The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages

A Critique of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, by Rodney Stark. New York: Random House, 2005. 304 pp. $25.95 (cloth), $15.95 (paperback).

In recent decades, medieval scholars have persistently advanced the thesis that the Dark and Middle Ages were not actually dark—that the 1,000-year period stretching from the fall of Rome (roughly 500 AD) to the Renaissance (roughly 1500) was an era of significant intellectual and cultural advance. tragedy-of-theologyThis trend has culminated in the claims of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (and similar claims presented in Thomas Woods’s How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization). That such a theory would be welcomed by the religious right is not surprising. However, what might surprise some—and what is certainly ominous—is that such major organs of the liberal press as The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education (the leading publication for university professors and administrators) have treated Stark’s book with significant respect. This essay will demonstrate that such respect is entirely undeserved.

The thesis of Stark’s book is that the Catholic Church promoted a cultural commitment to reason that enabled the West to rise. Medieval Christianity was fundamentally, perhaps exclusively, responsible for the great progress wrought by Western Civilization in philosophy, the arts, science, technology, and freedom. As Stark states his claim:

But if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that the truly fundamental basis for . . . the rise of the West was an extraordinary faith in reason.

The Victory of Reason explores a series of developments in which reason won the day, giving unique shape to Western culture and institutions. The most important of these victories occurred within Christianity. . . . While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth. . . . Encouraged by the Scholastics and embodied in the great medieval universities founded by the church, faith in the power of reason infused Western culture, stimulating the pursuit of science and the evolution of democratic theory and practice.

The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.1

This book, and others like it—along with their admiring treatment by the mainstream liberal press—are signs of the resurgence of Christianity in America. This is all the more frightening because the arguments are being delivered and embraced at an intellectual, not merely a grassroots, level. If such arguments were sound, their growing acceptance among contemporary intellectuals would present no problem; but, as will be shown, this pro-religion thesis, although convincing to some, is egregiously and provably mistaken.

Stark, a professor of social sciences at Baylor University, is absolutely correct in his rare identification that a commitment to reason was the fundamental cause of the spectacular progress achieved in the West and nowhere else. But he is profoundly mistaken in ascribing the basis of that commitment to Christianity. Indeed, the West has risen much more slowly and incompletely than it otherwise might have, precisely because of its deep ambivalence to reason. Throughout the ages, and continuing to this day, there has existed in the West a chronic backsliding into irrationality that has often tragically exceeded its commitment to rationality. There is a profound dualism in Western thought: Its dedication to reason, though certainly outstripping that of other cultures, exists in desperate conflict with several versions of unreason, including faith. Expressed in terms of major figures, Jesus and his followers—not merely Aristotle and his—have been enormously influential in Western thinking. Christianity, emphatically including the medieval Church, more than any other single factor, is responsible for the irrationality of Western society. The commitment to rationality is fundamentally a legacy of ancient Greece—preeminently of Aristotle—and of subsequent periods when the Greek element was dominant, for example, the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Stark’s errors are rampant and across-the-board. They span the fields of history and, above all, philosophy. Indeed, as will be shown, Stark’s claims are historically false and philosophically impossible. . . .

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1 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), pp. x–xi.

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