Book Review: The Victory of Reason
God has blessed Canada. Canada, along with Western countries, is consistently one of the most prosperous, freest, happiest, and most developed countries in the world.
In his book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Rodney Stark, a professor of religious studies, argues that there are three specific reasons why Christianity – as opposed to other world religions – led to freedom, prosperity, and success in the West.
Reason #1: Christianity alone embraced reason as a method of understanding.
Human reason requires a very important premise: that both God and His creation are reasonable. Because God is unchanging, orderly, and reasonable, humans can increasingly know God. This is why Christianity developed an elaborate theology, a “formal reasoning about God” (p. 5).
This is why only the Christian world developed science. This conscious, all-powerful God created the universe to reflect His nature. Since God is immutable and orderly, His creation is also governed by immutable and orderly laws. This insight into the laws of nature forms the basic premise for science. For example, if gravity operated under arbitrary principles – if every time you dropped a rock, the rock fell at different speeds – it would be impossible to gain much understanding into how gravity operates. But gravity is not arbitrary, because nature was designed to be orderly by an orderly God.
Stark provides historical examples of Christians who acted upon this belief: “Newton, Kepler, and Galileo regarded the creation itself as a book that was to be read and comprehended… Rene Descartes justified his search for natural laws on the grounds that such laws must exist because God is perfect and therefore ‘acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible’” (p. 16). All of these scientists made enormous contributions to understanding the natural world. Even in the Dark Ages, Stark chronicles how important innovation and technological advancement grew out of a Christian philosophy.
Other religions could not develop a complex theology or a scientific process because none of them shared this reasonable God. The Greek and Roman religions regarded their gods as whimsical and passionate. Also, although the famous Greek philosophers often made use of reason, they believed that ideals and motives drove nature, rather than natural laws. Islam too believes that Allah interacted with the natural world according to his whims, not according to laws of nature. The Eastern religions – Confucianism, Hinduism, and Taoism – all thought of God as an impersonal life force. None of these religions thought that their god was the creator of the laws of nature and thus nature – as well as god – were not able to be known. Thus, these religions never encouraged the intellectual curiosity necessary to do science. In Stark’s perspective, Christianity led to science because Christianity was a religion of reason.
But Stark forgets that faith is far more fundamental to the Christian life than reason is. Christians are men and women of faith, living by “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is not only a “knowledge” but also a “conviction” and an “assurance” created in us, not through reason, but by the Holy Spirit (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 21). According the Apostles Creed, “I believe,” not “I think” or “I reason.” We live by faith; reason is a wonderful gift from God by which we can strengthen our faith, know God more fully, and understand creation. Which leads to Stark’s second point…
Reason #2: Christianity alone had a faith in progress.
According to Stark, Christians believe that they can understand God and His creation better by studying God’s special revelation and His general revelation. This hunger to know God and His creation better have driven theology and science. This allowed Christianity to be forward-looking and progressive.
The Jewish and Islamic faiths, the only other monotheistic religions that had a chance of developing a deep theology based on reason, were backward-looking. These faiths traditionally have interpreted their scriptures as “law to be understood and applied” and as guides only for right living. Christianity, on the other hand, used Scripture as “the basis for inquiry about questions of ultimate meaning” and as a basis not only for right living but also for right thinking (p. 8). This is why the Christian world developed, while other religious communities stagnated.
However, Stark also misunderstands and mischaracterizes the Christian belief in progress. Stark claims that a fundamental characteristic of Christianity is that “Christian doctrines could always be modified in the name of progress and demonstrated by reason” (p. x). He claims that “devout Christians found it necessary to reformulate fundamental doctrines to make their faith compatible with their economic progress” (p. 55) and that “Christian theology has never crystallized. 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” (p. 63).
While such an evaluation might be true of liberal Christianity, it has thankfully not been the hallmark of Reformed Christianity. We hold that God’s Word and His principles for righteous living and understanding are unchanging. We always understand Scripture as authoritative and use the glasses of Scripture to interpret the rest of the world. The basic tenets of Reformed Christian theology largely have crystallized, although our theology is often applied to new issues or specific doctrines are emphasized to counteract the dominant milieu of modern culture. In the past centuries, Reformed theology has matured but liberal theology has evolved into something else entirely.
Reason #3: Christianity “discovered” individualism.
Stark realizes that “the notion that individualism was discovered seems absurd to the modern mind” (p. 23), but claims that individual freedom as a concept does not exist in most cultures, or even as a word in most non-European languages, including Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament (p. 24). This emphasis on individual freedom spawned developments in morality, human rights, and liberty.
This emphasis on individual freedom stems both from a Christian understanding that sin is personal and from the Christian doctrine of free will. (Stark ignores the fact that humanity has a fallen will but uses the term free will to denote that individuals can choose one thing over another. This stands in contrast to belief in fate or karma, subscribed to by most polytheistic and pantheistic religions.) Despite his emphasis on humanity’s free will and ability to make rational choices, Stark affirms the Christian belief in the sovereignty and providence of God, saying “the doctrines that humans are free to make moral choices and that God is omnipotent are entirely compatible” (p. 25).
Unfortunately, Stark did not expand much on the Christian theological basis for individual freedom, although he spends the majority of his book explaining how this Christian penchant for freedom influenced Western development. He does mention that Christianity was the first religion and culture to embrace the universal moral equality of all humanity based on Jesus’ and Paul’s devotion to all classes of people: Samaritans, publicans, adulterers, beggars, Jews and Gentiles, free men and slave, males and females. Since all people bear the image of God and are morally equal in the sight of God, Christianity slowly began to develop a concept of individual human rights. Although these rights were not codified into law until much later, one early expression of this was the abolition of slavery in Europe during the Dark and Middle Ages.
