(This post first appeared here at the blog of the Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership and Cultural Engagement.)
By Kasey Summerer
In this installment of our series featuring resources on Faith, Work and Economics, we recommend Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.
Stark helps the reader understand and even rethink the way history unfolded concerning innovations of the last millennium within science, industry, politics, and economics. As Stark works his way through history he draws out misconceptions that have arisen over time such as that science is naturally at odds with Christianity and that Christianity is a religion of mere faith and not intellectual thought. From this foundation, Stark proposes the exact opposite- that it is Christianity’s “faith in reason” that caused the West to make technological breakthroughs and propel it economically ahead of the rest of the world.
3 Key Points from the Book
This book challenges the reader to look beyond the face value of the pages of history, asking not merely the “what” but the “why” that caused some of history’s greatest innovations. Stark guides this process by digging deeper into the beliefs that sparked an intellectual revolution.
Christianity’s Rational Theology Sets it Apart
Unlike all other world religions, Stark argues that Christianity alone possesses two key distinct characteristics that predispose its adherents toward a pursuit of knowledge. First, Christianity believes in a God who is a “conscious, rational, supernatural being of unlimited power and scope who cares about humans and imposes moral codes and responsibilities upon them,” and therefore necessitates an exhaustive theology that seeks to answer “serious intellectual questions” (5). Second, Christianity has an extremely high emphasis on orthodoxy, that is, a right understanding of God and therefore emphasizes progress in an effort to gain clearer understanding of the nature of God. Being so, Christianity has been a catalyst for innovation (in science, technology, and morality) in comparison to other religions that stifle innovation either in an effort to follow legal standards (Judaism and Islam) or to pursue spirituality in lieu of theology (Taoism and Buddhism).
Christian Reason and Progress Put Europe on the Map
Due to Christianity’s commitment to reason and progress, Europe experienced remarkable innovation in the period notoriously known as the “Dark Ages.” Unbridled from the control and high taxation of fallen Rome, Europe began to thrive with innovation due to what Stark attributes to the fundamental Christian beliefs of freedom and moral equality of every person. Stark keenly notes that invention and innovation are often stifled under oppressive despots and “tend to occur only where property is safe from seizure either because the state has become disorganized or because its powers have been curtailed” (38). While this period is often veiled behind misconceptions, innovations such as the watermill, eyeglasses, and the mechanical clock found their birth during this time.
Capitalism: A Christian Innovation
Coming out of an age of innovation, founded on the Christian principles of freedom and moral equality, capitalism was born. As Stark asserts, another key Christian principle was foundational in the birth of capitalism: property rights. As Stark writes, “The Bible takes private property rights for granted, often condemning infringements such as theft and fraud” (78). Stark spends extensive time on the issue of property rights, as well as free markets and free labor and shows that in countries where these three were either present or lacking determined whether capitalism either thrived or writhed.
Rodney Stark persuasively points to the underlying source of the modern world we see today: the Christian beliefs and principles that birthed a revolution of thought and innovation. While Stark works as a generalist for the most part (which may the biggest criticism against his book), covering vast brush strokes as he paints the picture of capitalism’s storied history, his point is undeniable: Christianity is not at odds with science, reason, and innovation, but rather is a proponent and even catalyst of all three. This is a great read for anyone looking to better understand Christianity’s relationship to business, economics, and even science.
Read the Book