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October 18, 2008

For the Glory of God

How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the End of Slavery
Rodney Stark - ISBN – 9780691119502

Stark is well qualified as a sociologist (of religion) to discuss this subject, and this text is wonderfully complete, though his scientific style and turgid prose takes a little getting used to. (A collaborator might have been helpful.) Notwithstanding, it is worth the time . . . and it will take time, because one can only read 20-30 pages at a sitting, and the book weighs in at 375 pages (of 10 point TNR script with not a lot of white space for margins)

He is unforgiving of historians and scientists as a group, noting that they--habitually and by discipline--are reluctant to accept, let alone discuss how religion is responsible for anything good. They teach that Newton was much too sophisticated to believe in God, yet he was a devout Christian and the quintessential student of God’s handiwork. Enlightened, they say, are far above superstition and thus couldn’t possibly be religious. No one intelligent could be. Nonsense!

He reviews the history of religion(s), amplifying how people, acting “for the glory of God” have been responsible for their cultures from time long past, and that monotheism has set the course for modernity for Judeo-Christianity, but not for Islam. He explains that Islam is taught to accept the world is as it is and live in it under the dictates of an irrational, unpredictable, ruthless Allah. Contrariwise, Judeo-Christianity posits God as rational, responsive, dependable and predictable. His world is thus understandable, by applying reason, study and science. It awaits only human comprehension. Christianity developed science because there was belief that it could be done. In so doing birthed the university as an offshoot of the cathedral schools, peopled by speculative thinkers. Christian thinkers gained fame thru innovation, while other cultures teach only received knowledge—often adding to it in non-scientific ways.

While the ancient Greeks,and others, contributed mightily to the store of knowledge, they never created science. Likewise with the Chinese, Indians, Romans, and Muslims--the religion of each is explained in turn. All had highly developed alchemy, yet never developed chemistry as did Christian Europe; similarly so with astrology’s graduation to astronomy. “Christian theology was essential for the rise of science in the West, just as surely as non-Christian theologies stifled the scientific quest everywhere else.” Science is not an extension of classical learning. Rather, it is an outgrowth of Christian attitudes including the intelligent quest for God’s immutable principles.

Contrary to received wisdom Christianity didn’t “plunge” Europe into an era of ignorance. So much technical progress took place from the 6th century forward, that by 13th century European technology surpassed anything anywhere in the world. (It appears the “dark ages” weren’t so dark after all.) This was the result of speculative and innovative progress of quizzical and querulous minds. It is taught that a “scientific revolution” was possible due primarily to a weakening of Christian control, andthat this limitation resulted in the recovery of classical learning. This is as false as those certainties concerning Columbus and his courage in challenging the flat earth. It's all bunkum.

The Renaissance and the flowering of European science in the 1500’s was a direct consequence of the theology of the age, but it also led to witch-hunting by many otherwise sober people (who were not part of the middle-ages, but rather of the “Enlightenment.”) Similarly this concept of God resulted in the Christian denunciation of slavery as an abomination. Interestingly, some of the most notorious of the witch burners were vigorous participants in the abolition movements. It was the Christian Scholastics--not the Greeks, Romans, Muslims or Chinese--who based their studies upon science.

He does explore in detail the persisting arguments over Darwin’s hypothesis, quoting amongst others Richard Dawkins. He eviscerates the arguments against intelligent design as he observes that Dawkins “knows the many serious problems that beset purely materialistic evolutionary theory, but asserts that no one except true believers in evolution can be allowed into the discussion, [and that these discussions must] be held in secret.” As well, he emphasizes out that a majority of modern scientists in all disciplines consider themselves religious.

We all tend to refer to the Spanish inquisition and witch trials. In fact, Spain was far more quiescent than much of the rest of Europe, since it had a much stronger government than anywhere else, and governments generally suppressed these activities, unlike more remote villages in what is now France and Germany. Moderns, he notes with some amusement, tend to blame blind fanaticism of these ancient prosecutors for their failure to see that they were manufacturing accusations. Missing is their awareness of current prosecutors “rolling up” cases with much the same vigor (the Duke Lacrosse team comes to mind.)

Interestingly, witch-hunts did not occur in Islamic cultures, in part because magic is imbedded in Islam, and was not a threat to Islamic power structures.

Slavery has been an institution since the advent of civilization. Indeed is universal inasmuch as it is a function of human productivity. It is not intrinsic to more sophisticated cultures. The concept of owning someone to produce for you ain’t so bad . . . unless you’re the “ownee.” Stark first elaborates on the history of slavery, then delves into the morality, and the critical relevance of Christianity to the abolition of slavery. He observes that slavery was a Muslim business centuries before Europeans discovered the New World, and debunks the prevailing attitude that serfdom and slavery were much the same thing. Abolition, he emphasizes, is not inherent in Christian scripture, but was the only possible conclusion--ultimately reached under favorable circumstances, thru a long and complex series of political crises leading ultimately to the civil war in the U.S.

One could go on indefinitely, but this should be enough to interest (or disinterest) y’all.

Consider it. It’s worth the time to labor through it.

Posted by respeto at October 18, 2008 1:52 PM