A Review of How the West Won. By Rodney Stark.

ISI, 2014.

There are some authors you know will not disappoint, and you so very eagerly await their next volume. Historian and sociologist of religion Rodney Stark is one such writer whose growing library of books are utterly indispensible if you want to get an accurate view of the world we live in.

stark 3The sad truth is, there are all sorts of revisionists out there, especially the historical revisionists. And their contempt for Western civilisation has led them to rewrite the history books, putting their own skewed secular left agenda on everything.

Dozens of such myths and cases of revisionism are tackled by Stark. As he traces in broad brush – yet with copious detail – the rise of the West, of progress, of modernity, he deftly deals with plenty of “absurd, politically correct fabrications” along the way. And throughout he demonstrates the “positive effects of Christianity” on all this.

For example, while noting the many great achievements of ancient Greece, he reminds us of its darker side. Consider this: the economies “of all the Greek city-states rested on extensive slavery. In many, including Athens, slaves probably outnumbered the free citizens.” He reminds us that no Greek philosopher had a problem with this, and it took the rise of Christianity a millennium later in medieval Europe to push for the abolition of slavery.

Consider the old canard about the “Dark Ages”. It is common to believe this was a period of ignorance and superstition, to be rescued by the Enlightenment. This, says Stark, is “a complete fraud”. Instead, this was a period of remarkable progress, innovation and advancement.

He goes on to detail the many changes and advances which took place during this period. “It was during the supposed Dark Ages that Europe took the great technological and intellectual leaps forward that put it ahead of the rest of the world.”

The high culture of the Carolingian Renaissance from the late eight century and the incredible Gothic period can also be mentioned. The latter gave us Chartres Cathedral and the Van Eycks for example. Hardly a barbaric and dark age with all that occurring.

Myths about the Crusades also abound, and Stark has already penned an entire volume on this back in 2009. He reminds us what Islamic atrocities precipitated all this, and how this was not about the pursuit of land and loot: “The truth is the Crusaders made enormous financial sacrifices to go – expenditures that they had no expectations of making back.”

Image of How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity
How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Stark, Rodney (Author) Amazon logo

Think also about the rise of modern science. “The truth is that science arose only because the doctrine of a rational creator of a rational universe made scientific inquiry possible. Similarly, the idea of progress was inherent in Jewish conceptions of history and was central to Christian thought from very early days.”

And again, “Advances in both science and technology occurred not in spite of Christianity but because of it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, science did not suddenly flourish once Europe cast aside religious ‘superstitions’ during the so-called Enlightenment. Science arose in the West—and only in the West—precisely because the Judeo-Christian conception of God encouraged and even demanded this pursuit.”

Christianity also put a check on the abuse of power and helped lay the ground work for new democracies. For example, “Christian theology also provided the moral basis for the establishment of responsive regimes. But political freedom did not emerge throughout Christendom. Rather, it appeared first in a number of Italian city-states.”

In his chapter on the “pursuit of knowledge” he shows how the “fundamental key to the rise of Western civilization” was a commitment to knowledge, and the basis for this was the “Christian commitment to theology.” The much maligned Scholastics, for example, were “fine scholars who founded Europe’s great universities, formulated and taught the experimental method, and launched Western science.”

Real theology, he reminds us, is a “sophisticated, highly rational discipline that has its roots in Judaism and in Greek philosophy but is fully developed only in Christianity.” He concludes this chapter with these words:

“The pursuit of knowledge did not suddenly appear in the seventeenth century. From early days, Christian theologians were devoted to natural philosophy. That provided the fundamental basis for the creation of universities, thus giving an institutional home for science. The Christian thinkers who studied and taught at these universities were responsible for remarkable advances in an era supposedly short on progress.”

The new world conquests and colonies are also the stuff of myth and revisionism. The truth is, the conquered territories in South America were often real hellholes. The ancient Aztecs for example had eighteen major ceremonies a year that required extensive human sacrifices.

And in North America slavery was widely practiced before the arrival of Columbus. And it “was as brutal as anywhere else”. Indeed, in the nineteenth century American Indians began acquiring black slaves.

Stark also demolishes the myth that Islamic culture was once far superior to that of Europe. The so-called scientific advancement came primarily at the hands of Jewish and Christian dhimmies, or slaves, in Muslim lands. And even the acclaimed Muslim architecture was an adoption from Persian and Byzantine origins.

For example, Muslim or Arab “medicine was in fact Nestorian Christian medicine; even the leading Muslim and Arab physicians were trained at the enormous Nestorian medical center at Nisibus in Syria.” And it was Nestorian Christians who primarily collected, translated and oversaw the Greek manuscripts as they were translated into Arabic and Syriac.

One last item: the much despised Industrial Revolution was really a remarkable, humane achievement. Says Stark, the “Industrial Revolution did not initiate child labor, it ended it. From earliest times most children had labored long and hard. But by gathering child laborers into factories, industrialization made them visible” leading to child labor law reforms.

