Category: Public Policy

Here’s a far-ranging essay that has a central thesis which is quite possibly fatally flawed but still touches on some very important points: “A series of developments, in which reason won the day, gave unique shape to Western culture and institutions. And the most important of those victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth.”

In “How Christianity (and Capitalism) Led to Science,” Baylor University Professor Rodney Stark examines the role that Christianity, especially rational Christianity, played in the flowering of Western civilization. Stark points out the flaw in Max Weber’s thesis that capitalism was founded on the Protestant work ethic (“the rise of capitalism in Europe preceded the Reformation by centuries”).

Stated elsewhere, Stark’s modified thesis is this: “But, if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason.” This “faith in reason” was most importantly manifest in Christianity, which, according to Stark, held a consistent dominant view from the church fathers, through the Middle Ages, and up through the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Quotes from Augustine and Tertullian are used to shore up his claim that “from early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase understanding of Scripture and revelation.”

Stark does debunk many pervasive myths in addition to the Weber thesis, such as that the supremacy of the West was based on the secularization and “overcoming” of religious barriers to progress. “Nonsense,” he writes. “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 also exposes “the incredible fiction that, from the fall of Rome until about the 15th century, Europe was submerged in the Dark Ages — centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery — from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously, rescued; first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment.”

Still, Stark’s depiction of the role of reason in the great history of Christian theology is rather markedly simplistic. There are a great many strands of different approaches to the relationship between faith and reason, and not all of them can be disposed of simply by juxtaposing “mystery” and “reason.” Augustine’s view of reason seems particularly distorted by Stark.

Stark makes no distinction between the rational Christianity of the Enlightenment, for example, and the view of reason in Christianity in the dominant Augustinian traditions in the Middle Ages and Reformation. One key aspect that is overlooked is the Christian regard not just for reason in general, but with the reason of regenerate Christians, as opposed to the fallen reason exercised by the unregenerate.

It may well be, in fact, that “the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason,” but from this it does not follow that there is a unanimous Christian approach to reason throughout church history, or that the modern scientific age was not ushered in by an increasing emphasis on reason and rationality as external norms for Christian theology (something quite foreign to most premodern approaches to theology).

All in all, Stark’s piece is a valuable one, but should be approached with some critical caution. He is at his strongest when debunking myths about the rise of capitalism and doing good economic history and analysis: “Tyranny makes a few people richer; capitalism can make everyone richer.” He does a good job of tracing interest in science and technology to a general Christian regard for human reason. He stumbles, however, in his depiction of reason in relation to the enterprise of Christian theology. Stark’s contention that a univocal “faith in reason” existed throughout the last 2,000 years of Christian theology falls flat.

Update: A discussion of this piece is developing over at Mere Comments.

I wrote previously about the result of the recent world information summit that resulted in ICANN’s continuing governance over Internet domain registration worldwide. Fast Company Now provides us a link to the letter from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez that may have precipitated the détente. Among the salient features of the letter:

  • The contention that “support for the present structures for Internet governance is vital. These structures have proven to be a reliable foundation for the robust growth of the Internet we have seen over the course of the last decade.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • “Burdensome, bureaucratic oversight” (read UN involvement) “is out of place in an Internet structure that has worked so well for many around the globe.”
  • An emphasis on non-governmental solutions: “The history of the Internet’s extraordinary growth and adaptation, based on private-sector innovation and investment, offers compelling arguments against burdening the network with a new intergovernmental structure for oversight. It also suggests that a new intergovernmental structure would most likely become an obstacle to global Internet access for all our citizens.”

The tone of the letter is rather unyielding (principled, perhaps?) in the face of complaints against ICANN (and implicitly American) dominance over Internet administration. I find the arguments rather compelling, especially given that ICANN seems to be responsive to global concerns.

For example, a new Internet domain for the European Union opened up this past Wednesday. This will allow interested parties to register with the new “.eu” suffix instead of having to choose from country-specific codes, such as “.uk” or “.fr”, or other generic options, “.com” and “.net”.

So ICANN is listening to the EU, even if the push for the new domain isn’t a grassroots campaign. The question is whether Europeans actually desire a “.eu” domain name: “Some business groups are uncertain how popular it will be. Europeans have an EU flag, an EU passport and an EU anthem but many have a lukewarm attitude to European integration —as French and Dutch ‘no’ votes to a new constitution showed this year.” I don’t think a “.na” (North America) domain would be that popular for Canadians and Americans, for instance.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 9, 2005

You probably have heard of Pascal’s Wager, but have you heard of Kant’s Bet? Immanuel Kant, the 18th century moral philosopher, famous for his discussion of the categorical imperative, has an interesting section bearing on economics in his Canon of Pure Reason (which comes at the conclusion of his Critique of Pure Reason).

