Book Review - The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark

Each time I finish a book I like to post a brief review of its contents with some of my thoughts (just click "Book Reviews" in the labels section to the right). I just finished Stark's book, which I blogged about once before early on in my read. This excellent book seeks to answer one of history's more interesting questions: why has the West far outgained other parts of the world in science, technology, wealth, and human rights?

An answer often given by modern scholars is secularism. That is, the belief that once Western societies left Christianity behind and began trusting in human reason alone to pave the way to the future (a period known as "the Enlightenment"), all these great advances soon followed. And it is the rest of the world's adherence to various religions that holds them back.

Stark's reply: nonsense.

In fact, Stark shows just the opposite: that Christian theology led to a worldview which became the seed bed of all these great accomplishments. For example, this biblical worldview valued individuals as made in God's image, which laid the groundwork for individual liberty and private property rights (as opposed to a tyrant king's right to take whatever he pleased from anyone). These freedoms in turn led to the invention of capitalism, and consequently to rising standards of living.

The Christian worldview was also characterized by a belief in Progress. The idea that God gave us our minds to understand, cultivate, and improve the world around us is found in the writings of some of the earliest church fathers. These basic ideas eventually led to the development of modern science: the rigorous, systematic, empirical study of the world which God left us in charge of. And of course science in turn led to the West's vast advances in technology.

The results of all this historically have been increased productivity, greater individual freedom, and longer, happier lives in Western societies compared to the rest of the world. Stark provides many examples to back up his theory. It's a compelling read.

Stark closes his book with a telling quote from a Chinese scholar who set out to understand how the West had succeeded. This scholar said, " the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this."

We live in confusing times. In America today we do not share a common vision of how face our collective challenges, and how to move beyond them into a brighter tomorrow. Can we come to agreement on how to get there from here? Perhaps it would help if we discovered just how we got "here" in the first place. Stark's book can help us do just that.


Ken said...

I still need to pick this book up, because I feel it is important to read. It sounds like a modern-day Democracy in America. I re-read that about every five years or so to restore my faith in the American system.

I look forward to reading this and will definitely drop you a note when it is done!

Amy Guerino said...

Having just seen Expelled, I am struck by the connection of your last two posts. At one point in the film Darwinist, P.Z. Meyers (I believe) stated his desire for religion to take a back seat and eventually disappear so that science could make greater advancements. Stark is suggesting that Christianity lead to science in the first place. This is a very different perspective that even a Chinese scholar recognized.

Matt Guerino said...

Ken: Aws you can tell I enjoyed the book, and I hope you do too. I look forward to your thoughts when you read it.

Bride: sharp as a nail, you're sharp as a nail! I didn't post those two consecutyively on purpose, but you're right: there's absolutely a connection between them. A big connection

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