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1.0 out of 5 stars A profoundly misleading book., 14 Feb 2007
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This review is from: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Paperback)
The thesis of this book appears to be that Catholic Christianity founded capitalism. One's first assumption might be that, if this were true, the medieval church had betrayed the teachings of its founder and that this book was a polemic (not unknown for instance, when even Dante and other medieval figures complained of the greed and corruption of the church) to this end. Not at all, it is praise of the church. The subtitle turns out to be How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success.
To maintain this improbable thesis, the author needs to denigrate the Roman empire. No one would want to give the empire unqualified praise -it could be brutal and much of its treatment, of criminals, for instance, was sickening. However, it did successfully keep the Mediterranean world in comparative peace for several centuries. The Roman and Greek parts had different kinds of achievements but it was to take many centuries before anyone could build an acqueduct which led water evenly down into a city over ninety miles, a dome as big as the Pantheon in Rome (or Santa Sophia in Constantinople) or as vast a building as the baths of Caracalla which could house 4000 bathers and provide hot water for them. The organisation of the empire's defence and administration again had no equals for many many centuries. The problem is that the author either is completely ignorant of how the ancient world works or chooses not to find out. His texts is full of basic errors. For instance:
`Ultimately, Greek learning stagnated of its own inner logic [whatever that means] . After Plato and Aristotle very little happened beyond some extensions of geometry'. (P.20)
How one can leave out Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Plotinus, Galen, Hipparchus, all of whom were writing in the centuries after Aristotle, is extraordinary. The pleasure of reading Plutarch's Lives still awaits Stark. I could not really believe that anyone could write the sentence without checking up in any introductory book on Greek culture to make sure it was correct. Some of the greatest work in Greek science, e.g. Ptolemy in geography and astronomy and Galen in medicine, took place over four hundred years after Plato and Aristotle. The fact that the rational tradition lasted so long, nearly a thousand years ( 570 BC to the suppression of paganism by the emperor Theodosius in the 390s AD),is a testament to its vitality. For this reader, the sentence immediately discredited the book as a serious work of scholarship, but the errors went on.
Stark "Roman buildings were essentially unheated'.
Well-documented and sophisticated heating systems from rural villas ( hypocausts) to the vast public baths of Rome existed throughout the empire. Often cutaway plans of heating systems are provided in children's textbooks on the Romans. In fact, I put in `Roman underfloor heating' in a Google search and came up with such a children's website with a nice picture of a Romano-British villa complete with its heating system. I have recently visited the Roman villa in Piazza Armerina in Sicily and noted how its flues and pipes worked to provide heat. The heating of the baths in Rome (and in all other large cities) where sometimes thousands of bathers were accommodated in a range of rooms of different temperatures is even more impressive. (Stark has the medieval world inventing chimneys but as, to take Britain, brickmaking collapsed with the fall of the empire and did not reappear for eight hundred years,it is not until the mid-fifteenth century that homes are heated through chimneys, for those who could afford bricks or fashioned stone. This was a long time to wait from Roman times and had nothing directly to do with the church in any case.)
`Roman trade mainly dealt in luxuries and was unproductive.' This is an old theory which has been completely undermined by archaeological research , not only of shipwrecks but of humbler sites which show the extent to which even peasants were benefitting from trade. A glance at the recent edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary under `Trade' would have shown the following:
`The number of shipwrecks recorded for the period 100 BC to AD 300 is much larger than for either the preceding period or the `Dark Ages'- this suggests a level of operation which was not to be reached again until the High Renaissance. . . .the greatest spur to the development of this trade was the creation of a fully monetarised economy throughout the empire.'
This is where the `Christianity brought capitalism' argument falls down. The empire was a fully monetarised economy and as a result of long years of stability, the fruits of this extended downwards to peasant level. With the fall of the empire, money disappears in the west for centuries. A horde found at Hoxne in Suffolk from the late Roman empire had 14,000 coins in it, the Sutton Hoo treasure from a few miles away and two centuries later had a mere 40 and these seem to have been prestige objects.
Having got off to a bad start, Stark then continues with his thesis that Christianity preserved reason. One would need to offer a sophisticated argument in support of this counterintuitive view but none is given. Stark gives, as an example of Christian reasoning, Thomas Aquinas' `reasoned' argument that the Virgin Mary had no other children. `So we assert without qualification that the mother of God conceived as a virgin, gave birth as a virgin and remained a virgin after birth'. This is presented as `an example of careful deductive reasoning leading to new doctrines'. I read and reread this extraordinary assertion of `reasoned thought' which went alongside others which claimed that the church founded modern science! (This claim in itself was problematic as Stark admits he knows of no `Greek learning ` after Aristotle'. Most historians of science give the Greeks precedence in science and mathematics but as Stark admits he knows of no Greek learning after Aristotle, when the greatest Greek work in these disciplines took place, he eliminates himself from any serious debate) Surely the continuing belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is one of the doctrines which suggest to many that the church does not support empirical reasoned thought. It is not only extremely unlikely in any biological sense, how would one find the empirical evidence to support it in any case? The odd thing is that if Stark knew his Aquinas he would be able to find examples of where he backed Christian theology by reason.

