Christianity, Reason and the Rise of the West

Despite the superficial and uninformed criticisms of the secularists and the I-hate-God crowd, much of religion has been a force for good in the world. Specifically, the Christian religion has contributed more to the development of the West and its benefits than perhaps any other single factor. Anyone without ideological blinders on can examine the evidence and see for himself.

Indeed, one need not be religious to come to these conclusions. One leading academic who has written extensively on these subjects is Rodney Stark. This expert in the sociology of religion has penned a number of important volumes examining the great contributions Christianity has made to the world, and how it is an indispensable component of the rise and superiority of the West. And of interest, he makes no claims to a religious orientation. He is, in fact, an agnostic.

Thus his words deserve to be taken seriously. They certainly cannot be dismissed as the ravings of a religious fanatic. Some of his most significant recent books I have mentioned elsewhere:

I again urge readers to pick up some of these volumes. They are among the more important works of Christian apologetics, coming from a non-Christian.

His newest volume is The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success. (Random House, 2005). If getting the book, or reading the book, is too much of a burden, there are article-length summaries of this book available. One such article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of The American Enterprise. It is a nice summary of the book and of the case Stark has been making over the years.

He begins by arguing that capitalism and the rise of the West began in just one place: Europe. Why is that?, he asks. It is because Europe was the home of Christianity, and it was the Christian religion that embraced the role of reason. Without the elevation of reason, neither capitalism nor the Western world would have taken off.

Thus a major premise of the secularists and atheists, that Christianity is unreasonable, is clearly way off the mark. Individual Christians may have eschewed reason and embraced foolishness, but Christianity itself is built on the foundation of reason.

Says Stark, “A series of developments allowed reason to shape Western culture and institutions. The most important of these victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reasoning and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.”

He notes how other religions have failed to embrace reason. “As conceived by Chinese philosophers, the universe simply is and always was. They saw no reason to suppose that it functions according to rational laws, or that it could be comprehended in physical rather than mystical terms. Through the millennia, Chinese intellectuals pursued ‘enlightenment,’ not explanations. . . . In Islam, Allah is not presented as a lawful creator, but rather as an extremely active and capricious God who intrudes on the world as he deems appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws, in that they deny Allah’s freedom to act. Islam assumed that the world was sustained by his will on a continuing basis.”

Christianity was distinct among the world religions, and helped to give rise to modern science (another major stumbling block for the secularists, who seek to drive a wedge between faith and science: in truth, it was faith – Christian faith – that gave rise to science). “But from early days, Christian fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to increase their understanding of Scripture and revelation. Consequently, Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past. Encouraged by the Scholastics and the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in reason seeped into all of Western culture. One of its products was science.”

He continues, “During the past century, many intellectuals have assumed that the West surged ahead in areas like capitalism and science precisely as it overcame religious barriers. But in truth, the success of the West in these pursuits rests heavily on religious foundations, and the people who drove the progress were mostly devout Christians. This is true even of the rise of science – which was effectively nurtured by Christianity.”

It was not just the rise of modern science that can be directly attributed to Christianity. Other features of the modern West, including democracy and the rule of law, have to a major extent arisen from the Judeo-Christian worldview. “Equally unappreciated by many modern minds is the fact that democracy, and the moral equality at its root, are also products of Christianity. Through most of human history, and in many parts of the world even today, it has not been assumed that human beings are or deserve to be equals. Only in the Christian West does an assumption of moral equality take precedence, informing social practices and guaranteeing equality before the law, universal voting, and many other forms of equal rights.”

“How many admirers of John Locke’s writing realize that Locke explicitly based his democratic theses on Christian doctrines of moral equality? Most contemporary textbook accounts of the birth of our nation carefully ignore the religious aspect, as if the most famous lines from the Declaration of Independence (‘that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’) had been written by a bunch of skeptics.”

But the critics will ask, what about ancient Greece? Was not this the real birthplace of democracy? Well, not quite, argues Stark: “While the classical world provides examples of democracy, these were not rooted in any general assumptions of equality extending beyond the elite. Even when they were ruled by elected bodies, Rome and the various Greek city-states were sustained by huge numbers of slaves. And just as it was Christianity that eliminated the institution of slavery inherited from Greece and Rome, so too does Western democracy owe its essential intellectual origins and legitimacy to Christian ideas. It all began with the New Testament.”

He then examines the teachings of Jesus and the early Christians, and their radical impact of the notions of equality, justice and democracy. “Despots, whether modern or ancient, rely not simply on fear and corruption to maintain their rule. They also count on a lessened sense of self – of individualism – among their subjects. In the ancient world, East and West, this lack of individualism could be counted on, since no other concept was known. But after the collapse of Rome and the spread of Christianity, the West developed a sense of individualism that supported ideas of equality, moral obligation, and a complex civil society.”

After examining a number of related topics, he concludes his article with these words: “Today, Christianity is becoming globalized far more rapidly than is democracy, capitalism, or modernity, as people the world over have seen fit to embrace the Christian religion and the progressive societies it engenders. There are many reasons people adopt Christianity, including its capacity to sustain a deeply emotional and existentially satisfying faith. But another significant factor is the appeal of the communities and civilizations it gives rise to. Christianity thus remains an essential element in the globalization of humane living. Consider this recent statement by one of China’s leading scholars:”

“‘One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact the pre-eminence, of the West…. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past 20 years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this’.”

“Neither do I.”

Those wanting to take these thoughts further are encouraged to both read this article in its entirety, as well as peruse his more recent volumes. Together they make a substantial and solid case for the primary role Christianity has played in the triumph of the West and the many benefits we today take for granted.

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3 Replies to “Christianity, Reason and the Rise of the West”

  1. Few modern people read John Locke so his reputation is in the hands of myth makers. Modern academics have converted Locke into a puppet to state their opinions.
    In reality, Locke’s notion of tolerance is a specific legal notion about what can be endured. Locke is not a modern multiculturalist. He states it is not possible to tolerate citizens who give their loyalty to another different state or power such as “the mufti of Constantinople”. Locke rejects tolerance of atheists because their word cannot make a contract nor be accepted as evidence. He sees trust as a cornerstone of morality and civil society.

    Mike Roviano

  2. The only thing I find misleading is to think christianism would be a better religion than the others because it brings development. First because this development does’t mean improvement in the moral sense. We can think about all the violence and uneveness that had to happen and still happens in order to the western’s development to take place. Second, because any other religion in the world has contributed and contributes to development, simply because it makes people united toward an objective, and this cooperative force makes great enterprises. Thouthands years before christ, the Pharaos in Egypt evolved a huge developed society by means of their religious social structure. Without this development there would be no christianity. In america, also before christ, there were developed religious societies, that grown based on a different religion than christianism. Development and religion are tied together. Religion represents a cultural organization, a way of thinking of people, their informal commitment on how to interact with each other, and, indirectly, on how development should take place.

    Best, George Bezerra

  3. Thanks George
    You raise some very important issues here. So important in fact that they warrant a full-length article. Stay tuned, and in a day or two that new article covering your concerns shall appear on this website.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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