Friday, January 09, 2009

The Victory of Reason (Stark) 1.i

As mentioned earlier, I plan to run a 'reading group' looking at interesting books on a weekly basis. I'll normally post on a Thursday morning, as that is when I can normally guarantee some quality time to look at it. We being with Rodney Stark's "The Victory of Reason" - How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism and western success.

Preface & Chapter 1.i

The main burden of this section is about the way that Christian theology was the necessary precondition for the rise of science - that, in fact, science cannot proceed without using Christian theological assumptions. Stark writes:

"...the West is said to have surged ahead precisely as it overcame religious barriers to progress, especially those impeding science. Nonsense. 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."

Stark begins chapter 1 by outlining his conception of theology which, in contrast to its popular image, is 'highly rational - formal reasoning about God'. This rational emphasis included the ability to develop new doctrine on the basis of such reasoning, and Stark gives the examples of Augustine rejecting astrology, and the notion of Mary's perpetual virginity. In the Christian outlook, therefore, the use of reason was encouraged, enabled, and allowed to be fruitful - it was seen as an indispensable component of faith. Whilst Stark acknowledges some difference of view amongst theologians (eg Bonaventure) he comments that "[their] views did not prevail - if for no other reason than because official church theology enjoyed a secure base in the many and growing universities, where reason ruled."

Moreover, this view of reason was one that assumed the possibility of progress, ie that over time people could gain "an increasingly accurate understanding of God's will", and that "the assumption of progress... may be the most critical difference between Christianity and all other religions."

This progress applied to the study of the natural world, which was seen as reflecting the nature of the Creator, and this is where Christianity is substantively essential for the establishment of science. The universe has a stable, rational, intelligible structure which reflects the nature of God and is open to our increasing comprehension - "This was the key to many intellectual undertakings, among them the rise of science." Stark goes on, "Not only were science and religion compatible, they were inseparable - the rise of science was achieved by deeply religious Christian scholars." Stark goes on to briefly survey China, Greece and Islam, to explain why their differing religious perspective inhibited the development of science in those societies.

In short, science was developed in a Christian culture because only Christians believed, as a result of their theological insight, that science both could and should be done: "The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine: nature exists because it was created by God. In order to love and honour God, it is necessary to fully appreciate the wonders of his handiwork..."

Some suggested questions to trigger discussion:

1. I believe it to be true that science depends upon a Christian theological framework, but I'm not convinced that Stark gives enough of an argument in favour. Do you find him convincing on this core point?

2. Stark doesn't take any time to explain his conception of "reason", which is central to his case in a number of different ways. Is this a major flaw?

3. Stark makes the curious argument that "The East lacks theologians because those who might otherwise take up such an intellectual pursuit reject its first premise: the existence of a conscious, all-powerful God." I see this statement as both a) trivially true (ie by definition) and b) remarkably silly. Is Eastern thought as philosophically rich as Christian thought?

4. In an environment where the practice of science is under increasing cultural strain, one implication of Stark's argument is that the preservation of science can most effectively be undertaken by Christians. Is this plausible?

5. Much media presentation depends upon the idea that science and religion are in inevitable conflict. If Stark is correct then this is a pernicious falsehood - where might it have come from, and whose interests are served by the propagation of this falsehood?

Feel free to answer these in the comments, or throw up anything else that strikes you.

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