Orbis, Volume 51, Issue: Winter 2007, Pages 174-187
The Two Streams of Western Civilization
Review essay by Samuel T. Karnick
Christopher Olaf Blum, ed., Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 357 pp. $30
Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 530 pp. $29.95
Theodore K. Rabb, The Last Days of the Renaissance: and the March to Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 246 pp. $26.95
John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680–1760 (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 455 pp. $95
Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), 283 pp. $25.95
If anything can be given credit for holding the West together during the turbulent twentieth century, the struggle against communism probably merits the greatest recognition. Certainly the fall of the Soviet empire engendered an unexpected amount of internal turmoil and self-analysis in the West. The specter of the main external threat having been reduced to tatters, a major “culture war” broke out in the West as both sides fought over what the new definition of Western civilization should be, freed by the knowledge that whatever happened, it would be our decision and not imposed on us from outside. After a brief pause in view of the 9/11 attacks and Afghanistan war, the West's internal conflict resumed, with, if anything, even greater acrimony.
But in fact this conflict has simply been the latest clash between two powerful streams of thought that have been present throughout European history. One stream comes from Greece and Rome, and the other from Calvary. The Western world, sometimes known as Christendom, has always vacillated between the two, with one stream sometimes sweeping history in its direction, and sometimes the other being predominant. Western history is in fact the record of the intellectual turbulence created and sustained by these two currents. To understand where we are today, we have to understand the nature of these two streams and where each would lead us.
Thomas Sowell offered key insights into these two currents of thought in A Conflict of Visions (William Morrow, 1987). Sowell argued that our policy disputes and culture wars are based on two opposing views of the human condition: a “constrained” one, which sees human nature as having inherent limits, and an “unconstrained” one, which sees human beings as perfectible. The former vision, he wrote, sees humans’ immutable limits as suggesting the value of market economies and limited government, whereas the opposite view sees humanity as requiring and able to accommodate a transformation to make us fit a rational social system, devised by the wisest among us, that will solve all our problems. These two worldviews are basically a continuum, Sowell noted, with nearly all individuals falling somewhere between the two poles. Nonetheless, they do represent two underlying views that people actually hold.
Sowell's book delved into intellectual history and specifically the Enlightenment. He identified Adam Smith and the American Founders as representing the constrained vision, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as exemplifying the unconstrained view: “When Rousseau said that man ‘is born free’ but ‘is everywhere in chains,’ he expressed the essence of the unconstrained vision, in which the fundamental problem is not nature or man but institutions.” Other authors have offered similar schemes and analyses based on “worldview” theses in recent years—such as Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man and Samuel Huntington's A Clash of Civilizations. The common theme of this discussion has been the premise that “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).
The search for the Rosetta Stone of modern ideologies in the West has brought historians and political analysts repeatedly to the Enlightenment. There are two obvious reasons for this. The first is that modernity is the fruit of the Enlightenment, and that studying the latter will help us understand the former. The other is the premise that the Enlightenment was a very good thing in that it released humankind from superstition, backwardness, and irrationality, ushering in an Age of Reason in which the goal would be to transform society and the individual so that both operated along purely rational lines.
Both of these premises are eminently questionable, however. As Gertrude Himmelfarb pointed out in The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (Knopf, 2004), the Enlightenment was anything but a monolithic movement toward some specific destination we have since learned to call modernity. For every Rousseau, Himmelfarb notes, there was an Edmund Burke—and often more. In addition, although numerous schemes to transform individuals and society have been offered and tried, modernity has by no means been exclusively devoted to such efforts—those pesky “constrained” thinkers have continuously been around to point out the flaws in every such plan, and the hoi polloi have perpetually resisted efforts to transform them and their world.1
As useful as Sowell's schema may be, it remains incomplete until we understand where these two worldviews come from and the basic values and assumptions that underlie them. For only then can we fully understand their implications. If we can find in the Enlightenment's turmoil the deeper currents that push us toward either of these two worldviews, we may be able to derive a greater understanding of the conflicts and problems of our own time.