Everywhere there are problems with his thesis. Stark introduces the concept of the `Dark Ages', not much used nowadays in scholarship. Then comes the sweeping polemical statement: `The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by antireligious and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth century intellectuals.' (The language is typical of Stark's sweeping and often unjustified rubbishing of his (often more scholarly `intellectual') opponents.) Not so, the idea was originated by Petrarch in the fourteenth century (put in 'dark ages' and 'Petrarch' in any search engine) as he revived the idea that the achievements of the classical period had been forgotten as the result of the long period of darkness which followed it. Petrarch was a good Catholic but even he could see how culture had deteriorated. In fact, he states very opposite of what Professor Stark is trying to prove.
Again he seems to assume that the fall of the Roman empire somehow liberated new energies and innovations. It took centuries before the economy of Europe began to pick up. Even in 1000 there were only some 100 towns in Europe. Bryan Ward-Perkins's The Fall of Rome provides the archaeological evidence that in many parts of Europe, above all Britain, standards of living went back to pre-Roman levels and it was often hundreds of years before basic commodities such as bricks reappeared. Again and again Stark makes sweeping generalisations about innovation being widespread but the underlying evidence from ice cores and shipping records (see above) is that it took a thousand years before levels of industrial and trading activity reached what they had been in Roman times.
The Middle Ages -500- 1500 is an exciting place to be at the moment as a mass of new scholarship and the integration of archaeological research is being put together in new interpretations. Overall, scholarship seems now (and this must be a generalisation when the church controlled such a large proportion of wealth) be stressing the secular contribution to new technology and innovation. The leading books hardly mention the church as it was simply not involved in most of the growth areas of the economy. There is a new emphasis on how social and economic change was stimulated by forces outside the church, even the universities appear to be rooted in the urban pride and administrative needs of the city states of northern Italy, although the church did acquiesce in their foundation. Literacy fell dramatically in the years after the fall of the empire - there are complaints from some communities that they could not find anyone able to write. The church did not spread literacy beyond itself and monastic libraries were often tiny -only fifty volumes in many English cases. When the Irish scholar Eriguena produced his The Division of Nature in 860, it was said that there was no one in Europe with the learning to understand it. Perhaps this is why it survived until the thirteenth century when someone in the church could and declared it heretical! Far from seeing Christianity behind the revival of the European economy (as Stark argues), Michael McCormick sums up his magisterial Origins of the European economy as follows: 'the rise and economic consolidation of Islam changed the nature of an emerging European economy - it offered the wealth and markets which would fire the first rise of western Europe."
This new scholarship on the period 500 - 1200 is detailed and analytical. There were innovations but a study of each needs to explore the social and economic forces which sustained them. The Arab world was important in stimulating trade and was the medium through which instruments such as the astrolabe came back into Europe (as well as texts such as those of Aristotle which brought back the possibility of reason into intellectual thought). Many innovations appear to have simply been responses to technological bottlenecks and one did not have to be Christian to make them. As Stark is a professor of social sciences one would expect him to analyse these social forces. Yet, everything is attributed to Christianity. The major weakness of this book is that there is no study of how the church related to society, let alone to innovation. It is simply assumed that if a change happened it was the church which brought it. There were certainly forces against reason. It was Bernard of Clairvaux, in his campaign against the brilliant Abelard , who opined ` Let him who has scanned the heavens go down in the depths of hell.' There were forces in the church, and powerful ones at that, which opposed reason, and others, notably Aquinas who supported it. In most cases, the church, so long ,as it maintained its wealth, was not really interested in capitalism and the growth areas of the European economy normally operated independently of the church. The economy of Florence is exceptionally well documented -it had major ups and downs -but while its leading commercial and banking familes paid lip service to the church,and in the case of the Medicis, used their wealth as a stepping stone to the Papacy, it is hard to see how the church did anything to support the Florentine economy. Instead the surplus from the church's enormous estates and the taxation of the faithful was channelled into non -productive areas such as church building. (The high literacy , perhaps seventy per cent, of the Florentines both girls and boys was largely due to private education.) Just look at the layout of any medieval city to see how money became ties up in churches. Architecturally they were great achievements but they had nothing to do with capitalism or provision for the poor.
