Review: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The reigning perception of Christianity in the academy is of a faith that is the enemy of reason from which enlightenment humanism liberated us. Rodney Stark would contend that this is a characterization without basis in fact. In The Victory of Reason he argues that the distinctive progress of the west in science, technology, commerce, human rights, and democratic institutions can be traced back to the distinctive character of Christian belief.

What is more intriguing is that he argues that this emerged during what is often called “The Dark Ages” following the decline and fall of the Roman empire. Stark argues that it was the fall of the empire that in fact liberated Christian thought in ways that led to the progress noted above. During this period, free market commerce emerged in enclaves free from state interference in both Italy and parts of northern Europe. Technological innovation drove improved productivity. And the universities arose out of church cathedral schools to promote higher learning. All before the Renaissance or the Reformation, which he would argue were merely the fruit of the ground prepared by the church in the preceding millennium.

But what is it about Christian belief that fosters such openness to reason and its applications and to progress? Stark’s primary argument is that Christianity is not a static revelation fixed for all time, but an evolving understanding of truth that is open to discursive reason and to progress over time. His case study for this is the church’s response to usury and the creation of lending vehicles to fuel the growth of commerce without violating sacred teaching.

He goes on to argue that what hinders the victory of reason translated into material and technological progress is the presence of tyranny–either governments or guilds which restrict economic incentives or rob people of the rights of the fruit of their work. He contrasts Spain and England and their respective colonies in this regard, finally concluding with the connection between religious faith and the profound economic growth witnessed in pre-and post-revolutionary war periods in this country.

There is much in what Stark argues with which I agree. I wholly agree with his contention that Christianity provides the seedbed for the rise of reason and the scientific enterprise as well as concern for human rights and democratic institutions. I suspect, however, that his thesis is open to criticism on several fronts. One is the rise of authoritarian church institutions–is Christian belief too weak to prevent these. The second is the rise of tyrannous rule in “Christian” countries and the use of Christianity to justify tyranny. Finally, there is the question of Christian responses when revelation and reason appear to conflict–particularly efforts seeking to suppress free inquiry. I do not see Stark addressing these “counterfactuals”, and perhaps he could not in a work of this size for an educated general audience. I think all of these objections can be met in a way that do not detract from his thesis, and because of this believe this a valuable addition countering popular misconceptions of Christian faith.

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