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."
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.
WORLD You argue that the problems of the Spanish empire display, among others things, the disadvantages of having a state church. How?
STARK In two primary ways. First of all, a "kept" church is lazy. When clergy do not rely on the laity for their support, they tend to neglect their pastoral duties. In the case of the Spanish church, because everyone was by law a Roman Catholic, nothing needed to be done to convert them or even to attract them to Mass. In fact, the state collected the church tithes so the clergy had no need to bestir themselves even for money. And that's why until very recently most people in Latin America were only nominal Christians, if that.
The second great shortcoming of state churches is that they are captives of their political rulers. By treaty the King of Spain chose all bishops and cardinals, not only in Spain, but in the empire. Moreover, no church pronouncements, including papal bulls, could be published in any Spanish area without prior consent of the king. As a result a whole series of 15th- and 16th-century papal condemnations of slavery were unknown in Spain and Latin America and were ignored by historians until the past decade or so.
State interference in religious affairs was not unique to Spain. Whether ruled by despots or merely by politicians, where there is a state church the state can never keep itself from interfering in religious affairs. In Scandinavia, where Lutheran state churches prevail, parliaments revise doctrines and even concern themselves with details such as the contents of hymn books. Indeed, in Sweden pastors of the state church (and of other churches as well) are now prohibited from reading in public any portion of the Bible that is critical of homosexuality.
WORLD You've emphasized in your writing the advantages of church competition and religious entrepreneurship. Are those advantages also contributing to the recent growth of Christianity in Latin America, Africa, and China?
STARK In 1881-82 William F. Bainbridge, a prominent American Baptist, visited all American Protestant overseas missions (in those days they were still all coastal and easily reached). He found that in some places the denominations had cut up an area and granted each group an exclusive mission field, but in other places all the denominations competed for converts. He observed that the missionaries were far more successful where they competed. This remains the case. Consider that for centuries Roman Catholics had an exclusive right to missionize Latin America, at the end of which most of the continent was unchurched. Then Protestant missionaries were allowed to enter. The result has been not only the conversion of millions to active Protestantism, but also to so greatly revive Roman Catholicism that it now is growing, too. Meanwhile, the Christianization of Africa is being accomplished by hundreds of competing denominations, most of African origins.
WORLD What do you think the shape of Christianity will be in 2050?
STARK By then Christianity may well be the dominant religion in China. Latin Americans probably will be as churched as North Americans. Africa will be more than half Christian. As for Europe, it will be well along in a major revival of religion, one way or the other: Christian or Islamic.