Rodney Stark, a distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, is author of the new book How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. He talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about Westerners, moderns, and more.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: First things first: Why did the West win?
RODNEY STARK: The fundamental advantage was belief in the Judeo-Christian God: a conscious, rational being who created a rational universe that runs according to rational principles that can be discovered and comprehended by human beings. From this came two vital features that separated the West from the rest: faith in reason and faith in progress. As a result, Westerners developed science, because they alone believed it to be possible, and for the same reason they devoted immense efforts to progress, because they assumed everything could be improved. In contrast, both China and the Ottoman Empire not only assumed that the present was inferior to the past, but they often actually hindered progress: Both outlawed mechanical clocks.
LOPEZ: Your book is subtitled “The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity.” What do you mean by “modernity,” and why is this story neglected?
STARK: I use the term “modernity” to identify that fundamental store of scientific knowledge and procedures, powerful technologies, artistic achievements, political freedoms, economic arrangements, moral sensibilities, and improved standards of living that characterize Western nations and are now revolutionizing life in the rest of the world.
As to why this story is neglected, for some reason it is the fashion among Western intellectuals, especially those who gather in faculty lounges, to disparage modernity and to deny that the West has achieved anything admirable. Forty years ago the most worthwhile required course at the best colleges and universities was Western civilization — a survey of history, art, philosophy, literature, and science. This course has long since disappeared from most schools and is not even available as an elective. It was driven from the curriculum on the grounds that Western civilization is but one of many civilizations and that, somehow, it therefore is ethnocentric, arrogant, and even racist for us to study ours. As a consequence, colleges and universities are turning out generations of students woefully ignorant of their heritage.
LOPEZ: What is the truth about claims that Islamic culture was far ahead of Europe’s in the Middle Ages?
STARK: If so, what happened to it? Initially, the culture that some attribute to Islam was in fact entirely produced and sustained by Jewish, Christian, Persian, and Hindu minorities under Muslim rule, and ever since these were suppressed, Islam has had to import all its technology — the Ottoman fleet sunk by the Spanish and Italian fleets in the battle of Lepanto (1571) was built by, and some galleys even were captained by, Westerners.
LOPEZ: Explain why the “Dark Ages” is a myth, and why it is important that the myth be debunked.
STARK: Every respectable encyclopedia and dictionary today rejects the “Dark Ages” as a myth — one made up by Voltaire and his friends so they could pretend that theirs was an age of “Enlightenment” wherein Western civilization escaped the repressive force of the Church. It needs to be debunked because so many people, especially in the media, still believe this fraudulent claim — in truth it was during this era called “dark” that the West forged ahead of the rest of the world by inventing such crucial things as cannons, capitalism, crop rotation, and soap.
LOPEZ: What is most misunderstood about the rise of Christianity?
STARK: That it was not a movement based on slaves and poor people. It is now rather widely agreed among historians that early Christianity was particularly attractive to the affluent and powerful. There were Christians in the imperial family within 20 years of the Crucifixion.
LOPEZ: Critics of Western civilization point to slavery as evidence of its corrupt foundations. This argument is used to invalidate everything from religion to the American founding. What’s the most important thing about the end of Western slavery that we should bear in mind today?
STARK: That the end of Western slavery was a unique event! Slavery was a universal feature of all but quite primitive societies, and the only time slavery ever was eliminated without being forced out by external pressure was in the West — and we had to do it twice. Both times slavery was ended almost entirely because of organized religious opposition. Keep in mind too that slavery still exists in some non-Western nations.
LOPEZ: What is most important about the birth of capitalism that’s important to bear in mind today?
STARK: Capitalism developed in the tenth and eleventh centuries in the great monastic estates of Europe, as the monks applied reason to their economic activities and had the freedom from state interference to do so. That’s the lesson: Reason and freedom are essential for productive economies.