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December 14, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's common to picture "progress" as the consequence of a long-running battle: reason and science slowly defeating religion and superstition, thus freeing us of our chains of ignorance, and rewarding us with freedom and goodies.

The nothing-if-not-provocative historian Rodney Stark sees this story differently. For him, the West didn't arrive at science, democracy, and the free market despite religion. Instead, the West was able to develop science etc. thanks to Christianity -- which in Stark's view was unique among religions in encouraging the cultivation of reason.

Sample passage:

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 piece is excerpted from Stark's new book. Link found thanks to Arts and Letters Daily.



posted by Michael at December 14, 2005


The tendency to view the past as a procession of unrelenting evil and ignorance clouds the vision of the young.

I think of confession as the cornerstone of my development as a critical thinker.

It is hip to think of the Catholic Church as the evil bastion of reaction. Why, then, did the West succeed in becoming the dominant culture? The obvious answer is that something in the intellectual traditions of the Church moved the Western mind toward technology, science, conquest, etc.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 14, 2005 12:15 PM

I never understood why any historian is willing to single out the one element solely responsible for progress, or whatever is researched. Unless such an historian has an agenda; which unfortunately especeially the weaker brothers in the field often have.

Rodney Stark seems to have such an agenda, and what I read in this excerpt doesn't raise any curiousity about the rest. Even though I happen to be a science historian by training.

History nevers proofs anything, except that humans always have had an enormous capcaity for stupidity.

Posted by: ijsbrand on December 14, 2005 12:16 PM

especially; capacity; yeah, yeah. The fingers often write faster than the mind.

Posted by: ijsbrand on December 14, 2005 12:18 PM

ljsbrand -

I'd recommend reading the book, where he goes into greater detail about why some parts of the Christian world developed science and capitalism (and this book is much more about the latter than the former - he's covered the relationship between Christianity and the rise of science elsewhere) and some didn't. He sees Christianity as a necessary, but not sufficient factor. His discussion on the differences between Spain, France, and England are particularly interesting. Contra your accusation of "one factor ruling all", he sees a large role for geographical factors.

Posted by: jimbo on December 14, 2005 12:30 PM

For about 500 years, the Islamic world was the leading scientific light. For the past 500 years, it's been the Christian world. I really don't think you can pin down scientific achievement to one religion. Way too many variables.

Posted by: the family man on December 14, 2005 1:13 PM

Interesting to note that Charles Murray came to a somewhat similar conclusion in _Of Human Accomplishment_ in which he examines who's been most influential in various academic & artistic fields. However, what else do you think he considers a factor, which others like Stark aren't going to seriously consider? The R-word. Latin America and the Philippines have been Catholic for quite awhile, and most African-Americans are Protestant. Yet for the most part they have been no-shows in modern science, some Europeans in Latin America aside of course.

Also, as with _Guns, Germs, and Steel_, the more someone emphasizes the crucial long-term role of geography in accounting for human smarts, the more they are implicitly arguing for different evolutionary selection pressures in different areas that would tend to make one population biologically a bit more brainy than another.

And while Christianity seems to *help*, it's certainly not necessary (let alone sufficient). The Soviet Union went from third world backwater to second world superpower in a single generation while being de jure atheist. All that science, math, & technology didn't happen by magic. Same goes for atheist China: they could give us a run for our military money b/c they understand complicated math & science and have put it to use in devising military technology. Most of the myriad Chinese science & math grad students who contribute so much to the US science world grew up being brow-beat w/ atheism rather than Christianity.

In sum, there is a lot of crap going on. We need to think more in terms of a bunch of factors which each account for a hard-to-quantify fraction of the variance b/w different populations' accomplishments, rather than necessary and sufficient conditions. This is especially true in light of the book / article on expertise that argues that relying on too few factors when predicting outcomes in the messy social world is likely to yield less correct predictions than random guessing. Also, specialists are no better guessers than interested smarties w/ no specialization. Sociology (which is Stark's field) has a long history of pushing the One Big Cause. Now, I don't want to push biology & race over everything else of course, but they should be included along w/ religion, economics, freak accidents of history, and so on.

Posted by: Agnostic on December 14, 2005 1:24 PM

Re: the Soviet Union or China (or Japan, for that matter), there's a whole lot of difference between what it takes to develop science from a prescientific culture and what it takes to copy the scientific acheivements of exisiting cultures. A modern atheist can do science because he sees the evidence all around him that it works - the worldview that the universe is explicable in terms of laws makes sense. But what does it take to evolve that worldview in the first place, when you're starting off with very little knowledge at all? Too often theres a lack of imagination in these debates, as someone transports himself back in time with his modern viewpoint intact, and assumes that everyone back then would see things the same way, with only a few bits of the puzzle missing. 'Taint so.

As to Latin America: again I say, read the book. He has an interesting section on just how "Christian" Latin America has ever been. The Catholic monopoly resulted in a Church establishment that never had to work too hard to gain adherents, and so evangelization efforts were few and far between (let alone the sort of literacy campaigns associated with protestantism). People might have baptized their babies for "good luck", but few knew even the most basic tenets of the faith. He notes that in the past few generations after the legalization of other churches, places where pentecostals and other evangelical groups have made the most converts have also seen a sharp uptake in attendence at mass...

Posted by: jimbo on December 14, 2005 1:51 PM

Jimbo, with all respect due, but one doesn't need to smell a sewer to know it stinks.

The same Rodney Stark has been rather active debunking evolution theories, in favour of the usual Christian mumbojumbo. That says all, for me.

It is difficult enough to research what happened historically, which makes the question why it happened more often speculation than not. And again, it takes people with an agenda to like that kind of speculation.

Posted by: ijsbrand on December 14, 2005 2:57 PM

Re: ripping off others' foundational work -- you mean like Samuel Slater or Bill Gates? Or the Greeks ripping off a lot of Near Eastern math, sci, & tech (in addition to doing their own inventive work)? I wouldn't call this "ripping off" but rather building impressively upon an existing foundation. But only some are capable of doing this building on others' work -- again, how great has the African-American contribution to modern science been? It's right there for them to build upon. This also gets back to religion: whether or not you think the non-Euro peoples of Latin America are "really" Catholic or not, African-Americans sure as hell are Protestant and have been for awhile.

It's worth pointing out that China was way out in front of Europe technologically in the late Middle Ages before they turned inward and dropped the ball. Again, none of that due to Christianity of any flavor. Japan and South Korea are playing increasingly larger roles in pioneering science, ironically *due to* their lack of religious fervor: namely in the area of genetics, cloning, stem cell research, and so on. And once more, you simply can't discount all of the non-religious Northeast Asian foreign grad students who will help to blaze the next scientific trail alongside their Abrahamic colleagues. Bruce Lahn is a good example of this.

So again, I'm not trying to claim race is the only factor, or that political economy is. I'm making the mild claim that a bunch of things are involved, and we'll have to work hard to tease apart which account for what part of the variance. However, Christianity is neither a necessary condition for sci & tech development -- witness the pagan Near Easterners, the Medieval Chinese, as well as modern NE Asian countries -- nor a sufficient one -- witness the Christian cultures of Latin America, the Philippines, African America, etc. The social world is messier than providing "iff" definitions for squares, triangles, and so on.

Posted by: Agnostic on December 14, 2005 3:42 PM

Michael – Thanks for the notes on Stark’s book. It’s on my library checkout list.

I’ve only read excerpts, but have heard the book discussed on a number of talkradio programs, and its theme strikes me as complete and utter nonsense. Still I am curious about the book because it appears to be part of an odd, sad and desperate attempt to “prove” how America must get back to religion and philosophy to save ourselves from secularism and godless Darwinism. One can easily make a case that “pagan” thought, e.g., Greek philosophy had a great impact on emergent Christianity. And the history of the Church’s wrongheaded authoritarianism suppressing rational inquiry is just too well documented for Stark’s narrow revisionism to be persuasive to anyone who is not already a true believer.

