In recent years, a small but assertive set of atheist writers has emerged, declaring that religious belief is a threat to the planet and to everything that lives upon it, and that society and human history would be better off if theism were to disappear.
They draw their inspiration, and a certain degree of at least superficial credibility, from the murderous excesses of contemporary Islamic jihadism, but their sweeping judgments extend far beyond Muslims and the Middle East. Western writers addressing a Western audience, their principal target is plainly not Islam, but Christianity.
A useful antidote to this somewhat fashionable nonsense is Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005). Stark, a prolific author and one of the most prominent living authorities on the sociology of religion, taught for many years at the University of Washington and is now the holder of a prestigious professorship at Baylor University in Texas.
In recent years, he has turned his acute social-scientific eye from the contemporary scene to matters historical, producing such important, original, and provocative works as, among others, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton, 1996), One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton, 2003), and Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
In The Victory of Reason, Stark marshals fascinating detail, little known facts, and a clear and very readable prose to make the case that it is Christianity, and specifically Christian theology (along with the attitudes and institutions that it engendered), that is directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, scientific, economic, and political developments of the past thousand years.
The book is an implicit attack on at least two centuries of prejudiced scholarship (from Edward Gibbons’s beautifully eloquent but appallingly partisan and anti-Christian Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the present) and a direct challenge to the trendy antireligious of the intellectual elite of our own time.
Among other things, Stark demonstrates that, “rather than being a period of ignorance and backwardness, the era from the fall of Rome through the Middle Ages was a time of spectacular technological and intellectual progress.” The so-called “Dark Ages” are a myth, largely if not entirely the propaganda creation of secularizing thinkers who self-servingly termed their own period “the Enlightenment” in order to portray themselves as superior.
Likewise, contends Stark, the “Scientific Revolution” of the sixteenth century has been misinterpreted by writers who push the notion of an inherent conflict between science and religion. It is no mere coincidence that true science occurred in Europe, and not in China, India, or even ancient pagan Greece.
The wonderful things that were achieved during this period “were not produced by an eruption of secular thinking. Rather, these achievements were the culmination of many centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastics, sustained by that uniquely Christian twelfth-century invention, the university. Not only were science and religion compatible, they were inseparable – the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars.”
I cannot begin to do justice to the rich detail of the argument laid out by Rodney Stark in The Victory of Reason, nor to the surprising insights that occur on nearly every page of the book. He shows not only how the concept of the individual and of human rights grew out of Christian thinking, but, amazingly, how market capitalism arose in the large monastic institutions of medieval Europe.
It is nave to assume that even wars of religion can really be laid solely at the feet of faith. Human greed and lust for power and xenophobia flourish quite luxuriantly without theology.
But, even beyond that, the great flaw in the argument of those who claim, simplistically, that the world would be a better place without belief in God is their apparent assumption that, while the bad consequences of religion (e.g., the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and similar events) would disappear if faith vanished, the good things inspired by religion would survive its eradication unimpaired.
This seems dubious, at best. And a world without Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost; a world deprived of St. Francis and Mother Teresa and Father Damien, of Maximilian Kolbe and Albert Schweitzer and Corrie Ten Boom; a world lacking Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Mozart’s Requiem, Schubert’s Mass in G, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; a world without Pascal, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky; and, most importantly, a world lacking not only freedom and science but the graces, ethical inspiration, comfort, and meaning provided to many hundreds of millions of people by their religious faith, scarcely seems a self-evidently better place.