LOPEZ: Explain why the impact of Christian missionaries has been underappreciated.
STARK: Underappreciated, no way! Despised, condemned, and ridiculed is more like it. Truth is, the missionaries were about as devoted to education and sanitation as they were to salvation. Hence, in 1910 Christian missionaries sustained 8,296 schools in China along with more than 30 colleges and several hundred hospitals. A brilliant new study by Chinese economists at Peking University has found that the greater the number of Christian missionaries per 10,000 population in the counties of China in 1920, the lower the infant mortality and the greater the economic development today. That shows that the missionary contributions were lasting!
LOPEZ: What is the single most important misunderstood fact in your book?
STARK: That European nations lost a great deal of money on their colonies. Yes, Spain did profit greatly from importing gold and silver from the New World, but that ended up squelching Spain’s own economic development and drove the kingdom into bankruptcy. As for the rest, some people in each of the colonizing nations grew rich from trade with the colonies, but the nation as a whole lost money. So much for the politically correct claim that the West “stole” its wealth from the rest.
LOPEZ: What most surprised you as you were writing the book?
STARK: That Rome did not fall to a bunch of barbarians. Maybe they couldn’t write good Latin, but the folks up north were as technologically and economically advanced as the Romans were.
LOPEZ: What do we most commonly and unnecessarily get wrong about religion in history?
STARK: That it was a barrier to progress and that Western progress began only sometime in the 18th century when religion was defeated. The truth is that religion was vital to Western progress. As noted above, what is unique to the Judeo-Christian faith is belief in a conscious, rational God whose creation is, therefore, rational — that is, based on logical rules. Several great scientists have remarked that the great miracle is that the universe is not an incomprehensible chaos but is orderly. It was this faith in a rational universe that made the scientific quest plausible. Elsewhere in the world, it was assumed that the universe is incomprehensible, which makes the scientific enterprise absurd. In any event, the West did not suddenly begin to do science or try to make progress by improving everything from theology to farming technology; that was the Western way for many centuries before the so-called Enlightenment. The invention of universities in the twelfth century gave an institutional base to the systematic pursuit of progress and knowledge, a uniquely Western achievement — and these all were religious institutions staffed entirely by clergy. Indeed, the great scientists who achieved the magnificent achievements of the 17th century, which so often have been claimed to reflect the defeat of religion, were overwhelmingly religious men. In fact, about a fourth of them were clergy, and most of the rest were deeply devout. Newton wrote far more theology than physics. Kepler devoted a great deal of effort to working out the date of the Creation — he settled on 3993 b.c. Edmund Halley was the only unbeliever among them.
LOPEZ: Isn’t it true that many religious people are becoming way more secular? Do you see the privatization of religion increasing?
STARK: Many people in every era have fallen quite short of Gospel standards. But this has not been increasing. Consider Europe. Recently, leading British historians have been discarding the whole secularization thesis on grounds that it is silly to define religion solely in terms of “churchly” behavior, such as attendance at worship services (which has declined in much of Europe during recent decades), while ignoring the continuing strength of belief and private practices (a form of “popular religion” that still flourishes). On these grounds, one could suppose that religion was becoming more privatized in Europe. But that claim merely reflects ignorance of the past — in most of Europe, religion has always been privatized in this sense. Medieval church attendance was extremely low, yet nearly everyone was religious in terms of popular religion. Meanwhile, outside Europe, “churchly” religion is booming these days. Protestant competition in Latin America has caused Catholic Mass attendance to soar to unprecedented levels. More active Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa than on any other continent. If current trends hold, there soon will be more regular Christian-church attenders in China than in any other nation. My next book will survey these developments under the title The Global Religious Awakening.
LOPEZ: What concerns you most about current trends and morality, and what gives you the most hope?
STARK: Several years ago I began a book with the tentative title “Gone! Mass Culture and the Loss of Artistry, Sophistication, Virtue, and Taste.” In it I documented the destruction of high culture and morality as both the media and too many “hip” intellectuals have pandered to the tastes and standards of the uneducated and uninformed. After about 300 pages I stopped because it was simply too depressing to keep on. It is bad enough to live in a culture of rock ’n’ roll, smutty TV, posturing postmodernists, unreadable novels, and state governments running the good old “numbers racket” without ruining my mornings by documenting it all. So I turned to a far more uplifting subject — the triumph of Western modernity. As to what gives me the most hope, I would say working with brilliant foreign graduate students, for whom the best of Western civilization still glistens. I take great comfort and pride in the fact that six of my books are now available in Chinese.
LOPEZ: Of all the things you’ve written, what do you most hope people will read and take to heart?
STARK: Like all true Westerners, I believe in progress. So my “favorite” is always the latest one, but secretly I always prefer the next one.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.