One can also look at Venice,the most dynamic economy of the thirteenth to early fifteenth century Stark pays some lip service to this achievement. However, there is no mention of how Venice's wealth was consolidated and it is worth reminding readers why. A new crusade to the Holy Land was launched for 1204. Venice agreed,for a price, to provide the ships. The crusaders could not pay and the Venetians diverted the crusader fleet to the Christian (if heretical) city of Constantinople which was then sacked. Venice grabbed a number of Byzantine trading stations along the Mediterranean and its economy boomed. So the capitalist wealth of Venice was indirectly stimulated by the initiation of the notorious Fourth Crusade by the church. Is this the argument Stark wishes to make? Again,Stark wisely leaves Europe before the seventeenth century when the wars of religion devastated large areas of Europe, cutting population in some areas to a third of what it had been. It was partly as a reaction to the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of institutional religion that these wars showed , that reason reasserted itself in the Enlightenment. A study of the forces resisting Enlightenment ideals, however, show just how powerful `unreason' continued to be.
There is some correlating evidence to suggest that it was not until the sixteenth century before the European economy reached the level of prosperity it had enjoyed under the Roman empire. If both a Christian and pagan society achieved relatively high standards of living in this part of the world,this would suggest that it is something in the nature of Europe, its fertility, geographical position in relation to other markets, etc.,etc, which fostered its wealth. This is the argument one would expect a social scientist to explore. One could well argue that to take a thousand years to reach Roman levels of prosperity is an argument against Christianity but that would be to make an unsubstantiated generalisation when there are already rather too many in this book already!
What worries me most about this book is that Stark is so often lauded for his scholarship. Many Christians in the US who ,through no fault of their own, have not explored European history (just as I have not explored the history of the Americas between 500 and 1500 except at a cursory level) will think that this book is trustworthy from a historical point of view. I cannot make up my mind as to whether Stark is really as ignorant of the ancient world and medieval Europe as he comes across in this book, or whether he feels he has an argument to offer and the evidence against it can safely be disregarded. Why did he not just sit down and read through some of the recent scholarship in this area before starting the text? He may have his acolytes in some Christian circles but, in this book at least, he makes nonsense of any claim to be a serious scholar.
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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 21 Jun 2011 15:53:01 BDT
Last edited by the author on 21 Jun 2011 16:04:01 BDT
I. Tanaka says:
The reason for the failure of the Greek civilization to develop further seems to be because Greek philosophers despised manual work and viewed the world as being born of chaos, thus experimental science could not develop in such an intellectual climate, just like it didn't develep in Islam ( Islamic theology considers everything the direct result of Allah's will; no real cause-and-effect, so Muslims were dicouraged from investigating the world and to develeop a critical mind. The early islamic civilization simply made use of the know-how and culture of the conquered Christian Assyrians as well as other minorities, Jews, etc. Once the population in Islamic lands became throughly islamizised ( often by forced conversions) islamic civilization declined and eventually not only stagnated but actually retarded.
By contrast Christianity believes in a rational God who made a rational world that can be rationally understood and even theology in the Middle Ages had been made to conform to the laws of Logic. Having that basis, eventually Christianity did away with the Aristotelian worldview. Copernian, Galileo, Bacon and all early scientists were all Christians who threw away Aristotle and decided to go where the evidence led, because they had the confidence that the world could be rationally understood, having been made by a rational God.
Modern science is still banking on those premises, though now they believe world and its people came by accident , for no reason and to no reason. One can only conjecture what would happen in a few centuries if this modern intellectual climate totally takes over human endeavours.

