Rodney Stark: Attracting attention with his revisionist book on religion and capitalism

Historians in the News

Rodney Stark comes out swinging right from the bell in ''The Victory of Reason,'' his fiercely polemical account of the rise of capitalism. Mr. Stark, the author of ''The Rise of Christianity'' and ''One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism,'' is sick and tired of reading that religion impeded scientific progress and stunted human freedom. To those who say that capitalism and democracy developed only after secular-minded thinkers turned the light of reason on the obscurantism of the Dark Ages, he has a one-word answer: nonsense.

''The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians,'' he argues in this provocative, exasperating and occasionally baffling exercise in revisionism. Capitalism, and the scientific revolution that powered it, did not emerge in spite of religion but because of it.

If this sounds paradoxical, it shouldn't, Mr. Stark argues. Despite the prejudiced arguments of anticlerical Enlightenment thinkers, free inquiry and faith in human reason were intrinsic to Christian thought. Christianity, alone among the world's religions, conceived of God as a supremely rational being who created a coherent world whose inner workings could be discovered through the application of reason and logic. Consequently, it was only in the West, rather than in Asia or the Middle East, that alchemy evolved into chemistry, astrology into astronomy.

Mr. Stark gets down to cases quickly. He rapidly administers a few bracing slaps to Max Weber's theory that the Protestant ethic of self-denial and reinvestment propelled capitalism, pointing out that capitalism was in full flower in Italy centuries before the Reformation. As Mr. Stark himself concedes, historians have long since dismantled Weber's elegant and highly influential thesis, but he beats this dead horse one more time.

The most persuasive chapters in ''The Victory of Reason'' describe the early stirrings of free-market enterprise and scientific experimentation on the monastic estates that spread throughout Western Europe after the ninth century. It was during the so-called Dark Ages that Christian monks, throwing off ''the stultifying grip of Roman repression and mistaken Greek idealism,'' developed innovations like the water wheel, horseshoes, fish farming, the three-field system of agriculture, eyeglasses and clocks. ''All of these remarkable developments can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason,'' writes Mr. Stark, who has described himself in interviews, surprisingly, as not religious in any conventional sense....

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Tim Matthewson - 12/31/2005

On the extreme left, the view that secular minded people ushered in the rise of science and capitalism takes on an even more bizarre form. There the view is that it was and is only athiests who were responsible for such changes, a view that is demonstratably false, but it is and has been a view that has been fiercely held in some circiles.