Posted by: Alec on December 14, 2005 3:43 PM

I know 'way less than anyone should about history. But I know a bit about academia and a bit more about book publishing. And one factor in all this is packaging. As far as Big Explanations go, I kinda like 'em -- Geography? Sure! Christianity! Why not? I tend to figure they all (and more) play a role. But it's hard to conceive of, formulate, and pitch a book that says such a thing, while it's much easier to sell a book (and make a reputation) if you have an easy-to-comprehend-but-provocative angle. It's all geography! Or: it's all Christianity! Much easier to pitch, to sell, to grab attention ... And then the world passes by and goes onto the next exciting Big Explanation.

So I dunno, I guess it strikes me that it's all in how we take these things. I read "Guns, Germs and Steel," for instance, and semi-hated, semi-enjoyed it. Some interesting info, some interesting thinking -- a genuine contribution, which I appreciated. But claiming that geography is determinative of virtually everything? Sorry, I can't buy that. On the other hand, it was a contribution. So I guess my tendency is to try to appreciate a contribution, try to overlook over-grand claims, and consider it all to be one big meta-book, an ongoing conversation, with each book (and each Big Idea) that comes along to be part of the ever-ongoingness of it all, rather than a thesis to be embraced or rejected.

But that could also just be me, being very Vedanta-ish ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2005 4:03 PM

Once events have already happened it's real easy to go back through them and "predict" your favorite causal factor making them happen. Scholars who get paid for coming up with grand theories will never fully credit the randomness and path dependence in history. I for one believe that Europe's special place had more to do with geography than anything else -- being a world crossroads exposed to all kinds of influences, but being at the same time internally fragmented between a bunch of highly competitive small states, so no one tyrant could squelch innovation (look at Renaissance history for the influence decentralization had on scientific progress).

But the most important geographic factor of all might be the HUGE stroke of luck that Western Europe experienced in having the destructive assault of the Mongol hordes buffered by North Africa, Russia, and Eastern Europe. The obvious developmental differences between Russia and Western Europe are most easily explained not by Christianity, but by the influence of Eastern invaders from the steppes. Important to remember the catastrophic effect the Mongols had on the Muslim states in North Africa too.

But one extra thing here: anyone who wants to point to a special relationship between Christianity and science has no business leaving out the very strong influences of pre-Christian Greek philosophy on Christianity. Christianity preserved a ton of pre-Christian influences; it became the vehicle for preserving the fragments of Hellenistic and Roman civilization through the Dark Ages until they could be used again. The classical heritage is not Christian, but Christianity as it developed was classical.

Posted by: MQ on December 14, 2005 10:29 PM

I finished the Stark book over the weekend. It is very solid. Strongly recommended.

Stark makes many points that correct a lot of things that are "common knowledge" but wrong. For example, the technological and scientific dynamism of the so-called "Dark Ages", which resulted from the "fall" of the Roman Empire, which by the end, in the West, was an oppressive and ineffectual government. This is something which should be better known. See for example Augustine to Galileo by A.C. Crombie. Stark also lays out the critical role of the monasteries in forming the first capitalistic organizations -- which were meritocratic, not based on inheritance, etc. He also points out, correctly, that political freedom only existed in the West, as an ideal or as a reality, due to Christianity. He addresses the achievements of China and Islam, which other commenters referred to. The interesting question in both cases is: Why did they lose what they had? China and Islam ended up with autocratic rulers who stifled technology. Also, they never really developed science in any systematic way, while the West did so. Stark attributes this difference, with some plausible arguments, to the background beliefs of Christianity in the West. Stark quotes Needham, the greatest chronicler or Chinese science and technology in support of his basic view of the difference between China and Europe. At least one expert on China whom I ran this argument by thought it was pretty sound. The institutional survival of science was due to (1) political freedom in England and the Netherlands (2) the inability of any one state to take over all of Europe, and the desire of rulers for the advantages that superior science and technology could bring. This latter argument is at the heart of William MacNeil's The Pursuit of Power.

