Wednesday, May 24, 2006

On Stark's Victory of Reason

I have mentioned before that at the Forum for Ayn Rand Fans a fascinating book discussion has taken place on the new book Victory of Reason by Prof. Rodney Stark. The book argued for the controversial thesis that "Christiantity led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success." I have been following this discussion week by week as they covered each chapter of this book. The more formal discussion has now concluded with the thread open to comments by all. I highly recommend people interested in the history and influence of ideas take a look. Here is an excerpt from moderator's Burgess Laughlin's conclusion:
Prof. Stark declares, “Christianity created Western Civilization.” Unfortunately he has never told us what he means by “Western Civilization.” If he, like most scholars, means simply European culture as a mix of Greek, Semitic, Roman, and Germanic streams, then trial by ordeal, witch-hunts, the Inquisition, “post-modernism,” Marxism, and environmentalism are all elements of Western Civilization, alongside the development of logic, the founding of the U. S., the discovery of penicillin, computers, the science of genetics, and the ideal of constitutional government. Such a definition – Western Civilization as European culture -- is bound mostly by geography and the accidents of history. It is a definition by nonessentials.

If Western Civilization is instead defined by its philosophical fundamentals (the “Civilization” part) within a certain historical context (the “Western” part), then Prof. Stark’s statement is false. Christianity did not create Western Civilization, though it had an enormous influence on European culture.

Philosophically defined, Western Civilization is an interconnected set of cultural elements whose philosophical foundation (cause and explanation) is a philosophy of reason. Historically, the origin of this civilization is not Christianity but the best elements of Greek philosophy as it emerged in Classical Greek culture. By this definition, logic, the sciences (from physics to history), advanced technology, rule by law, representative government, the concept of rights, and romantic-realism in art are all elements of W. Civilization. Why? Because they are products of reason explicated and sanctioned by a stream of philosophy going back to Aristotle and, to a lesser extent, some of his predecessors.

Christianity – the religion advocated by Jesus and Paul (who is sometimes called the “second founder”) was in no way, shape, or form a philosophy of reason. Whether some Christians -- living in the following centuries and receiving a thorough pagan education before converting to Christianity -- helped preserve some elements of a Greek respect for reason (itself diluted and conflicted) is another question. That question is a historical question, specifically a question for the fields of history of philosophy, history of ideas, intellectual history, and cultural history.

I hold that some Christians did (and still do) help preserve a sort of respect for reason (though in a vague, fragmented, and conflicted form). Diverse examples are Pelagius, Boethius, Bernard of Chartres, Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Christine de Pisan, John Locke, and others, including more recent individuals such as Gregor Mendel, Pope John Paul II, and Robert George.

No comments: