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?