Fans of Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" may be waiting eagerly for the next volley in the debate of why parts of the world achieved technological, political and economic dominance, but it's unlikely that Rodney Stark's new addition to the discussion will attract the same readers. The provocative title alone, "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success," will probably draw reactions along current ideological lines, with religious conservatives nodding approvingly and secular liberals choking apoplectically.
But the provocation doesn't end at the title. Stark, formerly professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington for more than 30 years, now at Baylor, amasses considerable evidence in support of his theory and isn't afraid to speak his mind. While Diamond examined geographical and environmental factors leading to Western hegemony, Stark argues that ideas trump geography, in particular that Christianity's emphasis on reason was key to the development of Europe.
Stark defines his terms carefully and contends that hypotheses such as geography and technology "are part of what needs to be explained: why did Europeans excel at metallurgy, shipbuilding, or farming? The most convincing answer to these questions attributes Western dominance to the rise of capitalism, which also took place only in Europe." He traces the origins of capitalism to the belief in reason, which he in turn locates uniquely in Christian theology: "While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth."
Two of Stark's previous books ("One True God" and "For the Glory of God") took a sociological look at the historical consequences of monotheism, contending that beliefs may be more significant drivers of history than material factors. Here Stark extends his thesis to Christianity's specific impacts: the theology of such giants as Augustine and Aquinas reflected faith in progress and reason, which in turn led to ideas of individualism, moral equality and human rights, as well as technological development.
Stark then explores the growth of capitalism from northern Italy to Flanders, Amsterdam and England, and presents case studies of early France and Spain where capitalism didn't take strong root. Along the way Stark finds no evidence for Weber's idea that Protestantism was essential to the growth of capitalism. He maintains that capitalism began under Catholicism, in the rational management of medieval monastic estates, and flourished in Italy long before Luther nailed his theses to a church door. Finally, Stark tests his theories against New World history, covering well-worn ground on the political and economic differences between North and Latin Americas.
This book presents some interesting material, such as the medieval inventions -- including water and windmills, horse collars, mechanical clocks and chimneys -- that significantly improved the material welfare of European peoples. However, many readers may be reluctant to take the next step with Stark, that "these remarkable developments can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason." Subjects like Italian city governance and French taxation are explored in eye-glazing detail. Stark is at his strongest when he returns to his roots in the sociology of religion, such as his discussion of "religious economies" and why a state-supported monopoly religion leads to less vigorous participation than religious pluralism.
While Stark ostensibly keeps his political and religious convictions to himself, "The Victory of Reason" emerges as a conservative response to Diamond's argument that geographical and environmental factors can convincingly explain Western dominance. Readers of Stark's previous work will recognize that he rarely fails to skewer any liberal idea in his path, and he pulls no punches here. Liberation theology takes several hits, and he barely mentions the darker side of the West's legacy, including the decimation and forcible conversion of native peoples and the long-lasting economic and political impacts of colonialism.
Stark's closing speculations raise many questions. While he acknowledges an argument can be made that Christianity is no longer required for science and progress, "[t]he fact is that Christianity is becoming globalized far more rapidly than is democracy, capitalism, or modernity." He locates this spectacular growth in part to Christianity's "appeal to reason and the fact that it is so inseparably linked to the rise of Western Civilization. For many non-Europeans, becoming a Christian is intrinsic to becoming modern. Thus," he concludes, "it is quite plausible that Christianity remains an essential element in the globalization of modernity." Strong statements, material for another book perhaps. And the reader might wonder, if Christianity led inexorably to some of the most significant factors of modern life, has the West indeed created the best of all possible worlds, the one Jesus had in mind as he walked the roads of Galilee?