Does Judaism Lack Reason? Claim Of Book Draws Fire From Critics

By Jennifer Siegel

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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Having written a book that credits Christianity with nothing less than the success of all Western civilization, Rodney Stark is drawing his share of criticism from reviewers asserting the work is a thinly veiled polemic. But the worst crime committed by the one-time Pulitzer Prize nominee — at least according to one Jewish sociologist — is his representation of Judaism.

“[This] is the worst book by a social scientist that I have ever read,” wrote Boston College professor Alan Wolfe, in a review that appeared in the January 16 edition of The New Republic. “Thought experiments have their place, but Stark’s, it must immediately be said, is vile: even the most notorious anti-Semites give Jews credit for the banks.”

In his new book, “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success” (Random House), Stark, a sociologist at Texas’ Baptist Baylor University, credited the West’s development of capitalism, science and democracy to the rise of Christianity, the world religion which “alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.”

“Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls,” Stark wrote. “Without a theology committed to reason, progress and moral equality, today the entire world would be… a world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists. A world of despots, lacking universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys and pianos.”

Stark, of course, is not the first thinker to search for the key to Western dominance. In the 1960s, historian William McNeill credited Europe’s ascent to its taste for war, its navigational techniques and its resistance to disease. More recently, Jared Diamond pointed to “guns, germs and steel” in a 1999 book.

In sharp contrast to such scholars, Stark — who in 1996 was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for “The Rise of Christianity” — opted for a theological explanation, following in the footsteps of Max Weber, whose seminal 1905 work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” argued that Protestantism embodied a work-and-save mentality that fueled capitalism in the West. Stark, in contrast, traced capitalism’s beginnings to ninth-century Catholic monasteries and to Christian ideology itself, whose orientation toward rational theological discourse, he argued, promoted belief in science and progress. According to Stark, other world religions, including the “godless” religions of the East, do not have the concept of a higher power that governs the world according to laws and thus produced scholars who did not think “that science was possible.”

Judaism and Islam, he argues, are based on a concept of a higher power, but “incline toward strict constructionism and approach scripture as law to be understood and applied, not as a basis for inquiry about questions of ultimate meaning.”

Wolfe, in an interview with the Forward, took issue with such characterizations. “To read a book that, first of all, never mentions the word Judeo-Christian but seems to be saying that Christians and Jews went on very different paths and that the Christian path was the true and right and good path is really a regression,” he said. In his review, Wolfe charged Stark with ignoring Judaism’s tradition of rationalist thinkers, including Moses Maimonides, the 12th-century rabbi-philosopher, and their influence on Christian figures whom Stark praises, such as Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas.

Wolfe also took issue with Stark’s characterization of “the Jewish idea of history” as one that “stressed not progress but only procession, while the idea of progress is profoundly manifest in Christianity.”

“This is to scholarship as Red Sox Nation is to fandom,” Wolfe wrote in his review.

Alan Mittleman, a professor of Jewish philosophy and director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, agreed. “To say that Judaism just sees procession — meaningless repetition of the same; tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow — that’s not right,” he said. But he agreed with Stark that Christianity is more committed to the idea of progress than Judaism is.

In an interview with the Forward, Stark said he hadn’t read the review by Wolfe, whom he characterized a “third-rater.” The professor said that his book was not meant to suggest that Judaism does not have a long and rich tradition of rational thought, but he didn’t feel the need to dwell on Judaism since the world he was writing about “wasn’t a Jewish world.”

But why not at least make Christianity’s debts to Judaism more clear? As Wolfe and others point out, many of the beliefs described in Stark’s book as Christian — freedom, reason and equality — are found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

“I could have done a lot of things, I suppose, but I get tired of having to be P.C.,” Stark said. “To have to cover every flank and somebody’s going to say, ‘Well, he doesn’t have any woman scientists.’ No kidding.”

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