Ignorance strip’t bare: Rodney Stark and triumphalist historiography

ConFrieze7by Richard K. Payne

I remember being struck many years ago by the question underlying Joseph Needham’s massive project Science and Civilization in China: Why did China not follow the same line of progress in the development of science that the West had? Or, as he expressed it in his Conway lecture of 1947 “the question of why modern science and technology developed in Europe and not in Asia” (“Science and Society in Ancient China,” London: Watts and Co., 1947; p. 5). This question builds on the intellectual presumptions deriving from Comte’s three stages of socio-intellectual development and Hegel’s progressivist system of religious history. The fundamental presumption is that there is a single linear course of progressive development, which is evident in the history of Europe and America. That linear development is taken as the norm to which all societies are expected to adhere, and any divergence then is the exception requiring explanation.

In a critique Robert Wardy has summarized this historiographic preconception, noting that what dominates in the study of Chinese philosophy

is the perceived contrast with the West. Sometimes this takes the form of a trial, the Chinese being seen to have diverged from—almost inevitably to have fallen grievously short of—some Western achievement, and the question then is, why so? But such studies, whether they plead for the defence or for the prosecution, always impose investigative patterns which Chinese material is made to fit, usually by distortion, at best by omission (Robert Wardy, Aristotle in China: Language, Categories and Translation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000: pp. 1–2).

The idea of a single developmental sequence for all societies was the basis of a field of “modenization studies,” which while prominent in the 1960s and 70s, was severely critiqued for not considering the unique historicality of each society, as well as for overlooking the role of individual agency. These and other critiques were part of the intellectual background that led to the valorization of multiculturalism and religious pluralism.

It would seem, however, that the Hegelian conception of monolinear social development remains strong in triumphalist religious historiography—perhaps returning to favor not only as a consequence of neo-liberal ideas of globalization, but also of the feeling that Euro-American culture is under attack. The idea of a monolinear progressive history leading to the institutions of modern Western society—science and capitalism, democracy and reason—compared to which other societies only fall short has apparently been given new life in an atmosphere in which the other, the outsider is a source of fear and needs to be explained not just as different, but as inherently inferior. In the hands of Rodney Stark, the unique characteristic that has led to the supremacy of Western society, its triumph over others, is Christianity.

Stark opens his Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), one of a series of related expositions, by saying that the work

explores a series of developments in which reason won the day, giving unique shape to Western culture and institutions. The most important of these victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth (p. x).

Noting that this emphasis on reason is inherited from Greek philosophy, he then simplistically distinguishes Greek philosophy from Greek religions, saying of these latter that they

remained typical mystery cults, in which ambiguity and logical contradictions were taken as hallmarks of sacred origins. Similar assumptions concerning the fundamental inexplicability of the gods and the intellectual superiority of introspection dominated all of the other major world religions (ibid.)

In the framework then of a triumphalist history in which Christianity led Western societies to their present status as a pinnacle of cultural development we find it supported by generalities about the failings of “all of the other major world religions.” In addition to noting the underlying historiographic conception that modern Western society represents the norm against which others are to be measured and found wanting, we should also consider two aspects of the claims just cited, which are given in support of the preeminent role of Christianity in that development. First, what kind of claim is being made and second whether it is true.

I have found it useful to distinguish generalities, which are ungrounded general statements, from generalizations, which have evidentiary basis. The former can often be identified by being prefaced (either explicitly or implicitly) by the phrase: Everybody knows that…. A relatively trivial example would be “Everybody knows Buddhists are vegetarians.” In contrast a generalization would be “Most Buddhists seem to be vegetarians, at least all the ones I know.” In the latter we are told the sample—“the ones I know”—that forms the basis for the generalization.

Probability theory usually quantifies from evidence to generalization, being more specific. “I’ve met 23 Buddhists, and they are all vegetarians, so it seems highly probable that most Buddhists are vegetarians.” This can also allow for predictions—the next Buddhist I meet will probably be a vegetarian. Or if 15 out of 20 Buddhists have been vegetarians, then there is a 75% chance the next one will be too.

Stark’s claims as quoted above are not only generalities, but are universals–they claim something to be true of all members of some set. There is a trivial sense in which most universal claims are false, which is the existence of counter-examples. Anyone who thought that all Buddhists are vegetarians, upon meeting one who wasn’t would know that the claim is false, and that the category “Buddhist” requires some reconsideration. Although, as with other instances in religious studies scholarship, there is the possibility of saying that the non-vegetarian is not really a Buddhist after all. One can thereby preserve one’s preconcieved categories, and remain undisturbed by evidence.

Less trivially, a generality like Stark’s that only Christianity embraced reason as the “primary guide to religious truth” is falsified by considering two alternative constructions of religious history. While rational theology has certainly had an important historical role in the history of Christian thought, and may have contributed in some ways to the character of modern Euro-American society, it is not the only form of understanding religious truth valorized in the history of Christian thought. The rich tradition of Christian mysticism claims an alternative approach to religious truth, while dogmatism insists on the acceptance of some particular interpretation without critical reflection.

The second is the centrality of logic and sensory evidence in much of the Buddhist tradition. While there are some figures who reduce the number of reliable sources of belief to just those two, even those who add the source of authority—of either a text or a teacher—generally include those two as evaluative criteria of the claims of an authority. Other instances could no doubt be given for other traditions as well. Another dimension of the relation between reason and religion is the arbitrary dichotomizing of the example that Stark himself gives—the distinction between Greek philosophy as rational and Greek religion as “typical mystery cults.” This only works on the basis of an artificial distinction, one at best supported by circular reasoning: “If adherents promoted reason, then it was philosophy; if they didn’t, then it was a mystery cult. So, Greek philosophy is rational, and Greek religion a collection of mystery cults.”

Stark’s claims evidence a profound ignorance of other traditions—in the literal sense of ignoring them. His universal generalities are deployed simply for rhetorical rather than informative ends. They resonate with popular prejudices, both positive toward Euro-American culture and negative toward the religion of the feared other. They prepare the reader’s expectations in such a fashion as to accept the claims of the central role of rational Christian theology in the rise of modern Euro-American civilization. As the unique pinnacle of human achievement and norm for a monolinear conception of societal development, Euro-American Chrisitian culture sets the standard in comparison to which any other society necessarily fails. This is, in other words, triumphalist propaganda, the argument for which is based on and therefore promotes ignorance of other religious traditions.

Richard K. Payne is Dean and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley. The IBS is affiliated with both the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Ryukoku University, Kyoto.

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