In The Case for the Enlightenment, Oxford historian John Robertson seeks to “make the case for the Enlightenment as a coherent, Europe-wide intellectual movement” based on “the commitment to understanding, and hence to advancing, the causes and conditions of human betterment in this world.” He argues that the central quest of the Enlightenment was to know more about the world so as to gain greater control over nature and society. To demonstrate this, Robertson undertakes a detailed comparison of how this endeavor was manifested in Scotland and Naples, two very different milieus at opposite ends of Europe. Noting that the two kingdoms ultimately converged on a common commitment—to use “political economy as the primary intellectual discourse with which to address a wider ‘public’ among their fellow countrymen, because it held the key to understanding the conditions of betterment in this world”—Robertson argues that “out of two very different ‘national’ contexts came one Enlightenment.”
Robertson maintains that the idea that most animated Enlightenment thinking was the Greek philosophy of Epicureanism. Some advocated it, and some opposed it, but everybody had to contend with it. Robertson notes that in 1697 in his Dictionnaire historique et critique, the French philosopher Pierre Bayle “underlined the superior honesty of the Epicurean account of human nature and its compatibility with the condition of man after the Fall.” Robertson sees this as part of an interesting phenomenon in which Epicureanism was reconciled with the reigning Augustinian view of the human condition and moral thought.
Hence, Robertson concludes, the quest for improvement, despite its Greek roots, was not necessarily hostile toward the Christian religion: “a focus on betterment in this world carried no necessary implication about the existence of the next.” Yet in making the case for Epicureanism, Bayle contributed an important element to the Enlightenment: the idea that a person or society could be moral without belief in God, and that we can understand human history without seeing any role of providence in it. This seems perfectly obvious, but the importance of Bayle's argument cannot be overestimated, because it immediately led to much bigger changes in thinking which animate our current debates over everything from sexual morality to what to teach about human origins. And the fact that these debates have yet to be resolved suggests that, first, the Enlightenment mind was much more conflicted than Robertson believes, and second, that Epicureanism is less compatible with Christianity than he is willing to admit.
David Hume, for example, soon took Bayle's argument much further: “What Hume had done was critically weaken what Bayle always treated as the one secure bulwark against the Epicurean, atheist account of nature and man: the truth of Scripture as God's revelation to Man.” Whereas Giambattista Vico had answered Bayle by developing “an account of human sociability in which men's actions manifested the guiding hand of divine providence,” Hume posited “an account of morality and society as purely human creations, the outcome of a remarkable combination of human nature and artifice.” As Robertson notes, Hume believed that “our moral sentiments, natural and artificial, really accord with what we find useful and agreeable in this world. In our morals, we are—and we are the better for being—sociable atheists.” In other words, Hume rejects the notion of original sin and the idea that human governments are established to save us from ourselves and one another. Although he avoided making explicit public expression of his unbelief, Hume not only rejected Christianity as a fact, he sought to make it intellectually unnecessary to the establishment of human happiness.
This is a great difference in visions, as exemplified by the gulf between Hume and Vico, and if both visions led to an increased interest in political economy, the differences nonetheless remain overwhelmingly evident. Robertson notes, for example, that Adam Smith disagreed with Rousseau's account of the development of human sociability, and that he repeatedly invoked in his works “the idea of a natural moral order presided over by a provident deity, whose interventions are like an ‘invisible hand.”’ That is a good observation on Robertson's part, but one would like to see him draw the obvious conclusion: that Smith and Rousseau were on two entirely different tracks, and that the intellectual currents leading to and from them may likewise have been very different from each other.
Was any of this philosophizing—and in particular this conflict of visions—really unique to the Enlightenment period? In The Last Days of the Renaissance, Princeton University historian Theodore Rabb seeks “to identify a succession of fundamental shifts in historical periods from the Middle Ages to the present, with special attention to the time when the Renaissance dissolved into the Age of Revolution” (his term for the Enlightenment). Rabb makes a strong case that medieval Europe was far more unified than is commonly thought and that it was more like the Renaissance than is usually appreciated. Regarding political organization, for example, Rabb writes, “Although the pyramidal hierarchic model was always taken for granted—that is, one or a few at the top of the social order, enjoying a God-given right to rule, and then increasing numbers at each level of descent down to the mass of the people at the bottom,” it is important to remember that “localities throughout Europe also observed, during the Middle Ages, crucial rights of representation and consultation that gave Europe its unique political and legal character.”