The Stark book is consistent with much of what I have been reading in recent years, as a corrective to a false vision of "Western Civ" which overly celebrates the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment by denigrating 1,000 years of Christendom and the achievements of the Middle Ages. Good books to the contrary include From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and its Opponents by David Gress, and The Riddle of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane. Going back a century, you can see a very consistent position taken by Lord Acton in his essay "The History of Liberty in Christianity", available here from the Online Library of Liberty.

Stark has an excellent bibliography, by the way. I saw at least a dozen books I'd like to look at.

Much of what he says is not terribly controversial, but few people have strung it together quite the way he has.

If you have a big emotional stake in despising Christianity, the book will not sit well with you. If you are open to seeing how the modern world actually came about, you will probably learn something from it. I learned a lot from it.

Posted by: Lexington Green on December 14, 2005 11:10 PM

Well of course Rome was ineffectual by the end, that's why it collapsed. But defending the early middle ages as some kind of high civilizational point is too much. Everything we know about that period (around about 400/500-1000/1100 AD) indicates that literacy rates in Europe then were far lower than in other major world civilizational centers in North Africa and Asia. They're called the dark ages for a reason, and they marked a retrogression. Just go to Europe and look at the architecture from this period as compared to before and after it.

Posted by: MQ on December 14, 2005 11:29 PM

jimbo wrote:
A modern atheist can do science because he sees the evidence all around him that it works - the worldview that the universe is explicable in terms of laws makes sense. But what does it take to evolve that worldview in the first place, when you're starting off with very little knowledge at all?

Well, what about the ancient Greeks? They were far ahead of any of their contemporaries in trying to understand the world through natural laws and reason, and the philosophers didn't seem to have much use for revealed religious truths, polytheistic or monotheistic (though some philosophers like Aristotle arrived at philosophical views of God through their own reasoning).

Posted by: Jesse M. on December 15, 2005 2:16 AM

David Brooks has picked this stuff up in today's NY Times. You have to wonder if this is Catholic propaganda at work.

The middle ages were a crummy time, folks. Most people were effectively enslaved to feudal landowners (that is, they were serfs). This was system the Catholic church helped to support. The church was an oppressive institution that burned and tortured numerous other human beings over theological disagreements. I can't quite believe this is up for debate.

Catholicism might have had some subtle complementarities with an emerging scientific tradition, although it hardly encouraged it (remember that whole Galileo business?). But the Enlightenment was a whole lot more important. And if you had to pick the Christian tradition that was most encouraging of scientific and economic progress, I'd take Protestantism over Catholicism any day.

Posted by: MQ on December 15, 2005 3:58 PM

What's striking to me is how many of the most profound aspects of Christianity (with respect to the hard questions of existence) were not those to which we primarily owe worldly success in the West. One half of Catholic philosophy leads toward advanced market societies, the other toward confronting meaninglessness through empathy, humility, and sacrifice. When Unamuno (in "The Tragic Sense of Life") talks about an authentic life emerging from the irreconcilable internal battle between reason and consolation, he is giving perhaps the sanest perspective on the legacy of the Church.

Posted by: J. Goard on December 15, 2005 5:58 PM

"He addresses the achievements of China and Islam, which other commenters referred to. The interesting question in both cases is: Why did they lose what they had? China and Islam ended up with autocratic rulers who stifled technology."

We are still living in history, you know. The same could very well happen to the West. And I could point to some fairly anti-reason autocrats in our current federal gov't.

Posted by: the patriarch on December 19, 2005 2:34 PM

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