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.
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.