The impressive book by Baylor University social scientist Rodney Stark, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, continues the prolific scholar’s fascinating project of bringing social-science rigor (a phrase that is not contradictory in Stark’s meticulous hands) to watershed historical events and epochs.
As with such earlier and well-received works as The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Let to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2005) and The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (2011), Stark’s lively and absorbing new work beheads the academy’s dictatorship of relativism and enthrones in its place concrete and fact-based understanding in order here to give Western civilization the credit it richly deserves.
Modernity—the centerpiece of this project that Stark defines as “that fundamental store of scientific knowledge and procedures, powerful technologies, artistic achievements, political freedoms, economic arrangements, moral sensibilities, and improved standards of living that characterize Western nations and are now revolutionizing life in the rest of the world”—and its unique development in the West is Stark’s emphasis. That is to say, this book is an investigation of why it happened here and not the Islamic world or anywhere else.
Of course, the advent and astonishing spread and influence of Christianity is at the core of Stark’s analysis. Virtually everything we associate with the West is inextricably linked to it, though of course Stark readily acknowledges Greek, Roman, and Jewish contributions. He identifies the centrality of free will in Christian thinking and explains the process where “the Christian conception of God as the rational creator of a comprehensible universe, who therefore expects that humans will become increasingly sophisticated and informed, continually prodded the West along the road to modernity.”
Stark develops this sophisticated thesis with a really adroit use of sources and data. Along the way he upsets one politically correct apple cart after another. He utterly demolishes the spurious conflict between religion and science. Properly understood, Christianity leads directly to the development of the scientific method. “The truth,” summarizes Stark, “is that science arose only because the doctrine of the rational creator of a rational universe made scientific inquiry plausible. Similarly, the idea of progress was inherent in Jewish conceptions of history and was central to Christian thought from very early days.”
Stark considers the issue of slavery at a number of points, and his review of this historically omnipresent institution has the virtue of what is almost invariably missing in any discussion of this subject, namely, historical perspective. Stark observes that “[b]y the time that the New World was discovered, the exportation of black slaves had been going on for several thousand years – in recent centuries, mostly to Islamic societies – and African dealers were well organized and prepared to offer a seemingly endless supply of prime laborers.” In fact, Stark observes that “the first known instance of the general abolition of slavery anywhere in the world . . . [was] in medieval Europe.”
The sections on the development of capitalism, with its world-transforming capacity to create wealth, are replete with insights and illuminating facts. And transformative it has been: Stark says that “an infant born today in the Republic of the Congo can expect to live twenty-five years longer than a baby born in France in 1800.” But its enemies remain legion. Stark confronts a number of commonplace errors. For example, a persistent criticism of the Industrial Revolution was its reliance on child labor. But as Stark shrewdly comments: “But before joining the chorus that condemns the evils of capitalism, consider this: the Industrial Revolution did not initiate child labor, it ended it” (emphasis in original).
To be sure, modernity has its share of problems, contradictions, and evils. Certainly, Stark is aware of the West’s multitude of sins; nevertheless, How the West Won successfully explains the astounding creativity of our civilization without explaining away its excesses. It is also intrepid in its criticism of the chronic stasis of non-Western civilizations – unless, of course, they absorb Western values.
Stark’s book should have as wide an audience as possible, but the ideal reader would be the student about to begin college (where it would function as an inoculation against the inevitable exposure to the ideological fever of relativism) or who has just finished his degree (where it would serve as an antidote for the contact with that same fever). Actually, Western-civilization courses are relatively rare these days; the expensive silliness that is passed off as higher education concentrates instead on such subjects as the cultural significance of Beyonce. Stark’s book also works as a provocative and inspiring introduction to the vast benefits of Western modernity that are all around us.
How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity
by Rodney Stark
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014
Hardcover, 432 pages