The Christian worldview
and the West
A review of Rodney Stark’s new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (Isi Books, 2014)
by Bill Muehlenberg
There are some authors you know will not disappoint, and so you eagerly await their next volume. Historian and sociologist of religion Rodney Stark is one such writer whose growing library of books are utterly indispensable if you want to get an accurate view of the world we live in.
The sad truth is, there are all sorts of revisionists out there, especially the historical revisionists. And their contempt for Western civilisation has led them to rewrite the history books, putting their own skewed secular left agenda on everything.
Dozens of such myths and cases of revisionism are tackled by Stark. As he traces in broad brush—yet with copious detail—the rise of the West, of progress, of modernity, he deftly deals with plenty of “absurd, politically correct fabrications” along the way. And throughout he demonstrates the “positive effects of Christianity” on all this.
For example, while noting the many great achievements of ancient Greece, he reminds us of its darker side. Consider this: the economies “of all the Greek city-states rested on extensive slavery. In many, including Athens, slaves probably outnumbered the free citizens.” He reminds us that no Greek philosopher had a problem with this, and it took the rise of Christianity a millennium later in medieval Europe to push for the abolition of slavery.
Consider the old canard about the “Dark Ages”. It is common to believe this was a period of ignorance and superstition, to be rescued by the Enlightenment. This, says Stark, is “a complete fraud”. Instead, this was a period of remarkable progress, innovation and advancement.
He goes on to detail the many changes and advances which took place during this period. “It was during the supposed Dark Ages that Europe took the great technological and intellectual leaps forward that put it ahead of the rest of the world.”
The high culture of the Carolingian Renaissance from the late eighth century and the incredible Gothic period can also be mentioned. The latter gave us Chartres Cathedral and the Van Eyck paintings for example. Hardly a barbaric and dark age with all that occurring.
Myths about the Crusades also abound, and Stark has already penned an entire volume on this back in 2009. He reminds us what Islamic atrocities precipitated the Crusades, and how this was not about the pursuit of land and loot: “The truth is the Crusaders made enormous financial sacrifices to go—expenditures that they had no expectations of making back.”
Think also about the rise of modern science. “The truth is that science arose only because the doctrine of a rational creator of a rational universe made scientific inquiry possible. Similarly, the idea of progress was inherent in Jewish conceptions of history and was central to Christian thought from very early days.”
And again, “Advances in both science and technology occurred not in spite of Christianity but because of it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, science did not suddenly flourish once Europe cast aside religious ‘superstitions’ during the so-called Enlightenment. Science arose in the West—and only in the West—precisely because the Judeo-Christian conception of God encouraged and even demanded this pursuit.”
Christianity also put a check on the abuse of power by governments and helped lay the ground work for new democracies. For example, “Christian theology also provided the moral basis for the establishment of responsive regimes.”
In his chapter on the “pursuit of knowledge” he shows how the “fundamental key to the rise of Western civilization” was a commitment to knowledge, and the basis for this was the “Christian commitment to theology.” The much maligned Scholastics, for example, were “fine scholars who founded Europe’s great universities, formulated and taught the experimental method, and launched Western science.”
Real theology, he reminds us, is a “sophisticated, highly rational discipline that has its roots in Judaism and in Greek philosophy but is fully developed only in Christianity.” He concludes this chapter with these words:
“The pursuit of knowledge did not suddenly appear in the seventeenth century. From early days, Christian theologians were devoted to natural philosophy. That provided the fundamental basis for the creation of universities, thus giving an institutional home for science. The Christian thinkers who studied and taught at these universities were responsible for remarkable advances in an era supposedly short on progress.”
The new world conquests and colonies are also the stuff of myth and revisionism. The truth is, the conquered territories in South America were often real hellholes. The ancient Aztecs for example had eighteen major ceremonies a year that required extensive human sacrifices.
And in North America slavery was widely practiced before the arrival of Columbus. And it “was as brutal as anywhere else”.
Stark also demolishes the myth that Islamic culture was once far superior to that of Europe. The so-called scientific advancement came primarily at the hands of Jewish and Christian dhimmies, or slaves, in Muslim lands. And even the acclaimed Muslim architecture was an adoption from Persian and Byzantine origins.
For example, Muslim or Arab “medicine was in fact Nestorian Christian medicine; even the leading Muslim and Arab physicians were trained at the enormous Nestorian medical center at Nisibus in Syria.” And it was Nestorian Christians who primarily collected, translated and oversaw the Greek manuscripts as they were translated into Arabic and Syriac.
One last item: the much despised Industrial Revolution was really a remarkable, humane achievement. Says Stark, the “Industrial Revolution did not initiate child labor, it ended it. From earliest times most children had labored long and hard. But by gathering child laborers into factories, industrialization made them visible” leading to child labor law reforms.
I have only scratched the surface in this review. This remarkable volume covers so much ground, and bursts so many revisionist bubbles, that the best thing I can do is urge you to get it and read it through from cover to cover. Let me conclude with his final words:
“A substantial degree of individual freedom is inseparable from Western modernity, and this is still lacking in much of the non-Western world. No doubt Western modernity has its limitations and discontents. Still, it is far better than the known alternatives—not only, or even primarily, because of its advanced technology but because of its fundamental commitment to freedom, reason, and human dignity.”