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A reasonable religion

Interview | Author Rodney Stark on how Christianity changed politics, economics, and much besides

Issue: "Into the light," Dec. 3, 2005

Rodney Stark's latest book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005), is scheduled for publication next Tuesday. It's a useful corrective for folks in Austin, Boston, and other blue spots who think of Christianity and rationalism as opposite historical forces and philosophical concepts. The veteran Baylor professor discussed with WORLD how the Christian sense of progress led to political, technological, and economic advances.

WORLD How is Christianity unique in emphasizing the idea of progress?

STARK The other great faiths either taught that the world is locked in endless cycles or that it is inevitably declining from a previous Golden Age. Only Christians believed that God's gift of reason made progress inevitable-theological as well as technical progress. Thus, Augustine (ca. 354-430) flatly asserted that through the application of reason we will gain an increasingly more accurate understanding of God, remarking that although there were "certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation that we cannot yet grasp . . . one day we shall be able to do so."

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Nor was the Christian belief in progress limited to theology. Augustine went on at length about the "wonderful-one might say stupefying-advances human industry has made" and attributed all this to the "unspeakable boon" that God has conferred upon His creation, a "rational nature." These views were repeated again and again through the centuries. Especially typical were these words preached by Fra Giordano in Florence in 1306: "Not all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end to finding them."

WORLD But a lot of us learned that Europe fell into the "Dark Ages." How did that historical understanding originate, and what's wrong with it?

STARK The Dark Ages have finally been recognized as a hoax perpetrated by anti-religious and bitterly anti-Catholic, 18th-century intellectuals who were determined to assert their cultural superiority and who boosted their claim by denigrating the Christian past-as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after Rome came the "triumph of barbarism and religion." In the past few years even encyclopedias and dictionaries have begun to acknowledge that it was all a lie, that the Dark Ages never were. This always should have been obvious since by the end of the so-called Dark Ages, European science and technology had far exceeded that of Rome and Greece, and all the rest of the world, for that matter.

WORLD Could you be specific? What were some of the "Dark Ages" innovations that show the folly of considering Greek and Roman culture the apex of civilization until recent times?

STARK How about the perfection and widespread use of waterwheels, windmills, and pumps, the invention of the compass, stirrups, the crossbow, canons, effective horse harnesses, eyeglasses, clocks, chimneys, violins, double-entry bookkeeping, and insurance? This list doesn't begin to do justice to this era that historians of science now refer to as an age of remarkable innovation and discovery.

Perhaps the most revealing instance involves the "story" that in order to gain backing for his great voyage west, Columbus had to struggle against ignorant and superstitious churchmen who were certain that the earth was flat. Truth was that all educated Europeans, including bishops and cardinals, knew the earth was round. What produced church opposition to the Columbus voyage was that Columbus believed the circumference of the earth was only about one-fifth of its actual distance. Thus, the church scholars who opposed him did so because they knew that he and his sailors were bound to perish at sea. And they would have done so had the Western Hemisphere not been there to replenish their food and water.

WORLD So Christians were pro-science, but you suggest that the Muslim conception of God held back the rise of science in the Islamic world?

STARK Allah was not conceived of as creator of a universe governed by "natural" rules, in contrast with the prevailing Christian conception of Jehovah as the Great Clockmaker. Instead, their image of Allah encouraged Muslims to focus their attention on interpreting divine laws governing human behavior, not to search for the divine "secrets" that govern the universe.

WORLD You say the Christian doctrine that sin is a personal responsibility made a difference in the extension of liberty and economic opportunity in the early modern era.

STARK The admonition "Go and sin no more" is absurd if we are mere captives of our fate. Christianity teaches that we have free will and therefore must be relatively free of compulsions. This theological insight led directly to doctrines that opposed repressive states, slavery, and other forms of exploitation and in favor of private property and freedom of conscience. These freedoms often were not achieved, but their clear basis in Christian doctrines did result in some relatively free, early European societies, initially in the medieval Italian city-states, and in the eventual spread of democracy.

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