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Jun 2011 16:30:32 BDT
Even if what you said was true, and there is relatively little evidence to support your assertions -how do you explain the obsession with miracles in the so-called rational Midde Ages? - nothing would save this book from being one of the worst works of history I have ever read. Stark simply does not know any history and professional historians are simply laughing their heads off at those non-historians who appear to think he is a major historian!

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Nov 2013 20:45:19 GMT
Last edited by the author on 17 Nov 2013 21:19:55 GMT
I think you are making the error of applying the standards of the modern day to the past.
To my perhaps inferior understanding it seems to be you take as a given that 'rationalism' can only be atheistic/materialistic, which leaves no room for miracles, and thus the notion that Medieval people could believe in these and still be considered rational is incomprehensible or repugnant.

Yet from a Medieval standpoint (such as the one Mr Tanaka above alludes to) there may not have been real any problem reconciling miracles with an otherwise rational concept of the universe and of human life.
For example to them the notion of an omnipotent God who being able to transcend the natural laws (which he had after all created) to intervene the physical universe to perform miracles would not have appeared 'irrational'.

Secondly, Medieval medical theory was based heavily on Galen and Hippocrates, especially with the notion of the 'four humours'- the very Greek learning which Stark ignores.
Also, that lesser number of coins found in the Sutton Hoo hoard than one particular Roman Hoard does not necessarily 'prove' that a centralized and sophisticated soceity did not exist in Saxon England.
For instance, the contents of the Staffordshire Hoard have been are said of have been valued 'priceless' or at least worth considerable more than an Hoard of Roman coins found in Frome, Somerset. Also, the sheer monetary value of the 'payoffs' of the Vikings in later periods would appear to demonstrate the amount of wealth that was in existence.
Michael Wood I believe argued how this testified to the centralization of the a culture in which vast amounts of money could not only be produced and gathered together quickly and repeatedly.

Posted on 12 Jan 2014 19:04:40 GMT
I am amazed that Amazon have allowed Freeman to review this boo since it is in direct opposition with much of Freeman's own books and he is therefore totally partial in his views on Stark's work.

At the time when I had a book on NLP in print a whole series of reviews of other NLP books that I had posted were unceremoniously deleted on the grounds of a conflict of interest, even where I had praised books and given them a five star rating. Admittedly, I found this I found this irritating, but if applied even-handedly it was not entirely unreasonable.

But if Freeman's review is permitted, then the policy is clearly NOT being upheld in a properly neutral fashion and itself needs a review.

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Jan 2014 07:58:51 GMT
I think Mr. Bradbury does not understand how Amazon reviews work. Anyone, including himself, can post on any book that they want. Amazon only intervene if their is libel,etc. I get one star reviews from people who admit that they have only read three pages of my books. It is part of the rough and tumble of being an author. In this case, Rodney Stark does not even pretend to be an historian and this is a period in which I have done a lot of work so I feel I owe it to readers to point out some of the glaring problems with his argument.
Stark can reply to my review, as I do to some of the more misleading ones about my own books. Or he can do what i did with my 'The Closing of the Western Mind' and write a response to reviews. if you go to you will see that my 'review' has been overwhelmingly accepted by readers and is now the first one you come across. Stark is quite capable of doing this if he is worried about my review of his work.I just think it is a lousy book!!

