Sunday, February 05, 2006

Did Christianity Make Possible the Superior Technology of the West?

Historian Rodney Stark of Baylor University has found in his research that Europe sprinted past the rest of the world in science and technology due to the influence of Christianity. He expounds his findings in detail in a recent book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success (Random House). For centuries only Europe had chimneys, eye glasses, heavy cavalry, accurate clocks and the precise navigation they made possible. Why? Why did Europeans excel at metallurgy, shipbuilding, or farming?
The most convincing answer to those questions attributes Western dominance 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.... Supposing that capitalism did produce Europe's own "great leap forward," it remains to be explained why capitalism developed only in Europe. ... if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason.... A series of developments, in which reason won the day, gave unique shape to Western culture and institutions. And the most important of those victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth. Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy. But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions. Those remained typical mystery cults, in which ambiguity and logical contradictions were taken as hallmarks of sacred origins.... Even so, capitalism developed in only some locales. Why not in all? Because in some European societies, as in most of the rest of the world, it was prevented from happening by greedy despots. Freedom also was essential for the development of capitalism.
Some reinterpretation of history is necessary:
For the past several centuries, far too many of us have been misled by the incredible fiction that, from the fall of Rome until about the 15th century, Europe was submerged in the Dark Ages — centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery — from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously, rescued; first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment. But, as even dictionaries and encyclopedias recently have begun to acknowledge, it was all a lie! It was during the so-called Dark Ages that European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world. Some of that involved original inventions and discoveries; some of it came from Asia. But what was so remarkable was the way that the full capacities of new technologies were recognized and widely adopted. By the 10th century Europe already was far ahead in terms of farm-ing equipment and techniques, had unmatched capacities in the use of water and wind power, and possessed superior military equipment and tactics. Not to be overlooked in all that medieval progress was the invention of a whole new way to organize and operate commerce and industry: capitalism.
That is Stark's main thesis: Christianity, reason, freedom and capitalism. He also goes into whether the developments took place in southern Europe, which is Roman Catholic, or in northern which is Protestant. Pardon me for compressing his words. There is a magazine article version in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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