In distinct contrast to today's secular, post-Enlightenment worldview, Rabb points out that the foremost assumption of medieval Europe was “the determination to bring religious beliefs to bear on every aspect of existence. The supernatural gave shape and meaning to all human affairs. For scholars and theologians, the task was to explain how that influence operated and how it was to be understood.” Europe was Christendom, plain and simple. The stream of thought from Greece and Rome was almost entirely dry, lost in obscure, dusty libraries or preserved, ironically, in Christian monasteries and the thinking of Christian theologians such as Thomas Aquinas.
This began to change in the fourteenth—not the eighteenth—century. The “assault on the values of the Middle Ages” followed challenges to the papacy's worldly authority by secular rulers. Rabb contends, “Ideas followed action as theorists drew sharper lines between the authority of the papacy and the power of the princes.” Marsiglio of Padua, for example, pointed out in 1324 that Jesus Christ had consented to the authority of the Roman emperor in going willingly to his crucifixion.
Rabb observes that the “widespread and effective aggressiveness of secular rulers, particularly toward the Church, was to be a dominant feature of Renaissance Europe.” By the mid-1400s, “it was unmistakable that the papacy had lost its ability to challenge the monarchs it had once cowed. A new era had been born.” The increasing unwillingness of secular rulers to bow to the papacy was accompanied by “growing dissatisfaction with religious doctrine and practice.” Rabb points out the powerful challenges to the Church's hierarchy that arose from John Wycliffe in England beginning in the 1370s and from Jan Hus in Bohemia shortly thereafter. Both were anathematized, and Hus was executed in 1415.
What is particularly interesting about these Renaissance-era religious reformers—and I use that word intentionally—was how strongly their dissents resembled those of the Reformers of the sixteenth century. Rabb strenuously advocates including the Reformation era as simply part of the Renaissance, but this appears to obscure the key distinction between the two main streams of thought in post-medieval Europe: Christianity and humanism. A central element of the Renaissance was the return to ideas and values of classical antiquity, of Greece and Rome. But where the Church embraced the Renaissance to some degree, Wycliffe and Hus can hardly be seen as part of that trend. What Wycliffe and Hus were calling for was a return to the ideas, policies, and rituals of the early Christian church. Their road led not to Rome or Athens but instead to Asia Minor. Wycliffe raised “doubts about ecclesiastical finances, formal ceremonies, and clerical behavior” and demanded “greater reliance on the Bible,” as Rabb notes, and Hus called for “a religion centered on biblical precept, individual faith, and a more egalitarian ritual.”
Those are exactly the things the Protestant Reformers sought a century later. There was a continuous line of intellectual activity, moreover, leading from Wycliffe and Hus to Luther and Calvin. The former can be seen as early Reformers, and the Renaissance as a greater bifurcation of the European mind: stronger secularism and stronger religion at the same time. Some took the road to Rome and Athens, and some took the road to Calvary. This process accelerated during the Enlightenment, and it is what has made modernity what it is.
It makes a good deal of sense, then, to include the Reformation as part of the Renaissance, but only if we make sure to appreciate the great flowering of the Christian religion in Europe during this period. The Renaissance can be seen as an increasing appreciation for the ideas of antiquity, but can be fully understood as such only if we include the return to early Christian religious values as well as the philosophical legacy of Greece and Rome. Such an appreciation also helps us make sense of the perpetual tug of war between the two mentalities in the West throughout the ensuing centuries.
Rabb emphasizes the similarities between what he calls the Age of Revolution and our present situation:
In the same way as the rationalism of the Enlightenment prompted the Romantics to call for a return to the emotions, so the growing skepticism, internationalism, and materialism of the decades after World War II have been met by a resurgence of moral and religious passion and demands for a reassertion of ‘traditional’ values and local interests. The contest between these forces, often reduced to such simple dichotomies as The Market vs. The Welfare State or Islam vs. The West or even The Culture Wars, may cause ever-widening cleavages and even fiercer battles. If the past is any guide, however, it will eventually become clear how the world wishes to move forward, and the coherence of the age will take shape anew.
