In The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark attempts to show that Christianity caused the rise and dominance of Western civilization. In particular, Christianity provided the basis for rational(scientific) thinking, political freedom, and capitalism—the trifecta of Western progress.
Stark asserts that Christianity, in contrast to polytheism and pantheism, understands the world as the creation of a personal Creator, and thus obeying discoverable, rational laws. Christianity differs from other monotheistic religions by its belief in progress. I suspect Stark is guilty of equivocation here. Christian theologians did expect theological and moral progress to be made as God’s kingdom advanced, but I doubt seriously that they entertained a “faith in progress” pertaining to secular matters. Augustine, to whom Stark appeals, acknowledged technological progress but viewed it as vanity. Stark’s presentation of Christianity accurately describes 19th-century liberalism more than the early Fathers.
The rest of the book traces progress. The Middle Ages were not Dark Ages, but rather a time of technological advance and political experimentation. For the most part, learning and progress occurred in the Church and with its approval. Contradicting Max Weber’s thesis concerning the link between Protestantism and capitalism, Stark shows that capitalism was born in Catholic monasteries and flourished in Catholic Italy.
The key factor determining the spread of capitalism was political freedom. A despotic state naturally gravitates toward a command economy, whereas relatively independent communities allow individual economic initiative. In this section, religion plays a small role, as Stark details how and when each city became an economic force. As capitalism spread north into Protestant countries, it was smothered by new despotic regimes in the Catholic countries. Tyranny, not religion, is Stark’s answer to the Weber thesis.
For a book seeking to demonstrate the religious foundations of Western culture, it has a strikingly secular tone. Throughout the book are hints that Christianity is laudable precisely because it allowed this cultural flourishing, not because of its own religious values. Even the title intimates that Stark is interested not so much in the content of Christian belief as in its rational theological method. This raises the question whether Stark takes Christianity seriously as a religion, as a faith that announces the significance of eternal and otherworldy values. He tips his hand in one shockingly transparent passage:
Soon after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312, there came to be essentially two Catholic churches. Prior to Constantine, the church was led by a dedicated, poorly paid, and rather ascetic clergy, who sometimes knowingly risked martyrdom. This group, and its heirs, constituted the church of piety. But when Constantine began to shower the church with privileges and subsidies, he “precipitated a stampede into the priesthood” by the sons of the upper classes, since church offices now produced high incomes and had substantial political influence. Soon, church positions, even lowly parish pastorships, were bought and sold as investments—higher offices often carrying enormous price tags. This new church hierarchy formed the church of power…. A clergy of “investors” was unlikely to be hostile to commerce, and during the formation and rise of capitalism, the church of power led the way to accommodate traditional ascetic religious predilections to economic realities. Put another way, had the church of piety prevailed, Christianity probably would have continued to denounce usury and to oppose profit and materialism in general, just as Islam still does…. In recovering the lost virtues of the church, the leaders of the Counter-Reformation also restored a faith best suited for a far earlier time, a faith compatible with command economies but completely out of touch with democracy, let alone capitalism. (202-3)
Ironically, a book that asserts the theological foundations of commerce and culture chides theology for not accommodating itself to commerce and culture. Stark undercuts his own thesis. If pre-Constantinian Christianity (and its repristination in Puritanism, Trentian Catholicism, and liberation theology) was a hindrance to progress, then Christianity itself cannot be the cause of Western success. It seems rather that the Christianity that created modern culture was itself the creation of late Roman culture.
If Christianity had to be alloyed with elite Roman culture, surrendering some of its distinctive values in the process, how can it be the impetus for change? If theology is to be judged by its fitness with the culture, how can it compel the culture? In the conclusion, Stark faces the question whether Christianity, having produced modern culture, can now be discarded. It is telling that he is unable to give a rational rebuttal, but merely settles for noting the continued progress of Christianity and the absence of a secular world power. Although I enjoyed reading The Victory of Reason and benefited from individual portions, I am not convinced that it presents a coherent thesis. Even so, both the history and the contemporary statistical data may be interesting to many readers.