I have only scratched the surface here. This remarkable volume covers so much ground, and bursts so many revisionist bubbles, that the best thing I can do is urge you to get this volume and read it through from cover to cover. Let me conclude with his final words:

“A substantial degree of individual freedom is inseparable from Western modernity, and this is still lacking in much of the non-Western world. No doubt Western modernity has its limitations and discontents. Still, it is far better than the known alternatives – not only, or even primarily, because of its advanced technology but because of its fundamental commitment to freedom, reason, and human dignity.”

[1077 words]

10 Replies to “A Review of How the West Won. By Rodney Stark.”

  1. Sounds like a good read, thank you for the post, Bill. It makes me wonder how things would be in the West if we were taught from books such as this in our schools now instead of being made to feel guilty for all of the world’s problems in our classrooms and in our media.

  2. Stark’s book sounds like a useful antidote to the jaundiced view of the contribution of Christianity to Western civilisation. Having studied Mediaeval History during my first year of university, I can vouch for the fact that it is wrong to automatically equate “mediaeval” with “Gothic horror-story”…

  3. Hi Bill. Thanks for the Rodney Stark recommendation.

    I do not have ‘How The West Was Won’ but have nearly finished his ‘The Victory of Reason’. I think he is one of the most provocative and thoughtful writers I have come across.

    His chapter on “Blessings of Rational Theology” is superb and his grasp not only of history but also of the progress of theological thought in my view places him on par with C S Lewis, notwithstanding that “comparisons are odious” !.
    I think you will agree that first chapter is full of very discerning observations from a biblical perspective as to the importance of what he calls “rational” theological thought.
    e.g., “God reveals himself proportionally to the weakness of those who behold him”. Or: “There are entire realms of discourse that science is unable to address, including such matters as the existence of God” The Dawkins of this world and fellow travellers really ought to take such a truth on board! Also, he appears to reiterate a sound and older theological truth that “science is the “hand-maid of theology”

    Finally, I like his thought that it is only Christianity which brings to the fore the unique importance of the individual (as opposed to “society”) in being the focus of Christian political thought – thus ” Western individualism was largely a Christian creation”. There is so much more of really good stuff. I hope his latest book is in much the same vein Bill?

  4. John. I think your view: “Stark’s book sounds like a useful antidote to the jaundiced view of the contribution of Christianity to Western civilisation” would be more than confirmed by a reading of Stark’s ‘The Victory of Reason’.

    I think your interest and background reading of mediaeval history will be greatly enhanced by Stark as he traces, for instance, the rise of Western capitalism as being traceable to mediaeval Catholicism, and particularly as it was carried forward throughout Europe by such groups as the Cistercians.
    Thus: “Capitalism was not invented in a Venetian counting house, let alone in a Protestant bank in Holland. It was evolved, beginning early in the tenth century by Catholic monks, who, despite having put aside worldly things, were seeking to ensure the economic security of their monastic estates”
    I think this is spot on, and as it happens I live within a few miles of four of the great English Cistercian ruined abbeys, including that of Fountains Abbey which has vast estates all over the north of England and were certainly the ‘capitalists’ of their day – though one might add, not including some of the worst elements of modern secular capitalism such as greed, usury, & etc.

  5. What is seldom commented on is the major Christian contribution to government, and that is because it is usually taken for granted: that government is based on logic. However, every ancient ruler, and every oriental ruler until recently, had its court astronomers and soothsayers as major advisers. Even the logical Roman Empire would not make a decision without examining the flight of birds or the liver of sacrificial animals. Once Christianity came into the picture, this became very much the exception to the rule.

  6. Thanks Bill. I’ve ordered the book from Amazon, because I know there is little chance I’ll ever see it in a public library or mainstream bookstore.

  7. Hi Bill, I’ve read most of Rodney Starks books and I find I can’t get enough of him. Just brilliant. How The West Won was a real tonic and I concur with your review entirely. He’s one of the few atheists or agnostics that not only write great prose but is more that sympathetic and honest about the enormous contribution of Christianity, the Church and christian science made to the success of modernity. Also just had a reread of Ibn Warraq’s Defending The West – A Critique Of Edward Said’s Orientalism – ‘Said’s work taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity.’ Cheers again for you great reviews and excellent blog/website. Ged.

  8. What seems to have been largely forgotten, or revised, is that the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were named for the attempts made by barbaric tribes from northern Europe to extinguish the light of Christianity. That we have any significant learning at all today is thanks to the monks, resident in monasteries, who toiled assiduously to keep the flame alight.
    We owe them an immense debt of gratitude !

  9. I’ve just finished this book. Highly recommend it. The reviewers comments are very accurate. I’m an atheist and I’ve never appreciated how important The Bible and Christianity is to Western Civilisation. This book opened my eyes.

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