What Rabb is describing here is the continued conflict between the two great streams of European thought. Indeed, much of Rabb's book is devoted to analysis of the Renaissance mind and the transformation into what he calls the Age of Revolution, as the book's title suggests, and the phenomena he describes continually demonstrate that the same two streams of thought animated both that time and the subsequent eras. The sixteenth-century artistic movement of Mannerism, for example, with its “unsettling distortions,” a “focus on agonized figures and swirling, unstable compositions,” the use of “figures given inexplicable gestures and odd postures,” and predilection for “disturbing subjects,” strikes Rabb as “symptomatic of a world in which doubts were growing and answers remained elusive.” These also sound like the same things that drove modern art in the twentieth century.
Similarly, the roots of today's relativism and multiculturalism are distinctly evident in Rabb's description of Renaissance-era skepticism: “With antagonists asserting exclusive and incompatible versions of truth, it seemed only appropriate to question the very nature of such claims.” Even the details of the arguments are familiar. Rabb quotes Michel de Montaigne after the latter's encounter with a cannibal who had been brought to France, in which the French writer calls his own society barbarous while entirely absolving the cannibal of any moral responsibility: “I find that there is nothing barbarous or savage in this nation, except that we call barbarism whatever we ourselves do not do. Indeed, we seem to have no definition of truth and reason other than the opinions and customs of the place where we live.”
Likewise, Rabb quotes the Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas as scathingly describing the incursion of Europeans into the New World:As Rabb points out, “These voices were exceptional, but they were widely heard.” And they are widely heard today as well. In fact, the words of de las Casas are reminiscent of many such critiques of Western imperialism in recent decades.
God made all the peoples of [the New World], many and varied as they are, as open and innocent as can be imagined. It was upon these gentle lambs that from the very first day they clapped eyes on them the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon the fold, or like tigers and savage lions who have not eaten meat for days. The pattern established at the outset has remained unchanged to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting mercilessly.
Political liberty also has its roots in the Renaissance, Rabb observes. “Especially noteworthy was the creation of a quite distinct republican political tradition. Its roots grew in a handful of prosperous and relatively independent cities in the late Middle Ages, and it drew inspiration from the memory of Republican Rome, but it began to flower only in the fourteenth and subsequent centuries.” Venice, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Oliver Cromwell's Britain “all emphasized the ‘liberties’ of their citizens in contrast to the ‘subject’ status of those who were ruled by hereditary princes.” (It is worth noting that the places where this political philosophy hung on most tenaciously were Protestant.) The call for political liberty rose in response to the centralizing tendencies of early-Renaissance monarchs, and it clearly presaged current-day debates over subsidiarity and federalism.
The scientific method arose during the Renaissance, not the Enlightenment, and it has been a permanent part of the scene since. The similarities between current thoughts and all the other trends of the Renaissance that Rabb describes are equally clear. All of these phenomena point us toward an inescapable conclusion that Rabb does not himself bring out: what appears to have happened during the Renaissance was not a distinct, coherent line of thinking but instead an open divergence of two streams of thought that quickly began a great struggle for dominance and initiated a mutual pattern of ebb and flow that persists to this day.
In Earthly Powers, British historian Michael Burleigh extends this story from the Enlightenment to the First World War. Burleigh explores the idea of political religions—the way in which modern-era politics have consistently taken on a cast of religious fervor among those who have no religion—and how moderns base non- and even anti-Christian dogmas on Christian ideas and customs. Burleigh's book counteracts the temptation to underestimate the extent to which Christianity permeates our culture and has done so even when that influence is least evident. His book thus questions the tendency to think that the past couple of centuries have brought a thorough or irreversible secularization of the West.
Burleigh notes that after 1789, Edmund Burke's “key insight was to realize that ‘a theory concerning government may become as much a cause of fanaticism as a dogma in religion.”’2 In fact, it was in making secular progress into a religion that the French Revolution was perhaps most revolutionary. Burleigh points out that “it had its creeds, liturgies and sacred texts, its own vocabulary of virtues and vices, and, last but not least, the ambition of regenerating mankind itself, even if it denied divine intervention or the afterlife. The result was a series of deified abstractions worshipped through the denatured language and liturgy of Christianity.”
Burleigh documents the myriad ways in which “the discourse of the Revolution was saturated with religious terminology: words like catechism, credo, fanatical, gospel, martyr, missionary, propaganda, sacrament, sermon, zealot, were transferred from a religious to a political context.” The attempted adoption of a new calendar and the deliberate suppression of the Catholic Church and its clergy were both part of the same process: the removal of all competing institutions and even habits of thought and behavior that might impede the creation of a new type of human being, one fit for a society incarnating the Jacobins’ “abstract vision of community, harmony and national unity.”
Although Burleigh cautions us not to forget the distinctive nature of the Jacobins, he makes the obvious connection to modern efforts to remake the world through political religions, such as Soviet and Chinese communism and German national socialism. For example, mass murders of the political opposition, or those merely caught in the crossfire, were all too common during the Terror—and the methods employed were as efficient and coldhearted as those of modern regimes. When the guillotine was not fast enough in Lyons in early 1794, “the government's soldiers used cannonfire to gun down large batches of prisoners, with swordsmen finishing off those left half dead by rounds of grapeshot.” That same year, the Jacobins used mass drownings in Nantes to kill off “enemies of the Revolution,” claiming some 1,800 victims in this gruesome way. Burleigh notes that through these and other atrocities “up to a third of the population perished, a statistic roughly equivalent to the horrors of twentieth-century Cambodia.”
As the Terror was giving way to Napoleon and his willingness to make peace with the Church as long as he could keep it under his thumb, the Romantic era brought a somewhat greater appreciation of Christianity throughout the Continent. It was “a great age of Christian faith,” as Burleigh notes, but “it was also an age of publicly aired religious doubt.” Both streams of European history were in full swell, and the result was great turbulence. In France, a strong counter-Revolutionary line of thinking arose, much of it aggressively Catholic in nature. Appreciation for the Middle Ages increased, and writers such as Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald openly praised the lost medieval order.
In Critics of the Enlightenment, editor Christopher Olaf Blum presents representative works from six such thinkers. The book provides powerful evidence of the vitality of Christian thought in the nineteenth century, as exemplified by the publication of Chateaubriand's The Genius of Christianity in 1802 in France, where praising Europe's Christian past had been unthinkable just a few years earlier. Chateaubriand's book kicked off a greater respect for the Catholic Church and the Middle Ages among some French intellectuals. The writers were aggressively and unabashedly Catholic partisans. Joseph de Maistre, writing in 1798, claimed, “Europe has one great enemy. . . . It is a fatal ulcer that attaches itself to all sovereign powers and eats away at them. It is the son of pride, the father of anarchy, the universal solvent: Protestantism.”
Louis Bonald echoed those sentiments in 1815, but later writers such as Frédéric Le Play got past that and were willing to offer specific reforms to reverse some of the more damaging policies that had been implemented in the name of social progress. Some of these arguments sound very familiar to the contemporary reader. In his 1864 book Social Reform in France, for example, Le Play noted, “As with all social institutions, the family is today the subject of lively controversy, and the errors that have been published about it greatly trouble our minds.”
The struggles between church and state during the nineteenth century brought about a painful culture war, Burleigh notes. Efforts to rethink society from scratch were legion, from Auguste Comte's Positivism to the utopian socialist experiments of Robert Owen in Britain and America to the communism of Marx and Engels. What they all had in common was a denial of the Christian doctrine of original sin and a consequent belief in human perfectibility—and the requirement that humans be perfected in order to live in the transformed society. Many churches responded with a greater emphasis on social improvement, to the point that Christian Socialist movements began to form as early as 1850 in England.
