March 24, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Christianity is the reason for freedom

Recently, a young man contacted me about a column I’d written on the “conflict” between science/reason and religion. He deplored the fact that our culture generally seems to hold up science as the only truth, as opposed to faith in religious truth.

He urged me to continue writing about the two ideas, since he believes religion is losing a battle for the minds and hearts of too many people. He said reason began in the Church, and we should remember and be grateful for that heritage.

No sooner had we had our conversation than I read several reviews of a new book titled The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark, including one in The Indianapolis Star by Jack Fink, editor emeritus of The Criterion. The thesis of the book is exactly what my reader was concerned about.

Stark is a professor of social sciences at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author of several other books, including The Rise of Christianity and One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism. The core of his subject, expressed in the new book’s subtitle, is “How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.”

Stark states the perceived wisdom for many years has been that the so-called Dark Ages were a time of ignorance and regression from the high accomplishments of Greece and Rome. Only with the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation did “progressive” economic and social changes come about, including capitalism and democracy.

In his book, Stark investigates the claims of several writers who advanced these ideas over the centuries. They include the influential book, The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism, by early 20th-century sociologist Max Weber, and works by the 18th-century philosopher John Locke.

The implication of Stark’s arguments is that the doggedly Protestant and sometimes anti-religious “experts” who advanced such ideas had axes to grind with the Catholic Church. They ignored the wealth of evidence, such as the works of the Scholastics that indicated significant intellectual progress was made between the Roman era and the Middle Ages.

He also claims that the rise of prosperity did not occur in other religions because Christianity is unique in its futuristic philosophy. Christians believe in a personal God who gave us free will, holds us responsible for our own actions and promises us rewards in the next life. We are all equal in opportunity before God.

On the other hand, Eastern religions and Islam propose that human lives are determined by fate, thus destroying initiative. They emphasize following the law rather than discovering the spirit. And, while their societies developed high cultures and even invention, there was no follow-up in using them to improve people’s lives. Nor did they do anything to advance individual freedom.

Stark’s book is convincing to me and certainly instructive about early intellectual and religious history. My young reader will be happy to know that there are several other new books out there now discussing the same themes. And, while such books aren’t the usual Lenten spiritual reading, they’re sure to improve understanding and appreciation of our faith.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


Local site Links: