The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages - The Objective Standard

A Critique of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, by Rodney Stark. New York: Random House, 2005. 304 pp. $25.95 (cloth), $15.95 (paperback).

In recent decades, medieval scholars have persistently advanced the thesis that the Dark and Middle Ages were not actually dark—that the 1,000-year period stretching from the fall of Rome (roughly 500 AD) to the Renaissance (roughly 1500) was an era of significant intellectual and cultural advance. tragedy-of-theologyThis trend has culminated in the claims of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (and similar claims presented in Thomas Woods’s How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization). That such a theory would be welcomed by the religious right is not surprising. However, what might surprise some—and what is certainly ominous—is that such major organs of the liberal press as The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education (the leading publication for university professors and administrators) have treated Stark’s book with significant respect. This essay will demonstrate that such respect is entirely undeserved.

The thesis of Stark’s book is that the Catholic Church promoted a cultural commitment to reason that enabled the West to rise. Medieval Christianity was fundamentally, perhaps exclusively, responsible for the great progress wrought by Western Civilization in philosophy, the arts, science, technology, and freedom. As Stark states his claim:

But if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that the truly fundamental basis for . . . the rise of the West was an extraordinary faith in reason.

The Victory of Reason explores a series of developments in which reason won the day, giving unique shape to 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 reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth. . . . Encouraged by the Scholastics and embodied in the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in the power of reason infused Western culture, stimulating the pursuit of science and the evolution of democratic theory and practice.

The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.1

This book, and others like it—along with their admiring treatment by the mainstream liberal press—are signs of the resurgence of Christianity in America. This is all the more frightening because the arguments are being delivered and embraced at an intellectual, not merely a grassroots, level. If such arguments were sound, their growing acceptance among contemporary intellectuals would present no problem; but, as will be shown, this pro-religion thesis, although convincing to some, is egregiously and provably mistaken.

Stark, a professor of social sciences at Baylor University, is absolutely correct in his rare identification that a commitment to reason was the fundamental cause of the spectacular progress achieved in the West and nowhere else. But he is profoundly mistaken in ascribing the basis of that commitment to Christianity. Indeed, the West has risen much more slowly and incompletely than it otherwise might have, precisely because of its deep ambivalence to reason. Throughout the ages, and continuing to this day, there has existed in the West a chronic backsliding into irrationality that has often tragically exceeded its commitment to rationality. There is a profound dualism in Western thought: Its dedication to reason, though certainly outstripping that of other cultures, exists in desperate conflict with several versions of unreason, including faith. Expressed in terms of major figures, Jesus and his followers—not merely Aristotle and his—have been enormously influential in Western thinking. Christianity, emphatically including the medieval Church, more than any other single factor, is responsible for the irrationality of Western society. The commitment to rationality is fundamentally a legacy of ancient Greece—preeminently of Aristotle—and of subsequent periods when the Greek element was dominant, for example, the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Stark’s errors are rampant and across-the-board. They span the fields of history and, above all, philosophy. Indeed, as will be shown, Stark’s claims are historically false and philosophically impossible. . . .

Endnotes

1 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), pp. x–xi.

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2 Ibid., xiv–xv, 35, 38–42.

3 Angus Maddison, Phases of Capitalist Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 4–7. Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001), p.1. Andrew Bernstein, The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (Lanham, Md.: 2005), pp. 73–136.

4 Graeme Snooks recounted in Joyce Burnette and Joel Mokyr, “The Standard of Living Through the Ages,” in The State of Humanity, edited by Julian Simon (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), pp. 136–39.

5 Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th18th Centuries (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 73–78.

6 J. J. Bagley, Life in Medieval England (London: B.T. Batsford, 1960), pp. 57–59, 156–159. Mabel Buer, Health, Wealth and Population in the Early Days of the Industrial Revolution (New York: Howard Fertig, 1968), pp. 104–105. Norman Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague (New York: Perennial, 2002), pp. 6–8. www.stanford.edu/~mooreChapter2.pdf.

7 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 141–142.

8 Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), pp. 61–62.

9 Andrew Coulson, Market Education: The Untold History (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999), pp. 58–60.

