Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Book Review: The Victory of Reason

Over Christmas vacation, I finished reading The Victory of Reason; How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark. I found this book to be extremely interesting. I take exception with Max Weber’s explanation of the prosperity of Northern Europe. Rodney Stark believes that western prosperity and inventiveness started far earlier than the Protestant Reformation, and he gives many historical examples. Stark looks at the development of capitalism among Italian city-states in what are normally called “the Dark Ages.” He discusses how that capitalism moved north into the Netherlands and then across the English Channel into England. He also discusses how the most successful early capitalist enterprises were later squelched in Southern Europe but were eventually allowed to flourish in England.

What Stark argues is that a number of factors were necessary to sustain the prosperity, inventiveness, and the growth that occurred in the West and resulted in the development and dominance of western civilization up until recent times. Stark identifies Christianity as the source of all of the basic factors that he sees as behind the success of western civilization. He compares the brief periods of success in other civilizations with the sustained growth in the West to make his point. The factors that Stark identifies as flowing from Christianity include, first of all, the fact that Christianity, as it was known for nearly its first 1,800 years, was a rational faith, second that it was a faith that believed in progress, and third, that it believed in freedom.

Unlike many other global religions, Christianity emphasized logic and reason. It also believed in progress. Christians historically recognized that as time goes by, the process of using reason to evaluate the will of God as expressed in special and general revelation may result in increased knowledge and recognition of God’s will and how it can best be carried out. As a result, the Christian West had no vested interest in maintaining the status quo but rather fostered an endless drive toward greater freedom and greater prosperity in addition to greater faith and commitment to God. Aside from a few anomalies that Stark discusses, the church was largely supportive of science and the development of new inventions such as the water and windmills, the horse-drawn plow, the horse collar, the modern wagon, and the clock—all of which came out of the period we commonly refer to as “the Dark Ages” and yet which were necessary for the future revolutionizing of the western world. Stark notes how capitalism itself originated among devout Christians and flourished where Christianity was the most dominant and the most practiced. He notes that the same types of frugality, industry, and philanthropy associated with the Reformation in Northern Europe were equally present in the capitalist Italian city-states of the so-called Dark Ages.

Stark also sees freedom as fundamental to the success of the West. He believes that freedom flows from the rational Christianity of Western Europe. The rise of political freedom in given areas coincided with the rise in prosperity. By the idea of freedom Stark includes the rule of law, respect for property rights, freedom from state confiscation, freedom to innovate, freedom from restrictions of wages, prices, and business practices, and freedom from command economics. Stark points out how in contrast to the effects of freedom, the imposition of confiscatory and manipulative governments on the Italian city-states eventually quelled their capitalistic expansion and initiated their decline.

Overall, I think Rodney Stark’s historical arguments and examples are fascinating and compelling. The one thing with which I would take exception is his insistence that official Roman Catholicism is not problematic in terms of its effect on politics and the economy. Stark uses the argument that prosperity existed before the Reformation to say that the historic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church do not interfere with the prosperity and freedom that he discusses. But he is ignoring the fact that prior to the Reformation all of the persons and views that later became Protestantism were within the Roman Church alongside the views that later became Tridentine Roman Catholicism. The Reformation did not constitute the creation of a new set of theological views, but rather a coup d’ ├ętat in which a particular branch of the church was able to gain control of the church hierarchy to the degree necessary to force out those who held different views. The exodus of the university professors, theologians, pastors, priests and Christians who would constitute the “Protestants” changed the makeup and complexion of the Roman Church that remained. The teachings of Tridentine Roman Catholicism between the time of the Reformation and the time of Vatican II have largely been supportive of the very types of government and approaches that are antithetical to political freedom, capitalism, and the progressive application of reason that Stark identifies with the success of the West. Yet today it is true that in many ways the church has transformed and become much closer to the Protestant church. Nevertheless, deep divisions still remain despite some closing of the historic gap. It can be said that with the Roman Church’s current emphasis on ideas like political freedom and subsidiarity, Catholicism’s current approach to politics and economics has become much more like that of the Reformation and also and much more like the pre-reformation church’s approach prior to the various changes and instabilities that led to the rise of authoritarian governments in much of Europe during the Renaissance and the modern era.

One of Stark’s most fascinating conclusions is his belief that a free market in religion is helpful to the growth of Christianity and that the denial of that free market and the maintenance of a monopoly in religion in the areas of the New World south of the Rio Grande has been inimical to the growth and flourishing of capitalism and true Christianity among the people up until fairly recent times.

Stark’s book is an enjoyable and fascinating work which is well worth reading.

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