20Feb Review of “The Triumph of Christianity” by Stark

Richard Dawkins is always good fun, and never more so than when he ventures into what might be called ‘macrohistory’ – the overall story of the past and present and where we may be heading.  His ‘grand narrative’ (and that of anti-religious secularism generally) tells us that orthodox Christianity was never good for anyone, was instead the root of most ignorance, violence and oppression in the past; continues to be so today, and is doomed by science-based ‘enlightened’ secularising modernity.

This narrative is especially hostile to Catholicism.  Its originators were the 18th c. pundits Voltaire and Gibbon, who taught historians to call the period after the fall of the Roman Empire in the late 400s the ‘Dark Ages’, because they were ‘dominated by the Catholic church’.  They taught that light began to dawn again only with the coming of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation , from the 1400s onwards ­ – followed by the ‘scientific revolution’ led by people like Copernicus, Galileo and Newton c. 1500 – 1700.

Voltaire and Gibbon were themselves, with others, self consciously ‘enlightened’ by this anti-Catholic narrative in the 1700s, and the anti-Christian wing of this ‘Enlightenment’ eventually gave birth to the triumphalist anti-religious secularism of today.

Competent historians of the ‘Dark Ages’ have long known that they were the opposite of dark, and that most of what is best about modernity rests upon medieval Christian foundations.  For example, there couldn’t have been a ‘scientific revolution’ had it not been for the universities of the Middle ages, which were unlike any academies that had ever existed before – and those medieval universities had been founded by Catholic rulers and clerics.   (The ancient Greeks didn’t found science – not even Aristotle believed that consistent rational laws and principles underlay all of nature. He never performed an experiment to test any of his ideas.)

The sociologist Rodney Stark has recently written a riveting summary of the dismantling of this anti-Christian narrative by many different historians,  in ‘The Triumph of Christianity’ (HarperCollins, 2011).

Maybe ‘Triumph’ is a bit over the top – Stark may have chosen that word deliberately to challenge the ‘Enlightenment’ narrative that Dawkins buys into.  Stark has no religious axe to grind, as he is himself an agnostic.  He believes that the historical record proves conclusively that leaving aside the question of the truth of Christian belief, it greatly improved the lives of its adherents in the Roman world (especially women), was the real source of modern science and free-market capitalism, and is still on an upward arc globally.

Europe is an exception, Stark believes, because northern Europe was never thoroughly evangelised to begin with, and still today doesn’t provide a level playing field for all strands of Christianity.  However, Christianity is thriving in Africa and South America, still holding its own in North America, and advancing also in Russia and China.

Interestingly he believes the record proves that state monopoly and financial support of Christianity has always hindered it by making its ministers lazy and complacent, and that competition is good for it.

Enveloped as we are in Ireland these days by a pea soup of historically illiterate ‘Dawkinsism’, we really need a good, thoroughly annotated  rug-puller – and this is it.  It is nowhere obscure or tedious.

Incidentally, Stark doesn’t say so, but his summary strongly supports our Irish Catholic narrative of early Christian Ireland as a source of brilliant light in the Middle Ages.  Colmcille and Columbanus and others helped to lay the foundations of western European Christianity, including those great Catholic universities.  As for later centuries, future historians will probably rebuild a narrative that is far more favourable to Irish Catholicism than Dawkins etc would believe possible.

Sean O’Conaill

3 Responses

  1. Shane

    Thanks to Sean for the fascinating review. I intend to buy this; sounds like a great book. I agree with him that future historians will look more kindly upon the modern history of Irish Catholicism than is presently the case. Alas, a lot of our present day historians and reporters have emotional baggage that distorts their perspectives. We should also be wary about assuming that ‘modern’ values will be long lasting. The world has a tendency to change radically and rapidly when we least expect it to. (Who in the 1950s could have predicted the state of Irish Catholicism today?)

  2. Sean O'Conaill

    Slight correction: the Wikipedia article on Rodney Stark reports that in a 2007 interview he described himself formerly as an agnostic, but that then (in 2007) he was an ‘independent Christian’.
    However, it’s clear that in ‘Triumph of Christianity’ he is writing not as a traditional ‘defender of the faith’ but as a sociologist and historian whose primary concern is to ‘follow the evidence’.

  3. Dr. Don O'Leary

    My book, “Irish Catholicism and Science: From ‘Godless Colleges’ to the ‘Celtic Tiger'” (Cork: Cork University Press, 2012) addresses various aspects of the interaction between Irish Catholic and scientific thought. My previous book “Roman Catholicism and Modern Science: A History” (New York and London: Continuum, 2006) is a broader ranging historical analysis as the title indicates. The consensus amongst historians of science is that simple theses of conflict and harmony concerning religion and science are not sustainable. Dawkins seems unaware or chooses to ignore the consensus of historians on this matter.


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