As churches slipped away from their pastoral functions and took up social causes, religious observance waned. In Berlin in 1869, only 1 percent of the people in working-class parishes attended church on Sundays; by the end of the century, the German middle classes had “largely distanced themselves from the Churches, viewing them coolly as survivals from a world that had passed.” They were materialistic and in the sway of a “vulgar scientism,” Burleigh notes. The only real religion in Germany was nationalism, and the anti-Christian anti-Semitism of Paul Lagarde and his openly pagan, Teutonic-roots followers rushed in to fill the nation's spiritual void, with horrific results, once “given a massive impetus by the cataclysm of the First World War and the turmoil that followed it.”
Burleigh's book stops there, with the observation that the “Great War, the domestic and international civil wars, and economic dislocation that followed it, gave rise to mass despair, to which the solution appeared to be various forms of authoritarianism.” With the hollowing out of Christian faith in Europe, the atheist, humanist, secular tide had finally risen to its crest. It remains high there, and Christianity has gone nearly dry in Europe, even as it grows exponentially in Africa, Asia, and South America and remains about as high as usual in the United States.
In The Victory of Reason, Baylor University professor Rodney Stark makes a bold claim about where these two streams lead: “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.” And not just Protestants, Stark emphasizes, but the previous fifteen hundred years of Christianity as well. Christianity's devotion to theology creates a “faith in reason” which Stark says is precisely what has made Christendom great: “From very early days, Christian theologians have assumed that the application of reason can yield an increasingly accurate understanding of God's will” (emphasis in original).
Rejecting the claim that the source of modern science was Greece and Rome by way of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Stark writes,Stark states, “The so-called Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century has been misinterpreted by those wishing to assert an inherent conflict between religion and science.” On the contrary, writes Stark, “these achievements were the culmination of many centuries of systematic progress by medieval Scholastics, sustained by that uniquely Christian twelfth-century invention, the university.” Real science, Stark notes, “arose only once: in Europe.” Other civilizations had alchemy, but “only in Europe did alchemy develop into chemistry.”
The rise of science was not an extension of classical learning. It was the natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine. . . . Because God is perfect, his handiwork functions in accord with immutable principles. By the full use of our God-given powers of reason and observation, it ought to be possible to discover these principles. These were the crucial ideas that explain why science arose in Christian Europe and nowhere else.
Stark surveys European history from the fall of Rome to the present and demonstrates that Christians and Christian ideas were behind all the great achievements of the West. Pointing out that Christianity's sense of human individuality, moral equality, and belief in free will were far more conducive to human creativity than Greek and Roman assumptions were, Stark thoroughly refutes the Enlightenment-era fiction that between the fall of Rome and the medieval era, Europe languished in Dark Ages (an argument Rabb likewise rejects). On the contrary, Stark writes, “Rapid intellectual and material progress began as soon as Europeans escaped from the stultifying grip of Roman repression and mistaken Greek idealism.”
Calling the Dark Ages “an era of extraordinary invention and innovation,” Stark points out the astonishing breadth and variety of progress in Europe after the fall of Rome. He documents the exponential increase in power generation from water, wind, and horses; the growth of productivity in agriculture with the innovation of the three-field system and the development of the heavy, wheeled plow; the rise of fish farming; and innovations in cloth-making. He identifies powerful innovations in land and sea transportation, in the arts and literature, and in science and education that occurred long before the Renaissance. Finally, Stark shows that the rise of capitalism began early in the ninth century—and was invented by Catholic monks.
All of these things, especially the rise of capitalism, set the stage for political progress. Stark writes, “The success of the West depended on the development of free societies able to provide secure havens for early capitalism. Here too, Christianity played the key role, providing a moral basis for democracy far beyond anything envisioned by classical philosophers.”
The current implications of all this are quite evident. Stark flatly states, “Christianity created Western Civilization. . . . The modern world arose only in Christian societies. Not in Islam. Not in Asia. Not in a ‘secular’ society—there having been none.” If there had been only the Greek and Roman stream in European thought, things would be quite different. Stark writes:
Without a theology committed to reason, progress, and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: A world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos. . . a world truly living in “dark ages.”
