READING GROUPThe Victory of Reason (Stark) 1.iiMorality, individualism, slavery

This one will be brief as a) the material is shorter, and b) I’m just wanting to get back on to the saddle.

In the second half of chapter one, Stark extends his argument from science to morality, arguing that many of the most important moral characteristics of Western civilisation derive from Christian theological insights. Two in particular are singled out: the rise of individualism, and the abolition of slavery. He writes: “The blessings of a theology of reason were not confined to the sciences. From its earliest days, Christianity was equally inventive in its conceptions of human nature and in confronting issues of morality. Chief among these were propositions concerning fundamental human rights such as liberty and freedom. And underlying these ideas was something even more basic: the ‘discovery’ of individualism – of the self.”

Stark (drawing on Colin Morris, a book I’d recommend reading) argues that “the Western sense of individualism was largely a Christian creation”, pointing out that earlier societies, eg Ancient Greece, had no equivalent concept. Stark develops this by bringing in the Christian doctrines of sin and free will, arguing that “Jesus taught that each individual must atone for moral lapses precisely because these are wrong choices. There could be no more compelling intellectual emphasis on self and individuality than this.”

This emphasis upon selfhood was extended, argues Stark, into the abolition of slavery. He writes “While no one would argue that medieval peasants were free in the modern sense, they were not slaves, and that brutal institution had essentially disappeared from Europe by the end of the tenth century. Although most recent historians agree with that conclusion, it remains fashionable to deny that Christianity had anything to do with it” and adds “Slavery ended in medieval Europe only because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews). Within the context of medieval Europe, that prohibition was effectively a rule of universal abolition.”

Stark asserts that “The theological conclusion that slavery is sinful has been unique to Christianity (although several early Jewish sects also rejected slavery). here too can be seen the principle of theological progress at work, making it possible for theologians to propose new interpretations without engendering charges of heresy… of the major world faiths, only Christianity has devoted serious and sustained attention to human rights, as opposed to human duties.” Stark contrasts Christianity with all the other world faiths, pointing out that “there is not even a word for freedom in the languages in which their Scriptures are written – including Hebrew”. Stark is particularly critical of Islam, pointing out earlier that the only places where slavery continued in Christendom were those with extensive contact with Islam, and that it is impossible for Islam to outlaw slavery for the simple reason that “Mohammed bought, sold, captured and owned slaves.” He argues that “While Christian theologians were able to work their way around the biblical acceptance of slavery, they probably could not have done so had Jesus kept slaves. That Muhammad owned slaves has presented Muslim theologians with a fact that no intellectual maneuvring could overcome, even had they desired to do so.”

Some questions:
1. Is it true that Christianity has a uniquely positive view of the individual self?
2. Is it true that Christianity is more hostile to slavery than other faiths, and more embracing of human rights?
3. It is true that other faiths cannot evolve in the same way?

READING GROUPThe Victory of Reason (Stark) 1.i

As mentioned earlier, I plan to run a ‘reading group’ looking at interesting books on a weekly basis. I’ll normally post on a Thursday morning, as that is when I can normally guarantee some quality time to look at it. We being with Rodney Stark’s “The Victory of Reason” – How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism and western success.

Preface & Chapter 1.i

The main burden of this section is about the way that Christian theology was the necessary precondition for the rise of science – that, in fact, science cannot proceed without using Christian theological assumptions. Stark writes:

“…the West is said to have surged ahead precisely as it overcame religious barriers to progress, especially those impeding science. 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.”

Stark begins chapter 1 by outlining his conception of theology which, in contrast to its popular image, is ‘highly rational – formal reasoning about God’. This rational emphasis included the ability to develop new doctrine on the basis of such reasoning, and Stark gives the examples of Augustine rejecting astrology, and the notion of Mary’s perpetual virginity. In the Christian outlook, therefore, the use of reason was encouraged, enabled, and allowed to be fruitful – it was seen as an indispensable component of faith. Whilst Stark acknowledges some difference of view amongst theologians (eg Bonaventure) he comments that “[their] views did not prevail – if for no other reason than because official church theology enjoyed a secure base in the many and growing universities, where reason ruled.”

Moreover, this view of reason was one that assumed the possibility of progress, ie that over time people could gain “an increasingly accurate understanding of God’s will”, and that “the assumption of progress… may be the most critical difference between Christianity and all other religions.”

This progress applied to the study of the natural world, which was seen as reflecting the nature of the Creator, and this is where Christianity is substantively essential for the establishment of science. The universe has a stable, rational, intelligible structure which reflects the nature of God and is open to our increasing comprehension – “This was the key to many intellectual undertakings, among them the rise of science.” Stark goes on, “Not only were science and religion compatible, they were inseparable – the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars.” Stark goes on to briefly survey China, Greece and Islam, to explain why their differing religious perspective inhibited the development of science in those societies.

In short, science was developed in a Christian culture because only Christians believed, as a result of their theological insight, that science both could and should be done: “The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God. In order to love and honour God, it is necessary to fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork…”

Some suggested questions to trigger discussion:

1. I believe it to be true that science depends upon a Christian theological framework, but I’m not convinced that Stark gives enough of an argument in favour. Do you find him convincing on this core point?

2. Stark doesn’t take any time to explain his conception of “reason”, which is central to his case in a number of different ways. Is this a major flaw?

3. Stark makes the curious argument that “The East lacks theologians because those who might otherwise take up such an intellectual pursuit reject its first premise: the existence of a conscious, all-powerful God.” I see this statement as both a) trivially true (ie by definition) and b) remarkably silly. Is Eastern thought as philosophically rich as Christian thought?

4. In an environment where the practice of science is under increasing cultural strain, one implication of Stark’s argument is that the preservation of science can most effectively be undertaken by Christians. Is this plausible?

5. Much media presentation depends upon the idea that science and religion are in inevitable conflict. If Stark is correct then this is a pernicious falsehood – where might it have come from, and whose interests are served by the propagation of this falsehood?

Feel free to answer these in the comments, or throw up anything else that strikes you.

A reading group

Over the last few months Stephen Law led a ‘group read’ of Dawkins’ God Delusion, which I think worked out fairly well, although I didn’t comment as much as I might have done as he was fairly restrictive in what he wanted to cover. I’m inclined to do something similar here, as I think there is a good crowd of people from all over the spectrum of belief and unbelief.

The book I’m going to begin with is Rodney Stark’s “The Victory of Reason”. I’ll write a chapter summary at the beginning of each week and try and kick off some vigorous and fruitful discussion.

I’ll begin in January – which should give anyone who wants to join in time to get hold of the book.