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jan 2014 15:36:39 GMT
Last edited by the author on 14 Jan 2014 16:03:10 GMT
And I think Mr Freeman knows not whereof he speaks.

To repeat, in slightly more detail, my previous comment which Mr Freeman seems to have completely ignored:

I had a book on NLP published by Kogan Page in 1997 which went through four editions before I withdrew it due to a dispute with my publishers.

Some time ago (i.e. about 3 or 4 years back, I don't remember EXACTLY when) I found that my reviews of other books on NLP, whether favourable, neutral or critical, had been deleted. When I questioned this I was told by a member of's staff that it was the company's policy to exclude reviews by authors of any work which was on the same subject as their own since there was the potential for people to trash their competitors.

Coming back to Mr Freeman's post here, I was somewhat amused by his comment that:

"In this case, Rodney Stark does not even pretend to be an historian and this is a period in which I have done a lot of work so I feel I owe it to readers ..."

As I will show in a moment, Professor Stark doesn't "pretend" to be an historian" because he IS an historian (though not exclusively so).

Having said that, I have checked both Dr, Stark and Mr, Freeman on Wikipedia and find that though the latter is reported as having several academic qualifications, none rate higher than M.A., and only one relates to history - an M.A. in *African history and politics*, according to Wikipedia.
(If the Wikipedia record is not accurate/complete in either respect Mr Freeman might want to get the article on himself updated.)

Stark, by comparison, is a university professor with 30 books and more than 140 *scholarly* articles to his name, Stark does t least have a strong background in religion, comparative religion and the sociology of religion, and his printed articles include observations on the ancient world such as (again quoting Wikipedia) "city life in ancient Rome".
His works on Christianity and the rise of Christianity in the ancient world (e.g. "The Rise of Christianity") demonstrate that he is well able to hold his own in terms of research, knowledge and originality when compared with the likes of Mr Freeman (see the Stark-Bainbridge Theory of Religion for example).

As for Mr Freeman's closing comment, though I haven't yet read any of Professor Stark's work (I have, however, ordered this book - only partially on account of Mr Freeman's little tirade) I am well aware of *what looks to me* like a strong line in anti-Christian sentiment in Mr Freeman's own works. I have his book "361", bought secondhand (thank goodness), and on the basis of reading it I feel sure that there will indeed be some people (in addition to myself) who will think that that book at least deserves the same soubriquet (but see below).
I'm afraid Mr Freeman's credibility as a commentator on anything to do with Christianity is, *in my opinion* evidence of religious bias rather than scholarship.

BTW, Mr Freeman, surely you know that an appeal to popular opinion as evidence of the worth of a thing is a logical error know by several titles (in its various forms), such as "argumentum ad populum" and "argumentum ad numerum"?
Report to the Headmaster's study, boy, immediately!

(P.S. I'd also take issue with Mr Freeman's faith in empiricism as proof of the *advanced* state of science and philosophy in the ancient world, since it blatantly ignores facts such as the "stuck" state of Western cosmology, based on the work of Claude Ptolemy (a Greek astronomer), which supported the idea of the Earth as the centre of the universe for some 1,400 years until the time of Galileo). Likewise it seems to be based on a complete lack of understanding of what has happened to Hume's defence of empiricism and to Positivism and Logical Positivism in the much more recent past. But perhaps that's best left for another day.)

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jan 2014 15:52:50 GMT
Medieval Lady

Nice post, though I'm not sure whether you think Stark was right or wrong to ignore the Galen and Hippocrates.

There is an interesting piece of psychological research which indicates that the more intelligent people are, the more they tend to see other people (in general) as being not far off their own intellectual standard. That is, they tend to underestimate their own abilities.
The less intelligent, by contrast, tend to OVERestimate their own abilities and are quite likely to project themselves, in their own minds, into the company of the kind of people they aspire to be like.

