Sunday, January 01, 2006

Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity

William Grimes, writing in The New York Times, reviews Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success:
Mr. Stark, the author of "The Rise of Christianity" and "One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism," is sick and tired of reading that religion impeded scientific progress and stunted human freedom. To those who say that capitalism and democracy developed only after secular-minded thinkers turned the light of reason on the obscurantism of the Dark Ages, he has a one-word answer: nonsense.

"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," he argues in this provocative, exasperating and occasionally baffling exercise in revisionism. Capitalism, and the scientific revolution that powered it, did not emerge in spite of religion but because of it.

. . . Mr. Stark argues [that] . . . . [d]espite the prejudiced arguments of anticlerical Enlightenment thinkers, free inquiry and faith in human reason were intrinsic to Christian thought. Christianity, alone among the world's religions, conceived of God as a supremely rational being who created a coherent world whose inner workings could be discovered through the application of reason and logic. Consequently, it was only in the West, rather than in Asia or the Middle East, that alchemy evolved into chemistry, astrology into astronomy.

Mr. Stark gets down to cases quickly. He rapidly administers a few bracing slaps to Max Weber's theory that the Protestant ethic of self-denial and reinvestment propelled capitalism, pointing out that capitalism was in full flower in Italy centuries before the Reformation. . . .

The most persuasive chapters in "The Victory of Reason" describe the early stirrings of free-market enterprise and scientific experimentation on the monastic estates that spread throughout Western Europe after the ninth century. It was during the so-called Dark Ages that Christian monks, throwing off "the stultifying grip of Roman repression and mistaken Greek idealism," developed innovations like the water wheel, horseshoes, fish farming, the three-field system of agriculture, eyeglasses and clocks. "All of these remarkable developments can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason," writes Mr. Stark, who has described himself in interviews, surprisingly, as not religious in any conventional sense.

The seeming contradiction between Stark's lack of religiosity and his understanding of the nexus of Christianity, liberty, and capitalism is not at all surprising. Stark has the ability, so lacking in many of today's "rational" thinkers (i.e., anti-religious bigots) to confront the facts. There is, first of all, the libertarianism of the last six of the Ten Commandments. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

The precepts [of the last six of the Commandments] are meant to protect man in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows.

  • His life is the object of the Fifth;
  • the honour of his body as well as the source of life, of the Sixth;
  • his lawful possessions, of the Seventh;
  • his good name, of the Eighth;
  • And in order to make him still more secure in the enjoyment of his rights, it is declared an offense against God to desire to wrong him, in his family rights by the Ninth;
  • and in his property rights by the Tenth.
Also from the Catholic Encyclopedia, here is some wisdom about rights and justice:
. . . We sometimes say that the unemployed have a right to work, that the needy have a right to assistance, and it may be conceded that those phrases are quite correct, provided that such a right is understood as a claim in charity not as a claim in justice. For, at least if we confine our attention to natural law and ordinary circumstances, the assistance to which a man in need has a claim does not belong to him in justice before it is handed over to him, when it becomes his. His claim to it rests on the fact that he is a brother in distress, and his brotherhood constitutes his title to our pity, sympathy, and help. It may, of course, happen that positive law does something more than this for the poor and needy; it may be that the law of the land has given a legal right to the unemployed to have employment provided for them, or to the poor a legal right to relief; then, of course, the claim will be one of justice.

A claim in justice, or a right in the strict sense, is a moral and lawful faculty of doing, possessing, or exacting something. If it be a moral and lawful faculty of doing something for the benefit of others, it belongs to the class of rights of jurisdiction. Thus a father has the natural right to bring up and educate his son, not for his own, but for the son's benefit. A lawful sovereign has the right to rule his subjects for the common good. The largest class of rights which justice requires that we should render to others are rights of ownership. Ownership is the moral faculty of using something subordinate to us for our own advantage. The owner of a house may dispose of it as he will. He may live in it, or let it, or leave it unoccupied, or pull it down, or sell it; he may make changes in it, and in general he may deal with it as he likes, because it is his. Because it is his, he has a right to all the uses and advantages which it possesses. It is his property, and as such its whole being should subserve his need and convenience. Because it belongs to him he must be preferred to all others as to the enjoyment of the uses to which it can be put. He has the right to exclude others from the enjoyment of its uses, it belongs with all the advantages which it can confer to him alone. Were anyone else to make use of the house against the reasonable wish of the owner, he would offend against justice, he would not be render- ing to the owner what belongs to him.

Finally, St. Pope Pius X (quoted by Father Stephen DeLallo) said this in his motu proprio Fin Dalla Prima of December 18, 1903:
IV. Of the goods of the earth man has not merely the use, like the brute creation, but he has also the right of permanent proprietorship—and not merely of those things which are consumed by use, but also of those which are not consumed by use. (Encyclical Rerum Novarum.)

V. The right of private property, the fruit of labor or industry, or of concession or donation by others, is an incontrovertible natural right; and everybody can dispose reasonably of such property as he thinks fit. (Encyclical Rerum Novarum.)

VI. To heal the breach between rich and poor, it is necessary to distinguish between justice and charity. There can be no claim for redress except when justice is violated. (Encyclical Rerum Novarum.) . . . .

XI. For the settlement of the social question much can be done by the capitalists and workers themselves, by means of institutions designed to provide timely aid for the needy and to bring together and unite mutually the two classes. Among these institutions are mutual aid societies, various kinds of private insurance societies, orphanages for the young, and, above all, associations among the different trades and professions. (Encyclical Rerum Novarum.)
Private property, voluntary exchange, and voluntary charity. These are concepts that our statist regime has long since subverted.

Rodney Stark's thesis is entirely consistent with the teachings of the Church. As I wrote a few weeks ago,
One does not have to be a believer to understand the intimate connection between religion and liberty. . . . Strident atheists of Singer's ilk like to blame religion for the world's woes. But the worst abuses of humanity in the 20th century arose from the irreligious and anti-religious regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
(Thanks to my son for pointing me to the second set of quotations from the Catholic Encyclopedia and to the piece by Fr. DeLallo.)

Related posts:

Judeo-Christian Values and Liberty (02/20/05)
Religion and Liberty (08/25/05)
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty (08/31/05)