How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

November 19, 2010 — 2 Comments

Today I started reading Rodney Stark’s book The Victory of Reason:  How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. I can already this will be a great book that destroys many popular arguments with sound research.  Here is the intro, it is long but give it a try.

When Europeans first began to explore the globe, their greatest surprise was not the existence of the Western Hemisphere, but the extent of their own technological superiority over the rest of the world. Not only were the proud Maya, Aztec, and Inca nations helpless in the face of European intruders, so were the fabled civilizations of the East: China, India, and Islamic nations were “backward” by comparison with 15th-century Europe. How had that happened? Why was it that, although many civilizations had pursued alchemy, the study led to chemistry only in Europe? Why was it that, for centuries, Europeans were the only ones possessed of eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy cavalry, or a system of music notation? How had the nations that had arisen from the rubble of Rome so greatly surpassed the rest of the world?

Several recent authors have discovered the secret to Western success in geography. But that same geography long also sustained European cultures that were well behind those of Asia. Other commentators have traced the rise of the West to steel, or to guns and sailing ships, and still others have credited a more productive agriculture. The trouble is that those answers are part of what needs to be explained: Why did Europeans excel at metallurgy, shipbuilding, or farming?

The most convincing answer to those questions attributes Western dominance to the rise of capitalism, which took place only in Europe. Even the most militant enemies of capitalism credit it with creating previously undreamed of productivity and progress. In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels proposed that before the rise of capitalism, humans engaged “in the most slothful indolence”; the capitalist system was “the first to show what man’s activity can bring about.” Capitalism achieved that miracle through regular reinvestment to increase productivity, either to create greater capacity or improve technology, and by motivating both management and labor through ever-rising payoffs.

Supposing that capitalism did produce Europe’s own “great leap forward,” it remains to be explained why capitalism developed only in Europe. Some writers have found the roots of capitalism in the Protestant Reformation; others have traced it back to various political circumstances. But, if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason.

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A series of developments, in which reason won the day, gave unique shape to Western culture and institutions. And the most important of those victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth. Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy. But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions. Those remained typical mystery cults, in which ambiguity and logical contradictions were taken as hallmarks of sacred origins. Similar assumptions concerning the fundamental inexplicability of the gods and the intellectual superiority of introspection dominated all of the other major world religions.But, from early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase understanding of Scripture and revelation. Consequently Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past. At least in principle, if not always in fact, Christian doctrines could always be modified in the name of progress, as demonstrated by reason. Encouraged by the scholastics and embodied in the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in the power of reason infused Western culture, stimulating the pursuit of science and the evolution of democratic theory and practice. The rise of capitalism also was 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.

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 contribution (other than intolerance) to the Western capacity to dominate other societies. 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. Unfortunately, even many of those historians willing to grant Christianity a role in shaping Western progress have tended to limit themselves to tracing beneficial religious effects of the Protestant Reformation. It is as if the previous 1,500 years of Christianity either were of little matter, or were harmful.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

2 responses to How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

  1. This looks excellent!

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