Stark also credits Christianity for the first protection of private property. Although “the Bible takes private property rights for granted,” laws against theft and covetousness imply the right to private property (p. 78). This commitment to private property was the essential prerequisite for the development of capitalism and economic progress.
Stark credits these three factors – the embrace of reason, a faith in progress, and the discovery of individualism – as the foundational reasons why Christianity has led to the blessings of Western civilization. The majority of The Victory of Reason is devoted to tracing how these religious principles led to the rise of capitalism and freedom in the Italian city-states, Flanders and the Netherlands, England, and North America. Stark also recounts how a rejection of these factors led to stagnation in Spain, France, and Latin America, though they too were Christian.
Other interesting tidbits
Interspersed throughout Stark’s historical narrative are a few other thoughts that I found noteworthy.
Firstly, most of us are familiar with Lord Acton’s phrase, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Stark makes another provocative and pithy statement: “despotic states produce universal avarice” (p. 71). In other words, dictatorships that ignore the right of private property lead to the hoarding of wealth instead of the productive investment of wealth. For example, if the government can take away your house, your factory, or your money at will, there is little incentive for people to build nice homes, to own a factory, or invest money; under these conditions, people will squirrel away their money so that it cannot be seized by the government. This is why democratic, capitalist, and liberal nations are generally prosperous while undemocratic nations without the rule of law or functioning markets are generally poor.
Secondly, Stark also argues that that capitalism and freedom did not grow out of a Protestant philosophy and work ethic. He argues that both first arose in monasteries and matured in various Italian city-states. These developments arose before the Reformation, not after it. Thus, according to Stark, Catholicism was initially responsible for freedom and capitalism. However, Catholics quickly relinquished this torch. In response to the Reformation, the Catholic church experienced a counter-Reformation that eschewed freedom and capitalism. This allowed Protestants to be the sole carriers of the torch of freedom and capitalism in the Western world.
Stark does credit Protestant Christianity for universal literacy and the development of human capital. The “one doctrine most widely shared among the various dissenting Protestant movements was that everyone must consult scripture for themselves” (p. 226). This belief required that the average citizen to be able to read, prompting predominantly Protestant countries like Canada and the United States to develop much higher rates of literacy and human capital than most Catholic European or Latin American states.
Thirdly, Stark introduces a concept that will likely be new to most Christians: religious economy, an application of economic principles to the realm of religion. He describes how “religion languishes in a monopolized religious economy” but “thrives in a free market” (p. 199).
Why? Competition. Countries that historically enforced a state religion – Spain, France, and Latin American countries – ended up being culturally Christian rather than born-again Christian. When different religious traditions have to actively compete for adherents, the result is that each religion or denomination must have a vibrant theology and mission. Stark concludes that religious freedom is important because it allows this competition between faiths and denominations, which strengthens the churches that most faithfully follow God’s Word.
Can capitalism, individual freedom, and science grow in non-Christian nations?
Stark ends The Victory of Reason by questioning whether capitalism, individual freedom, and science can flourish in nations that do not know God. In Western nations, “a strong case can be made that, although Christianity was necessary for the rise of science, by now science [and capitalism and freedom] has become so well institutionalized that it no longer a requires a Christian warrant” (p. 234). In other words, is Christianity the training wheels for capitalism, individual freedom, and science that can be removed once they are up and running? Or does Christianity power Western civilization, just as a person riding a bike powers the bike by pedalling? Is Western civilization gliding along on the momentum provided by Christianity, doomed to falter when Christianity is no longer powering them forward?
Scripture provides us with the answer. In Deuteronomy 7 and 8, God speaks to Israel before they enter the land of Canaan. God promises to bless His people if they remember Him, but He also warns His people of the consequence if mankind forgets God after they have become successful and comfortable. These consequences are disastrous.
We are currently seeing Deuteronomy 8 playing out in the Western world. Much of this world – including much of the Christian church – revels in the prosperity and freedom that Christianity nurtured that they forget the foundation of these blessings: God.
But what about the non-Christian world? Can nations without a Christian heritage or a significant Christian population develop the capitalism, individual freedoms, and scientific method that allowed the Western world to prosper?
Before answering that question, let me be clear that all of these blessings are secondary to the blessing of knowing God. Christianity should never be embraced by an individual or a nation as simply a means of prosperity in this world. This is the message of the prosperity gospel and the worldview of Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8). This cheapens – or flat-out ignores – the heart of the gospel: grace.
Nevertheless, I do believe that nations that embrace Christianity will trend towards capitalism, individual freedom, and scientific understanding. Due to different interpretations of Scripture and different cultures, we should not expect these nations to exactly replicate these systems as Western nations have. But I concur with Stark that faithful Christianity naturally does lead in the direction of capitalism, individual freedom, and scientific understanding. If we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
Although his book contains some flawed understandings about the essence of Christianity and engages in some revisionist history, Stark convincingly outlines how Christian theology contributed to freedom, capitalism, and success in Western civilization. Christians can reference The Victory of Reason to illustrate that the Christian faith, far from being irrelevant to society, results in many blessings to it. But these blessings also can be curses that seduce us away from the Giver of all these things. Let all people keep their eyes firmly fixed on Christ rather than upon earthly things like reason, freedom, capitalism, and Western success.