Of course, other societies have benefited from this progress, but “all the modernization that has. . . occurred outside Christendom was imported from the West, often brought by colonizers and missionaries.” Hence, Stark argues, “It seems doubtful that an effective modern economy can be created without adopting capitalism,” and “Without secure property rights and substantial individual freedom, modern societies cannot fully emerge.” Stark cites Russia, China, and the Islamic nations as places where these conditions do not currently exist. However, he notes, Christianity is spreading rapidly around the globe—in Latin America, Africa, and China, tens of millions of people have become Christian in recent years. There may be 100 million Christians in China today, and about half of all subsaharan Africans are Christian.
Religious historian Philip Jenkins makes this point powerfully in The New Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (2006). Jenkins shows how rapidly Christianity is growing in most of the world while it recedes in Europe and Canada, emphasizing the differences between “northern” and “southern” forms of Christianity, with the latter being more like the early church. Exploring the implications of this demographic shift, Jenkins foresees possible future conflicts within the church and between surging southern Christianity and Islam.
Taking this argument further, the Catholic writer George Weigel argues that the secularization of the West has brought on a civilizational downward spiral that is particularly dire in Europe. Weigel observes, “The present eu project grew out of the work of three great Catholic statesmen: France's Robert Schuman, Italy's Alcide de Gasperi, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer. That distinguished triumvirate understood their work on Europe's economic and political integration as an expression of their commitment to revitalizing the Christian civilization of Europe after the catastrophe that was the first half of the twentieth century. It is very hard, however, to find traces of that Christian vision of Europe in today's eu.” Weigel observes a powerful antireligious bias in incidents such as the eu's 2006 decisions affirming same-sex marriage and not permitting doctors to refuse to perform abortions. He argues that such policies “confirm the suspicion that the eu bureaucracy is determined to impose lifestyle libertinism on all of Europe in the name of fundamental human rights.”3
Jenkins observes that the United States is much closer to Africa culturally than Europe is: “America is somewhere in between,” he said in an October 2005 interview. “In terms of its values, it may have as much to do with Africa as it does with Europe, which I think is a difference that explains a lot of the political divides between America and Europe. Americans take religious arguments more seriously.”4 This difference bodes ill for Europe, however, as Faith and Reason Institute president Robert Royal argues that modern democratic societies depend on a Christian view of the dignity of the human person and the health and survival of free institutions.5
Stark points out that many around the world find Christianity attractive precisely because it appeals to reason and “is so inseparably linked to the rise of Western Civilization.” To them, to be modern and rational means to be a Christian. But there is another side to this, which Stark mentions all too briefly. If his argument is correct, it strongly implies that any effort to foster democracy and market capitalism in, say, Islamic nations is doomed to fail. In addition, it suggests that Europe is in for some truly dark ages unless Christianity is necessary only to the establishment of economic and political freedom and that these can be sustained perpetually without it once they have taken hold—which seems unlikely over the long term, especially given the eu's increasing inroads against economic freedom, political pluralism, and Christian values.
If this is true, then the hostility of Islam toward the West is unlikely to recede any time soon, and the split between Europe and the United States will probably worsen in the years to come, unless Europe should undergo an unlikely religious revival. The good news is that numerous allies should arise to the south and across the Pacific over time, though they will not have much economic and strategic power for a while. All of which suggests that for the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to bear high responsibilities in the world as a sole superpower with few strong allies.
1 An excellent analysis of how tenaciously people hold on to their core beliefs is Paul Hollander's The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries, and Political Morality (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006).
2 Hollander's The End of Commitment provides a thorough consideration of this phenomenon as it was manifested in the twentieth century.
3 George Weigel, “Europe's Two Culture Wars,” The Catholic Difference (syndicated column), Mar. 29, 2006.
4 “Philip Jenkins: The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Wittenburg Door Online Extra, October 2005: at www.wittenburgdoor.com.
5 Robert Royal, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West (New York City: Encounter Books, 2006).
Samuel T. Karnick (email@example.com) is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and director of publications and senior editor at the Heartland Institute.
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