December 15, 2005


How Christianity (and Capitalism) Led to Science (Rodney Stark, 12/02/05, The Chronicle Review)

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.

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.

The risk is that folk can come to worship the tool.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2005 12:01 AM

Happened to Andy Sullivan

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 15, 2005 2:39 PM

This article delves into the twin questions of all history, namely what went wrong with rest of the world and what went right with us.

The answer cannot be some lame, easy way out such as geographic determinism. Possession of felicitious natural resources and real estate is like the joke to the effect that to be a cowboy, one needed guts and a horse, and if one had enough guts, he could always get a horse. Peoples migrate. Winners wind up on good ground, losers in frozen wastes and pestilential jungles.

The answer is that suggested by this article. It is not that we have been favored by geography,or by the types of animals we eat, but rather that our ways of thinking and organizing ourselves let us surpass while those of the rest go under.

Consider how we have used technology, such as metallurgy,gunpowder,navigation,even the wheel, which others have wasted,relegated to playthings or even discarded. They did so, just as they failed to progress generally, because their values and ways of living were defective.

For example, widespread slavery retarded the pre-Columbians with respect to the development of the wheel. The Chinese and Arabs had head starts in weapons and navigation technology which they squandered. The Japanese intentionally isolated themselves and purposefully turned back from weapons development so as to preserve their feudal institutions.

Consistently, disdain for the individual and exaltation of the "big man," be he emperor, sultan, tribal chief, or what have you held these peoples back from progress.

We had the Jewish God-concept, the Christian separation of Church and state and focus on the individual,and all our balances and the rule of law to bring us all this way.

The wonderful thing about it all is that we don't wish to use our power to extirminate the rest. On the contrary, of late we have wielded it to suppress those deviants who did dream of doing just that.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 15, 2005 4:03 PM

The deviants being our "rest."

Posted by: oj at December 15, 2005 4:07 PM

The Catholic Church's "discovery" and incorporation of Greco-Roman thought into its own planted the seed that lead to the development of science and of capitalism. Gee, Wow, that's really heavy, man.

Can't wait to read your next groundbreaking insight, Roddie.

Posted by: Ed Bush at December 15, 2005 6:53 PM

Actually capitalism depends more on man being Created in the image of God than on reason.

Posted by: oj at December 15, 2005 7:00 PM

The hard thing to explain is why we're us while the Canadians are so Canadian.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 16, 2005 12:27 AM

filtering effect after the revolution. all the tories fled north. think of canadians as snow lemmings.

Posted by: toe of doom at December 16, 2005 5:01 AM

Sure, you just keep telling yourselves that.

Posted by: Peter B at December 16, 2005 11:55 AM