Rodney Stark, professor of the social sciences at Baylor University, argues that Christianity, far from inhibiting the development of science, actually gave birth to science in the Western world. In “How Christianity (and Capitalism) Led to Science,” published in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stark sets out his case:
When Europeans first began to explore the globe, their greatest surprise was not the existence of the Western Hemisphere, but the extent of their own technological superiority over the rest of the world. Not only were the proud Maya, Aztec, and Inca nations helpless in the face of European intruders, so were the fabled civilizations of the East: China, India, and Islamic nations were “backward” by comparison with 15th-century Europe. How had that happened? Why was it that, although many civilizations had pursued alchemy, the study led to chemistry only in Europe? Why was it that, for centuries, Europeans were the only ones possessed of eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy cavalry, or a system of music notation? How had the nations that had arisen from the rubble of Rome so greatly surpassed the rest of the world?
Historians (even Marxists) often attribute Western superiority in science and technology to capitalism, but Stark offers another explanation:
A series of developments, in which reason won the day, gave unique shape to Western culture and institutions. And the most important of those victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth. Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy. But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions. Those remained typical mystery cults, in which ambiguity and logical contradictions were taken as hallmarks of sacred origins. Similar assumptions concerning the fundamental inexplicability of the gods and the intellectual superiority of introspection dominated all of the other major world religions. But, from early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase understanding of Scripture and revelation. Consequently Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past.
Stark argues that the so-called “Dark Ages” were not so dark after all, and that during these centuries “European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world.” In the end, “Christian faith in reason and in progress was the foundation on which Western success was achieved.”
In an interview with World Magazine, Stark explained: The other great faiths either taught that the world is locked in endless cycles or that it is inevitably declining from a previous Golden Age. Only Christians believed that God’s gift of reason made progress inevitable–theological as well as technical progress. Thus, Augustine (ca. 354-430) flatly asserted that through the application of reason we will gain an increasingly more accurate understanding of God, remarking that although there were “certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation that we cannot yet grasp . . . one day we shall be able to do so.”
Nor was the Christian belief in progress limited to theology. Augustine went on at length about the “wonderful–one might say stupefying–advances human industry has made” and attributed all this to the “unspeakable boon” that God has conferred upon His creation, a “rational nature.” These views were repeated again and again through the centuries. Especially typical were these words preached by Fra Giordano in Florence in 1306: “Not all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end to finding them.”
Stark’s new book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, is to be released by Random House in December.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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