Samuel Gregg recently reviewed Rodney Stark’s new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. Gregg begins by pointing out that discussion of Medieval Europe “is invariably understood as a period of unmitigated darkness–so much so that words like “feudal” are used today, even by many well-informed Catholics, as synonyms for backwardness.” How the West Won seeks to analyze as well as dispel common misunderstandings and myths about how the West developed. Stark begins his argument by warning his readers, “This is a remarkably unfashionable book.”
While there are many studies and books making similar points, Gregg explains why How the West Won offers something new:
What makes Stark’s book different from these and other studies are two things. First, he weaves his arguments about pre-Christian Europe, the medieval period, the Crusades, and the development of capitalism (to name just a few) into an account which dissolves many prevailing conceptual divisions between the pre-modern and modern worlds. Many secular-minded people—but also many Christians—will be surprised at the high degree of continuity, for instance, between minds like Saint Albertus Magnus and Sir Isaac Newton. Sometimes this occurs by Stark pointing to evidence that has hitherto escaped most people’s attention. In other instances, it is a question of looking at the same evidence but through a more plausible interpretative lens.
The second distinctive feature of How the West Won is how Stark shows how particular historical myths have less to do with the facts than with efforts to paint Christianity as a backward regressive cultural force. To give just one example, Islamic Spain is regularly portrayed, Stark notes, as an oasis of tolerance compared to a repressive Christendom, despite the undeniable evidence of the widespread and long-term persecution and subjugation of Jews and Christians by the Moors.
Gregg discusses Christianity’s enormous influence on the development of the West:
At the core of Stark’s investigation is his argument that specific ideas innate to Judaism (especially that found in Diaspora Jewish communities) and Christianity played a pivotal role in enabling the West to make and sustain political, legal and economic breakthroughs that eluded other civilizations. First and foremost, Jews and Christians viewed God as a rational Creator. In that sense, God was not at all like the Greco-Roman deities—capricious, self-indulgent beings for the most part. Moreover, the Christians, from the very beginning, not only understood the need to reason out the implications of Christ’s teachings; they also viewed reason as the great gift which God gave man to know the truth about the Creator but also the world He created in order that humans might help unfold God’s design.
The second religious ingredient of the West’s success, Stark maintains, was Christianity’s unwillingness to attribute life’s ups-and-downs to fate. Unlike the pagan (and many contemporary) religions, the Jewish and Christian “conception of God is incompatible with fate” (p. 120). It is true, Stark writes, that particular pagans such as Cicero had a somewhat similar view of free will. The difference is that belief in free will was more than simply a philosophical tenet for Jews and Christians. It was also a matter of specific religious conviction, which meant, furthermore, that people could—and would—be held accountable for their free choices before the same rational God who had given them free will.
Gregg gives an in-depth analysis and criticism of the book, but concludes with this thought:
Stark ends his book by noting that many countries have adopted Western technology and products while declining to embrace the normative and institutional commitments that helped create these techniques and methods in the first place. That raises the question of whether such grafting can succeed over the long-term. But the even bigger unanswered question is what happens to a civilization when it abandons a rational view of God, decides that free will is an illusion, begins to doubt whether there is any knowledge beyond that which is empirically verifiable, and instead opts for John Stuart Mill’s “Religion of Humanity.”
This particular issue is beyond the scope of Stark’s particular inquiry. Yet it is the thought which comes to mind by the time we reach the final page of his book. Judging from the economic and cultural state of much of contemporary Western Europe and parts of North America, it’s no longer a question we can avoid.