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Issue Date:  June 2, 2006

By Rodney Stark
Random House, 281 pages, $25.95
Is Christianity the root of all progress?

Author provides useful information, but his conclusions are shaky


In his latest work, Rodney Stark tries to show how Christianity, uniquely among the world’s faiths, was a major force in the advancement of freedom, capitalism and Western civilization. As his title indicates, his theory is based on the idea that the Christian emphasis on reason contributed to these developments from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

Not one for nuance, the Baylor University sociologist asserts that the assumption of progress “may be the most critical difference between Christianity and all other religions,” that the theological conviction that slavery is sinful “has been unique to Christianity” and that “only Christianity has devoted serious and sustained attention to human rights.” Statements like these led Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe to denounce Dr. Stark’s thesis as anti-Jewish and “vile,” but The Victory of Reason takes a triumphalistic view of Christianity in comparison to all other religions, not only Judaism. Its major flaw is more one of hasty generalization, which is more evident in what he doesn’t say than in his bold statements.

Dr. Stark provides a wealth of evidence to show that the so-called Dark Ages were actually a period of innovations in production and transportation, which in turn led to the creation of capitalistic economies. In demonstrating Christian opposition to slavery during the colonial period, he sheds light on three largely forgotten decrees by Pope Paul III in 1537 -- which were ignored by the Spanish colonists at the time.

Unfortunately, Dr. Stark ignores notable developments that opposed the trends he celebrates. He portrays Christianity as the champion of scientific progress with no mention of the church’s attitude toward Galileo. His depiction of Christians as stalwart foes of slavery is unmarred by mention of the professing Christians who fought against abolition in England and the United States. And his effort to connect Christianity with reason and capitalism ignores Catholic and Protestant leaders, from popes to Reformers, who cautioned against the excesses of both.

These anomalies may be due not so much to blind spots on the part of Dr. Stark as to his reinterpretations and redefinitions of conventional historical dogma. He maintains, for example, that Latin America was never a “Catholic continent” if the term is used to mean a place in which the majority of the people were genuine practitioners of the faith. Although he may have a good technical point, this reasoning would require that we discard any references to Protestant countries and Catholic countries in examining the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It also enables believers to get off the historical hook by maintaining that atrocities during the Crusades, Inquisition and later periods weren’t committed by “real Christians.”

One of the little-noticed aspects of Dr. Stark’s book, which might give some of his conservative supporters pause, is his emphasis on the openness of Christianity to progress and new understandings of God’s will. “Christian theology has never crystallized,” he writes. “If God intends that scripture will be more adequately grasped as humans gain greater knowledge and experience, this warrants continuing reappraisal of doctrines and interpretations.” These comments have implications for such issues as abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women that might make progressives cheer and traditionalists tremble.

The Victory of Reason provides a great deal of useful information if one is willing to distinguish between Dr. Stark’s facts and the conclusions he draws from them. Even if he throws the baby out with the bathwater, there’s no reason for his readers to do the same.

Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2006

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