The Victory of Reason begins with a truly provocative idea, especially in our age of secular-centric historical commentary. Scholar Rodney Stark posits that the driving force of Western success was due to ideas inculcated in Christianity. With Christianity, and much of faith in general, being as unpopular as it is in academia, this is a disruptive idea. Stark attempts to prove his outlook in The Victory of Reason and does so with mild success.
I have long believed that ideas matter and have consequences. Although that seems elementary, certain scholars would not necessarily agree, especially depending on their field of study. To read a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, would make one believe that the progress of humanity has little to do with the volition of humans. Rather, the irresistible forces of evolution and chance, including something as mundane as longitude and latitude, determine the destiny of humanity. The Victory of Reason presents a very different world and outlook, a world driven by the choices of humans—collectively or individually—and those choices are driven by ideas, such as those found within Christianity.
So does Stark make his case successfully? Yes and no. The book is detailed, albeit not exhaustive, and historical evidence is confidently presented. The trouble starts to occur with the analysis of certain historical periods, such as the Dark Ages, in which Stark rejects the common interpretation of history regarding that time period. Although most of the information is interesting, it feels farther and farther away from the original theory the more you keep reading. (I will say certain passages in the book reminded me of reading The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; the in-depth analysis of potato growing or wool production can make for some less than thrilling reading). Stark does eventually circumscribe his historical musings into the framework of his theory, but it doesn't happen enough and the book sometimes feels disconnected from the main idea.
Stark's personality was on display in his writing much more than many other scholars. I could appreciate his contrarian viewpoints being a contrarian myself. The writing feels caustic in some ways, but his rejection of several common beliefs is always followed by persuasive historical evidence. The profundity of the premise—that the ideas of Christianity are primarily responsible for the momentous advances in western civilization—demands a commiserate level of profundity in writing and historical commentary. The Victory of Reason as an explication fell a bit short in proving its main premise, although I don't believe Stark is wrong. Although I am very sympathetic to Stark's assertion, I wish his book would have been put together a bit more coherently and circumspectly.
The Victory of Reason is a valuable book to read and study due to its mostly contrarian viewpoint on momentous historical circumstances. The premise is fascinating, as well as much of the content, but the book doesn't quite come together the way it needs to. Having said that, this is the first book of Rodney Stark's I have read, and I look forward to reading and enjoying more of his work. He has some fascinating things to say, and I'm eager to explore more of the world from Rodney Stark's viewpoint.
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: The Lessons of History
Brow Bruising Reads