BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Historical myths demolished
, September 13, 2014
HOW THE WEST WON:
The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity
by Rodney Stark
(Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books)
Hardcover: 432 pages
Reviewed by Bill Muehlenberg
There are some authors you know will not disappoint, so you eagerly await their next volume. Historian and sociologist of religion Rodney Stark is one such writer whose growing library of books is indispensable, if you want to get an accurate view of the world in which we live.
The sad truth is that there are all sorts of revisionists out there, especially the historical revisionists. And their contempt for Western civilisation has led them to rewrite the history books, putting their own skewed secular-left agenda on everything.
Dozens of such myths and cases of revisionism are tackled by Stark. As he traces in broad brush — yet with copious detail — the rise of the West, of progress, of modernity, he deftly deals with plenty of “absurd, politically correct fabrications” along the way. And throughout he demonstrates the “positive effects of Christianity” on all this.
For example, while noting the many great achievements of ancient Greece, he reminds us of its darker side. He points out, for example, that the economies “of all the Greek city-states rested on extensive slavery”. He adds: “In many, including Athens, slaves probably outnumbered the free citizens.”
He reminds us that no Greek philosopher had a problem with this, and it took the rise of Christianity a millennium later in medieval Europe to push for the abolition of slavery.
Consider the old canard about the “Dark Ages”. It is common to believe that this was a period of ignorance and superstition, to be rescued by the Enlightenment. This, says Stark, is “a complete fraud”. Instead, this was a period of remarkable progress, innovation and advancement.
He goes on to detail the many changes and advances which took place during this period: “It was during the supposed Dark Ages that Europe took the great technological and intellectual leaps forward that put it ahead of the rest of the world.”
The high culture of the Carolingian Renaissance from the late eighth century and the incredible Gothic period can also be mentioned. The latter gave us Chartres Cathedral and artists such as Jan van Eyck, for example — hardly a barbaric and dark age with all that occurring.
Think also about the rise of modern science. Stark writes: “The truth is that science arose only because the doctrine of a rational creator of a rational universe made scientific inquiry possible. Similarly, the idea of progress was inherent in Jewish conceptions of history and was central to Christian thought from very early days.”
And again: “Advances in both science and technology occurred not in spite of Christianity but because of it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, science did not suddenly flourish once Europe cast aside religious ‘superstitions’ during the so-called Enlightenment. Science arose in the West—and only in the West — precisely because the Judeo-Christian conception of God encouraged and even demanded this pursuit.”
Christianity also put a check on the abuse of power and helped lay the groundwork for new democracies. For example, “Christian theology also provided the moral basis for the establishment of responsive regimes. But political freedom did not emerge throughout Christendom. Rather, it appeared first in a number of Italian city-states.”
In his chapter on the “pursuit of knowledge” Stark shows how the “fundamental key to the rise of Western civilisation” was a commitment to knowledge, and the basis for this was the “Christian commitment to theology”. The much-maligned Scholastics, for example, were “fine scholars who founded Europe’s great universities, formulated and taught the experimental method, and launched Western science”.
Real theology, he reminds us, is a “sophisticated, highly rational discipline that has its roots in Judaism and in Greek philosophy but is fully developed only in Christianity”.
He concludes this chapter with these words: “The pursuit of knowledge did not suddenly appear in the seventeenth century. From early days, Christian theologians were devoted to natural philosophy. That provided the fundamental basis for the creation of universities, thus giving an institutional home for science. The Christian thinkers who studied and taught at these universities were responsible for remarkable advances in an era supposedly short on progress.”
The new world conquests and colonies are also the stuff of myth and revisionism. The truth is, the conquered territories in South America were often real hell-holes. The ancient Aztecs for example had 18 major ceremonies a year that required extensive human sacrifices.
In North America slavery was widely practised before the arrival of Columbus, and it “was as brutal as anywhere else”. Indeed, in the 19th century American Indians began acquiring black slaves.
One last item: the much-despised Industrial Revolution was really a remarkable, humane achievement. Says Stark: “[The] Industrial Revolution did not initiate child labour, it ended it. From earliest times most children had laboured long and hard. But by gathering child labourers into factories, industrialisation made them visible.” This in turn led to child labour law reforms.
I have only scratched the surface here. How the West Won covers so much ground, and bursts so many revisionist bubbles, that the best thing I can do is urge you to get hold of it and read it from cover to cover.
Let me conclude with Stark’s final words: “A substantial degree of individual freedom is inseparable from Western modernity, and this is still lacking in much of the non-Western world.
“No doubt Western modernity has its limitations and discontents. Still, it is far better than the known alternatives — not only, or even primarily, because of its advanced technology but because of its fundamental commitment to freedom, reason and human dignity.”
Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at: www.billmuehlenberg.com