The Victory of Reason

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
By Rodney Stark
285pp | Random House | ISBN 1-4000-6228-4 | US$25.95 | 2005

The deep impact of Christian doctrine and practice on the world in general and Western culture in particular has been recognized in every area of life, especially in respect for persons, the sanctity of marriage and family, the fine arts, education, and socio-economic institutions. Many writers have documented and commented on these and other ways Christians have enlarged the scope of freedom and made many other positive contributions to human well-being. New studies appear frequently; generally there is no question about their documentary accuracy (as in Professor Stark’s book), but questions often need to be raised about their interpretive orientation.  

This may help to explain why the title of this book brought to mind a very different one — Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Strange. Matching a book that attacks Christianity’s impact on life with one that supports it? But as one gets into the argument of Victory, the more parallels appear  between Brown’s condemnation of Christianity and Stark’s proclamation of its victory. Brown conceals his revisionist premise under the cloak of a historical novel; Stark’s cloak is a historical sociology of religion meant to vindicate democratic capitalism. Readers of The Da Vinci Code are carried on a rip tide of anti-religious sociology; in The Victory of Reason the tide is equally swift -- as if it were an historical romance. Both authors are eager to keep things moving so fast that any urge to stop and question is suppressed. Both are pugnacious, reductionist, tendentious axe-grinders, busily engaged in writing manifestos that arrange their evidence to fit a prior premise.*

In today’s literary world where readers seem more interested in rant than in argument, in thrills than in truth, that seems to be the formula for success — especially if it’s about religion. Strange, indeed.  In any case, whoever is seeking real enlightenment about Christianity can hardly expect to find it by running through such magic houses where reality is distorted by convex and concave mirrors.

The name of Dan Brown is becoming a household commonplace. But who is Rodney Stark? Professor Stark, now at Baylor University, taught sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington for more than thirty years. He has previously written sociological studies of religious history in general and Christian history in particular.

Perhaps no one is more likely to be surprised by Professor Stark’s argument than the Founder of Christianity Himself. The Good News He came to announce has led to economic and political “success” in this world? Jesus Christ would surely consider it Bad News that His saving Word has brought victory to “the mammon of wickedness”. He expected His followers to have “affliction” in the world, not “success”; what He came to give is quite opposite of what the world yearns for. “The world does not know” Christians because it “is in the power of the evil one”. “Do you not know,” James asks in his letter, “that the friendship of this world is enmity with God?” So if Professor Stark’s celebration of its responsibility for capitalism is correct, Christianity has been a colossal failure. And no wonder so many contemporary Europeans are turning their backs on it.

The professor’s argument is simple: All those historians who pinned medieval darkness and backwardness on Christianity were incredibly ignorant of the facts; when they found no evidence for its progressiveness until the Calvinist work ethic, they overlooked the monasteries and the many other places where Christians began as early as the 9th century to fashion the blocks that would build the world’s most successful technique for creating and distributing wealth—the free enterprise system of democratic capitalism. The truth, then, is that institutions inspired by Christianity are directly responsible for “all of these remarkable” intellectual, scientific, economic, and political advances of the past millennium. They “can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation,” made possible by man’s ability to reason out things for himself.

Much of what Professor Stark has read in history books about these developments is true enough; the problem is the preferential-exclusionary ideological spirit behind his selection, examination, and interpretation of that material. Among other things it makes him ruthless in cutting down all other religious cultures since the time of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks simply because they made no contribution (in his reading) to the widespread freedom and prosperity Westerners have come to expect. A critic who values objectivity and is aware of the multi-faceted history of world religions is likely to reject out of hand such sweeping claims and the manner in which evidence is assembled to support them.  

 A documentary study of Christian history from the Epistles and Gospels onward can support just about any thesis. The documents and their historical application might be interpreted to show also, for example, that Christianity “led” to important advances in asceticism, as well as in aesthetics and the fine arts; to a colonial imperialism as well as an aristocratic or a socialist political economy. Besides its emphasis on reason, Christianity also proclaims the “victory” of faith, or better, the harmony of reason and faith.

Professor Stark invokes one of the great masters of that harmony, St. Augustine, in favor of his argument about the leading role of reason in history, but there is hardly a less sympathetic Christian writer when it comes to theories of historical progress. Indeed, Augustine thought the zenith of civilizational development had occurred near the beginning of human history, and that all subsequent centuries (especially his own) witnessed a downward spiral.

From Augustine, Professor Stark moves on to St. Thomas Aquinas—surely an even less likely friend of this book’s thesis. If isolated passages can be found to support it in the vast Thomistic corpus, one has to suspect that some kind of magic really is at work here. At any rate, citation of Aquinas is a reminder that those who promoted reason in science and theology in the middle and in later ages are typically immersed in academic debate in old and new “ivory towers,” far from the centers of socio-economic life .

If one is interested in a more balanced study of the implication of religion in general and Christianity in particular in the development of Western culture and civilization, the many books of Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) are still unsurpassed. If one prefers a briefer, more contemporary account, see Thomas E. Woods, Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (2005).

If St. Paul might be counted as an authoritative voice in a discussion of this kind for his clear perception of the difference between “the wisdom of this world” and “the Spirit that is from God,” he deserves to have the last word about Professor Stark’s thesis. Imagine a scowl across the Apostle’s brow as he warns his disciple, Timothy: “Charge the rich of this world not to trust in the uncertainty of riches but in God”—for, as he had earlier reminded those worldly Corinthians: “the god of this world has blinded their unbelieving minds that they should not see the light of the Gospel.”

John A. Gueguen is an Emeritus Professor in political science at Illinois State University.

* tendentious: marked by a strong tendency in favor of a particular point of view, usually motivated by revisionist zeal. Philosophical reductionism limits causation in human affairs to one thing and one thing only.


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  • John A. Gueguen Jr