Just a thought.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jan 2014 19:07:10 GMT
Do you really trust what someone has cobbled together on Wikipedia? You can go on to the Yale University Press London website and look me up under "authors'. I could go through his book line by line refuting it but I have better things to do, Tomorrow I am due to go over to Oxford University Press to discuss publicity for the third edition of my Egypt, Greece and Rome, Civiizations of the Ancient Mediterranean, a rather more substantial and, dare I say, scholarly work than anything Stark has ever written.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jan 2014 19:28:18 GMT
Last edited by the author on 14 Jan 2014 19:42:06 GMT
P.S. I do know of one author who trashed another author he was competing against using a pseudonym. However, no book I have written is in any way a competitor in content with anything Stark has written so your point is not relevant. It is simply an area that I have done a lot of scholarly work on so can see how Stark hasn't a clue about recent work in this area. Please don't comment any further until you have actually read this shoddy book-then do your own review of it and I can comment if I want to!!

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Jan 2014 23:48:54 GMT
Last edited by the author on 15 Jan 2014 23:55:10 GMT
Mr Freeman asks: "Do you really trust what someone has cobbled together on Wikipedia?" But he offers no indication as to what, if anything, is inaccurate in the information I quoted from Wikipedia. I wonder why not.

In practice IMHO MR Freeman's hubris betrays him, both in his failure to provide impartial evidence and in his several uses of illogical arguments to support his own position. Which is all the more telling, I think, in what that what he actually DOES is in such stark contrast to his claims about the alleged irrationality of Christianity and the alleged suppression of ancient reasoning and science by the Rise of Christianity and it's adoption as the State religion of the Roman Empire. In reality, we need only refer to the Greek and Roman "mystery religions" (such as Mithraism, etc.) for incontrovertible evidence that those nations had plenty of irrationality in their daily lives to balance off the undoubted intellectual skills of *some* of their citizens.

Taking the long view we might bear in mind the fact that Ptolemy actually fiddled his calculations in order to justify his argument that the universe circled the Earth, a proposition that dominated Western cosmology for approximately 1,400 years up until Galileo presented his argument that the Earth and the other planets in our Solar System all circled the Sun.
Included in this story are the additional facts that (a) Galileo was a Roman Catholic cleric when he produced his theory, and remained one for the rest of his life; (b) Galileo was primarily disciplined by the church authorities for his general behaviour rather than for being a heretic; (c) Galileo was NOT tortured or imprisoned in a dungeon for years, as some atheist myths claim - he was tried and put under home arrest such that he lived the rest of his life in the homes of wealthy patrons and was able to continue his studies; (d) at the same time, far from these ideas being suppressed, Jesuit astronomers working in the Vatican Observatory were checking and confirming many of the ideas proposed by Copernicus and Galileo.

Not exactly the picture of religious suppression of the sciences that critics of Christianity like to admit to (which is presumably why many of them don't).

It is also interesting to not that Mr Freeman has chosen to ignore my comments about the flaws in empirical science and philosophy (such as so-called "Logical Positivism"). It seems that far from offering genuinely scholarly arguments all we get are fallacious arguments, self-aggrandising statements and a complete refusal to deal with any comments to which Mr Freeman has no adequate answers.

For example, I am already aware that Mr Freeman has had work published by several university presses, but as he must surely realise, this does nothing to support the accuracy of his conclusions. Publishers are in business to make money. They publish books which will, they hope, provide a good return on their investment. As long as a book sells sufficient copies each year it will stay in print. If it fails to meet it's minimum sales it will soon go out of print.
Thus Mr Freeman's books stay on sale as long as they attract a sufficient number of purchasers - regardless of whether they are they are accurate throughout or even in general.

Publishers also look for brief reviews (back cover, etc.) from the sources likely to offer positive opinions. I have not made a thorough study of the matter, but it does seem to me, from what I have observed so far, that the reviews on Mr Freeman's books are more likely to come from professional reviewers (i.e. in newspapers) than from academics and others who have detailed knowledge of the subject matter covered in a given book.

If Mr Freeman would like to produce evidence to the contrary I will be happy to modify this post accordingly.

P.S. Mr Freeman writes:

"Please don't comment any further until you have actually read this shoddy book"

Which seems a little strange since I am commenting on Mr Freeman's review and comments, NOT on Professor Stark's book. I wonder why Mr Freeman has not spotted what I thought was a rather obvious difference.
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