A Civil Religion: How Christianity Created Free and Prosperous Societies

By Stark, Rodney | The American Enterprise, May 2006 | Go to article overview

A Civil Religion: How Christianity Created Free and Prosperous Societies


Stark, Rodney, The American Enterprise


When Europeans first began to explore the globe, their greatest surprise was not the existence of the Western hemisphere, but the extent of their own technological superiority over the rest of the world. Not only were the proud Mayan, Aztec, and Inca nations helpless in the face of European intruders, so were the fabled civilizations of the East. China, India, and the nations of Islam were backward by comparison with sixteenth-century Europe.

How had this happened? Why was it that although many civilizations had pursued alchemy, it led to chemistry only in Europe? Why was it that Europeans were for centuries the only people who possessed eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy cavalry, or a system of music notation? How had nations that had arisen from barbarism and the rubble of fallen Rome so greatly surpassed the rest of the world?

Many authors attribute Western domination to the rise of capitalism, which took place only in Europe. Even the most militant enemies of capitalism credit it with creating previously undreamed of productivity and progress. In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that prior to the rise of capitalism humans were "slothful," and that the capitalist system was "the first to show what man's activity can bring about." By motivating both management and labor through ever-rising payoffs, capitalism created "more colossal productive forces than all the preceding generations together."

Supposing that capitalism did produce Europe's great leap forward, however, it still remains to be explained why capitalism developed only in Europe. If one digs deep, it becomes clear that the fundamental basis for capitalism and the rise of the West in general was an extraordinary embrace of reason. And, contrary to many modern understandings, this attachment to reason did not grow in spite of religious faith, but mostly through religious faith.

Christianity's faith in reason

A series of developments allowed reason to shape Western culture and institutions. The most important of these victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reasoning and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.

As conceived by Chinese philosophers, the universe simply is and always was. They saw no reason to suppose that it functions according to rational laws, or that it could be comprehended in physical rather than mystical terms. Through the millennia, Chinese intellectuals pursued "enlightenment," not explanations. As the Oxford scholar Joseph Needham put it, "The conception of a divine celestial lawgiver imposing ordinances on non-human nature never developed."

In Islam, Allah is not presented as a lawful creator, but rather as an extremely active and capricious God who intrudes on the world as he deems appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws, in that they deny Allah's freedom to act. Islam assumed that the world was sustained by his will on a continuing basis.

But from early days, Christian fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to increase their understanding of Scripture and revelation. Consequently, Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past. Encouraged by the Scholastics and the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in reason seeped into all of Western culture. One of its products was science.

During the past century, many intellectuals have assumed that the West surged ahead in areas like capitalism and science precisely as it overcame religious barriers. But in truth, the success of the West in these pursuits rests heavily on religious foundations. and the people who drove the progress were mostly devout Christians. This is true even of the rise of science--which was effectively nurtured by Christianity.

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