In the section discussion epistemology, entitled, “Opining, Knowing, and Believing,” Kant explores the difference between subjective conviction that something is true and objective certainty. The personal basis for such a judgment depends in part on the strength of the subjective belief. Talking specifically about pragmatic beliefs, which adhere to some activity and particular action, Kant writes:

The usual touchstone, whether that which someone asserts is merely his persuasion — or at least his subjective conviction, that is, his firm belief — is betting. It often happens that someone propounds his views with such positive and uncompromising assurance that he seems to have entirely set aside all thought of possible error. A bet disconcerts him. Sometimes it turns out that he has a conviction which can be estimated at a value of one ducat, but not of ten. For he is very willing to venture one ducat, but when it is a question of ten he becomes aware, as he had not previously been, that it may very well be that he is in error. If, in a given case, we represent ourselves as staking the happiness of our whole life, the triumphant tone of our judgment is greatly abated; we become extremely diffident, and discover for the first time that our belief does not reach so far. Thus pragmatic belief always exists in some specific degree, which, according to differences in the interests at stake, may be large or may be small.

In such a way, we can arrive a subjective value of actual beliefs, while at the same time exposing the truth that full subjective conviction cannot be immediately translated into objective certainty. Thus we have Kant’s Bet, not something Kant invented of course, but merely passes along to us as part of the philosophical tradition.

In the twentieth century, Italian statistician Bruno de Finetti came up with a rather more refined and complex version of something like Kant’s Bet, designed as “a method to gauge someone’s confidence in the chances of a given event occurring by measuring it against a lottery with a known probability” (See The De Finetti Game via the evangelical outpost). All this really is a philosophical way of getting at the old cliché, “Put your money where your mouth is.”

I wonder what’s on C-SPAN tonite.

An interesting piece today by George Will, outlining what he calls a new government entitlement program that is being batted around the House and Senate: $990 million (according to the House) or $3 billion (according to the Senate) to subsidize digital converters for television sets. The idea is that by 2009, analog transmission will be a thing of the past, and even though most households by that time will already have digital televisions, our beneficient leaders consider it their responsibility to ensure us that no one is left out in the analog cold. Apparently, the question of personal initiative in this matter is not an issue.

…today’s up-to-date conservatism does not stand idly by expecting people to actually pursue happiness on their own…Given that the transition to digital has been under way for almost a decade, why should those who have adjusted be compelled to pay money to those who have chosen not to adjust?

But leaving the questions of inititative and subsidies aside–whether or not the government ought to be spending money to, in effect, make consumer decisions for us–what makes Congress think this particular sector of the market–televisions–has anything to do with their legislative responsibilities? Who am I, a faithful taxpayer, paying to sit around and write up these plans? Then again, the primary tool of Orwell’s Big Brother was the television screen.

So if these plans pass, twenty-five years after 1984 we can rest assured that Big Brother will be safeguarding all our entertainment needs. Unless, like one scholar around the corner from me at Acton, you hope to be rid of your television by that time anyway.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, December 7, 2005

The new Paramount movie Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic future for humankind. But the “perfect society” will remain a myth this side of the eschaton, says Jordan Ballor. The fulfillment of merely human potential cannot approach the “fullness of hope that comes with the recognition of God and an afterlife,” he writes.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 7, 2005

A Boston-based program operated by clergy and police officers, the Boston Re-Entry, was denied further funding for their ex-convict re-integration program, seemingly and at least in part because they were not forthcoming about their program’s results. The Black Ministerial Alliance is one of the major groups involved in the program.

The Boston Globe reports that “applicants for funds from President Bush’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative were required to demonstrate a record of success in rehabilitating ex-convicts. The proposal from the ministers and police supplied scant information about the results of its program, which has received about $1.1 million in local, state, and federal government funding since 2001.”

Spokesmen for the Black Ministerial Alliance and Boston police officers are decrying the move as undermining the welfare of the city of Boston. But, as the Globe states,

Boston did not lose the new grant altogether. But instead of funding the well-known ministers-police partnership, the Department of Labor awarded the grant of $660,000 to Span Inc., a nonprofit agency that for 29 years has been helping prisoners in the Greater Boston area reenter society.

A Globe review of grant documents, along with interviews with the directors of the ministerial alliance and Span, suggests that Span may have edged out the Black Ministerial Alliance and police because it was better able to demonstrate that its programs work.

A key point in making the determination apparently was the demonstration of “measurable outcomes.”

Lyn Levy, the founder and executive director of Span, said the following: “You absolutely have to be able to show outcomes and demonstrate successes or you’re not going to be able to get the money.”

It’s hard to see whether there are any faith-elements in Span’s work, but clearly when governments are facing budget pressures, merely being faith-based isn’t going to be enough. Results matter, too.

For a listing of faith-based non-profits that have an emphasis on participant outcomes and transformation or change a presence of faith elements, visit Acton’s Samaritan Guide.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Anyone familiar with the Acton Institute knows we appreciate the work of economists. But we also object when economists overreach and try to apply useful tools and concepts in inappropriate ways. This happens, for example, when they claim that the charity of Mother Teresa can be exhaustively explained by reference to self-interest. (She gets warm feelings and satisfaction from what she does, you see.)

