beliefs no longer correspond with evidence.
Scholars who are religious and who want to call attention to the role of religion in the modern world may be motivated by their faith to do so, but as scholars they must act differently within the academy than they do in the pews. And as the revival of religion in academia has begun to take hold, this is what the great bulk of them are doing. Mark Noll, an evangelical Christian, wrote a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that spared little in its criticisms of the faith with which Noll so strongly identifies. Others, such as Grant Wacker writing on Pentecostalism or George Marsden on Jonathan Edwards, produced brilliant books filled with nuance and balance. In the work of all these scholars, general religious convictions are always present, but specific ones are difficult to find.
Not so with Rodney Stark. His book is not about religion, it is about Christianity. Had he written that faith in God would lead people to work hard, to be concerned about their credit rating, to grow uneasy with slavery, or to raise qualms about social injustice, he would have produced a perfectly respectable retort to the prominent idea that economic take-offs have mainly to do with economics. There certainly was a cultural dimension to the rise of capitalism, and religion plays an important role in shaping culture. Perhaps because the modern academy is so secular, the role of religion in promoting Western capitalism has been underestimated.
The difficulty is that there are many religions in the West, not just one. Christianity comes in two major forms. Muslims reached far into Europe during their golden age and left an important legacy. Jews have been central to capitalist expansion from the fifteenth century to the twenty-first. Advocating religion over secularism runs the risk of dismissing secularists; advocating one religion over all the others degrades every believer who does not believe what you do. Rodney Stark is himself not a believer, or so he claimed last year in an interview on a Catholic website called the National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood. But he has thoroughly absorbed the spirit of religion into his work -- not contemporary religion, with its taste for pluralism and tolerance, but old-time religion, with its appetite for exclusiveness. If the religious revival in the academy begins to take the form of Stark's Christian triumphalism, it will lose its credibility and perhaps even be sent back to the sectarian seminaries out of which it emerged. That will in the long run be Rodney Stark's contribution to his field; and while I would miss a strong academic interest in religion, I would gladly say good-bye to scholars who would rather evangelize than investigate.
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