10 Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), p. 123.

11 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 139–142. Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), pp. 59, 61–62. Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), pp. 268–269.

12 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 35.

13 See Andrew Bernstein, The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (Lanham, Md.: 2005), pp. 73–161.

14 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1966, 1969). Andrew Bernstein, The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (Lanham, Md.: 2005), 41–54, 70–72, 73–101.

15 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 63–65.

16 Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), pp. 3–8.

17 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 125–127.

18 Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), pp. 769–776. Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), p. 296.

19 Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), pp. 140–157. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), pp. 769–784. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 67–69.

20 Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), pp. 931–948. Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), pp. 88–126. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 190–196.

21 For the quote and examples in the preceding three paragraphs, and for more such examples, see Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), pp. 949–983 (quote, p. 950).

22 Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), pp. 194–207. Regarding the persecution of the pagans, see, for example, Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); regarding that of the Jews, see James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghlin Mifflin, 2001), and Gustavo Perednik, “The Nature of Judeophobia,” www.perednik.org. To study the persecution of many women as “witches” who were religious non-conformists, see Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London: Longman, 1995), and Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe: 400–1700 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

23 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 7.

24 Ibid., pp. 30–31.

25 Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), pp. 931–983. Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), pp. 88–167. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 60–69, 125–126, 172–173, 211.

26 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), pp. 8–9.

27 Adrian Hastings, “Reason,” The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Quoted in Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), pp. 286–287.

28 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 72–138.

29 Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by J. G. Pilkington (Liveright, NY, 1943), VIII, pp. vii, 16. Quoted in W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), p. 106.

30 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 5.

31 Ibid., p.6. L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), pp. 149, 219, 229–230, 277.

32 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 169–170.

33 Aristotle, Metaphysics, translated by Richard Hope (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975), book I, pp. 3–6; Posterior Analytics, translated by G. R. G. Mure in The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), book II, pp. 184–186; Nicomachean Ethics, edited by Richard McKeon, pp. 935–1112; W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol.1, The Classical Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1969), pp. 214–311. Sir David Ross, Aristotle (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 1–16, 161–239. John Herman Randall, Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 27–28, 107–144.

34 John Herman Randall, Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 1. Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 1. Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), pp. 55–68.

35 History of Animals, translated by D. W. Thompson in The Works of Aristotle, edited by J. A. Smith and W. D. Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1910–1952, vol. IV (1910), 561a3. Quoted in W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 1, The Classical Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969), pp. 233–235.

36 William Wallace, “Foreword,” Albertus Magnus On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, translated and annotated by K. F. Kitchell and I.M. Resnick, 2 vols. (Baltimore.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), vol. 1, pp. xvi–xx; and, regarding Albert’s achievements as a scientist, pp. 18–42. See also A. C. Crombie’s magisterial three volume study of the history of science, Styles of Scientific Thinking (London: Duckworth, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 1259–61 and 1503, note 53.

37 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, The Medieval Mind, p. 141.

38 Ibid., p. 166.

39 Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children, passim. Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the 12th Century (New York: Meridian Books, 1970), pp. 278–365.

40 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 6.

41 Ibid., pp. 21–22.

42 Ibid., pp. 13–14, 17–20.

43 Aristotle, On the Heavens, translated by J. L. Stocks, The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, 2 vols., edited by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 306a 7–17. Werner Jaeger, Aristotle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934), passim. John Herman Randall, Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 20–22, 28–30.

44 Sir David Ross, Aristotle (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 118.

45 David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 63.

46 Allan Gotthelf, “Aristotle as Scientist: A Proper Verdict,” in his Teleology, First Principles, and Substance: Essays on Aristotle’s Biology, forthcoming (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 62-68.

47 Allan Gotthelf, “Darwin on Aristotle,” Journal of the History of Biology, 1999, pp. 3–30.

48 Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 87–90. Sir David Ross, Aristotle (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. XIV, 117–131. John Herman Randall, Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 145–148, 165–167, 219–242.

49 David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 62–68. Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 8–13.

50 Quoted in Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 306–307.

51 Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican, translated by Stillman Drake (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 110–111. Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 304–312. Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), pp. 6–11.

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