Well, here’s a blunt example of such thinking. Richard Tomkins in the Financial Times complains this holiday season about the trend toward “ethical gift giving.”

One can appreciate his skepticism over the idea of buying someone else a brood of chickens in a developing country so as to emphasize one’s own righteousness. But in his broader analysis of gift-giving, his cynicism goes too far:

No one, after all, does something for nothing, except when helping family members – and even then, it is with the aim of perpetuating their own genes. In the case of non-relatives, it makes no sense at all to help others without getting anything in return. Instead, humans help others who help them (and shun those who fail to help them) because they learnt long ago that they were more successful working together than alone. It was from this understanding that moralistic emotions such as gratitude and guilt emerged.

Leaving aside the moral evolutionism, it should be obvious that the ethical message of Christianity is directly at loggerheads with the view expressed here. But non-Christians, too, ought to be able to recognize the inadequacy of such a theory of human action. A society composed of people whose motivations were as simple as Mr. Tomkins’ account would be harsh and inhumane. It is neither accurate as description nor attractive as prescription.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Says Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff:

Hollywood’s cartoon-like caricatures of evil multinational corporations may some day seize mainstream consciousness, leading to political upheavals that shatter today’s social contract. That won’t be good for profits, or for the poor.

For more on Tinseltown’s demonization of multinational corporations, see “The Manchurian Mistake.”

I haven’t had a chance to talk about this yet, but early last month, school district officials in Kalamazoo, Michigan announced “The Kalamazoo Promise.” The Promise consists of a group of anonymous donors that have come together to commit to fund the post-secondary education of every student of the Kalamazoo Public School system. To receive full-funding for four years, you must have to attend KPS schools from grades K-12 (funding is gradually decreased depending on the number of years in the system). The scholarships are available for use at “any public university or community college in the State of Michigan.”

The Promise represents a genuine act of charity on the part of the donors, and ought to be praised as such. The challenge now comes for educators in the Kalamazoo public school system to provide their students with an education that will prepare them for the rigors of post-secondary study. It’s one thing to have college paid for, it’s another to be accepted to school. And it’s still another to actually complete a program once you start.

The purveyors of the ACT, the standardized test of choice in Michigan and much of the Midwest, found that almost 60 percent of students who took the exam were woefully unprepared for college level courses in algebra, and nearly 75 percent were not ready for college biology. Even more troubling? “Only 21 percent of the students were prepared for college-level work in the four tested areas of English composition, algebra, social sciences, and biology.”

And even if students do get in and are prepared for the workload, as U.S. News & World Report education reporter Alex Kingsbury puts it, “For years, universities have known that one freshman does not a graduate make.” Some proof of this truism: “Only 63 percent of all students entering four-year colleges have their degrees within six years, according to government statistics. Rates for black and Hispanic students are less than 50 percent, and the gap between minority and white students is growing.”

So a program like the Kalamazoo Promise is an important one, but is only part of a complex of issues that relate to the success of students in and beyond high school. Students have to start with the hope of things to come, of course. The Promise has given that hope for kids in the Kalamazoo Public School system when they might not have had it before.

It’s also likely that there will be some kind of regional positive effect on public schooling, as the public schools in Kalamazoo will be more attractive to parents, forcing neighboring districts to become more competitive and find their own valuable assets to offer. The Promise may have already sparked enrollment increases in the Kalamazoo schools.

Who’s looking out for ya, baby…

I know I’ve been enjoying the falling oil prices of late when filling up my minivan’s gas tank. At the height of the post-Katrina and Rita oil price spike, I was paying upwards of $70 to fill the thing up. Now that things have calmed down a bit, I’m even hoping to see gas drop back down to that magic $1.99 level or lower.

And who do we have to thank for these lower costs? At first blush, I’d say Adam Smith. But I’d be wrong. It turns out that one man singlehandedly took on the high-price beast… and won.

That man?

O’Reilly.

CAVUTO: Okay. Gas prices are down a lot. Why do you think that is?

O’REILLY: Because they’re afraid they’ll go to jail. And those C.E.O.s who manipulated them–

CAVUTO: Why are you sure that they manipulated them?

O’REILLY: I have guys that are inside the five major oil companies – my father used to work for one of those oil companies, by the way – who have told me that in those meetings they look for every way to jack up oil prices after Katrina, every way. When they didn’t have to. And they got scared because in my reporting and some other reporting, they said –

CAVUTO: Wait, you’re taking credit for gas prices being down?

O’REILLY: My reporting and reporting of others.

Hmm. Perhaps tomorrow night’s “Unresolved Issues” segment on The Factor will focus on Bill’s incomplete knowledge of the law of supply and demand.