March 30, 2014


Christianity: Foundation of Western Success : a review of Rodney Stark's \How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (ISI Books) (SAMUEL GREGG, Crisis)

First, he weaves his arguments about pre-Christian Europe, the medieval period, the Crusades, and the development of capitalism (to name just a few) into an account which dissolves many prevailing conceptual divisions between the pre-modern and modern worlds.  Many secular-minded people -- but also many Christians -- will be surprised at the high degree of continuity, for instance, between minds like Saint Albertus Magnus and Sir Isaac Newton.  Sometimes this occurs by Stark pointing to evidence that has hitherto escaped most people's attention.  In other instances, it is a question of looking at the same evidence but through a more plausible interpretative lens.

The second distinctive feature of How the West Won is how Stark shows how particular historical myths have less to do with the facts than with efforts to paint Christianity as a backward regressive cultural force.  To give just one example, Islamic Spain is regularly portrayed, Stark notes, as an oasis of tolerance compared to a repressive Christendom, despite the undeniable evidence of the widespread and long-term persecution and subjugation of Jews and Christians by the Moors.

In making these points, Stark is happy to engage in the deeply politically-incorrect exercise of comparing developments in the West to that of other civilizations.  His analysis suggests that if a culture does not embody a robust conception of reason and free will -- not to mention a conception of God to whom these characteristics are also attributed -- then it's road to freedom, economic prosperity, and human flourishing is going to be very difficult indeed.  Espousing such views won't win you tenure in the contemporary academy.  That, however, doesn't weaken the saliency of such perspectives.

At the core of Stark's investigation is his argument that specific ideas innate to Judaism (especially that found in Diaspora Jewish communities) and Christianity played a pivotal role in enabling the West to make and sustain political, legal and economic breakthroughs that eluded other civilizations.  First and foremost, Jews and Christians viewed God as a rational Creator.  In that sense, God was not at all like the Greco-Roman deities -- capricious, self-indulgent beings for the most part.  Moreover, the Christians, from the very beginning, not only understood the need to reason out the implications of Christ's teachings; they also viewed reason as the great gift which God gave man to know the truth about the Creator but also the world He created in order that humans might help unfold God's design.

The second religious ingredient of the West's success, Stark maintains, was Christianity's unwillingness to attribute life's ups-and-downs to fate.  Unlike the pagan (and many contemporary) religions, the Jewish and Christian "conception of God is incompatible with fate" (p. 120).  It is true, Stark writes, that particular pagans such as Cicero had a somewhat similar view of free will.  The difference is that belief in free will was more than simply a philosophical tenet for Jews and Christians.  It was also a matter of specific religious conviction, which meant, furthermore, that people could -- and would -- be held accountable for their free choices before the same rational God who had given them free will.

Posted by at March 30, 2014 7:48 AM

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