11 August 2008

Faith in the West

Rob Moll, a writer and editor for the Evangelical Christian magazine Christianity Today, wrote an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal that repeats an idea that quite frankly makes no sense whatsoever: that the prosperity associated with free market economies is somehow a result of westerners being Christian.   

He writes:

One of the most important dissenting voices in China today belongs to Peter Zhao, a Communist Party member and adviser to the Chinese Central Committee.  Mr. Zhao is among a group of Chinese intellectuals who look to the West to find the key to economic success.  Mr. Zhao in particular believes that Christianity and the ethical system based upon its teachings are the reason that Western countries dominate the global economy. (Note 1.)  [emphasis mine] 

Mr. Moll heartily approves of Mr. Zhao’s assertion, but the argument fails utterly.  

The question arises: why would anyone even attempt to make this case, which is absurd on its face?  The answer follows easily: to try to square the obvious benefits of living in the modern western world with one’s Christian faith, which demands quite a different life.


The incompatibility of Christianity and capitalism is identical to the incompatibility of faith and reason.  In fact, the former is simply a special case of the latter.  Christianity is a particular application of faith; capitalism, an application of reason.  The two are contradictions.  

This contradiction presents itself to the Christian, and the choices are three: reject the altruism of Christianity in favor of capitalism (i.e. live and flourish); reject the selfish and worldly benefits of capitalism in favor of Christianity (i.e. become a monk); or let the contradiction exist in one’s mind without resolution, pitting altruism side by side with self-interest, compartmentalizing the ramifications, excusing the needs of the flesh, apologizing for the weakness of humanity, finding solace in bromides, rationalizing the profits as being beneficial for the meek, and continually assuring oneself that the automobiles, television sets, and full bellies enjoyed by oneself and by everyone else with access to economic freedom is indeed what a simple Jewish carpenter, who some two millennia ago lectured his followers on the virtues of self-sacrifice and submission to God, would have wished for if he had been lucky enough to live after the Industrial Revolution.

The acceptance of such a manifest contradiction requires a massive and sustained evasion.  The fact that the historical Jesus and his missionaries would have despised and rejected the western world - the United States in particular - must be suppressed if one is to hold Mr. Zhao’s premises.

Mr. Zhao writes, “[F]rom history we see only Christians have a continuous nonstop creative spirit and the spirit for innovation.”[again, emphasis mine]  This must be a selective “history” indeed, ignoring, for instance, the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe, 19th century Russia, and the entire continents of South America and Africa up to the present day.  The logic of Mr. Zhao, such as it is, is that the creators of western prosperity were nominally Christians, and thus the prosperity came about because they were Christians.  

To conclude this is, among other things, to fall prey to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc; it takes mere correlation as implying causation.  Yes, the creators of capitalism - the Enlightenment thinkers, the English and Dutch traders, the American colonists, the capitalists of the Industrial Revolution, and even many of the entrepreneurs of the last century - were for the most part nominally Christian.  But it does not automatically follow that their Christianity was even a motivating factor, never mind the essential factor of their success.  With this logic, it might equally be concluded that the prosperity of the west is a result of certain men being relatively tall, living in non-equatorial climates, having white skin, being conversant in classic literature, using combs in their hair and forks at the table, eating cooked meat, speaking English, or being fond of music with stringed instruments - all characteristics which, like being nominally Christian, are generally true of westerners.  Needless to say, these attributes cannot logically be said to have contributed to the growth of capitalism without demonstrating why it may be so.  

To show that western prosperity occurred because its advocates were Christians, it is necessary to examine the tenets of Christianity and demonstrate a one-to-one correspondence with the requirements of capitalism.  And, in fact there is a one-to-one correspondence - but it shows the exact opposite of Mr. Zhao’s thesis.  On every point, Christianity is antithetical to capitalism.  Where Christianity requires altruism, capitalism demands self-interest.  What Christianity accepts with blind faith, capitalism confronts with open-eyed reason.  Where Christianity asserts the sovereignty of God, capitalism claims the sovereignty of the individual.  Where Christianity postpones rewards until the grave, capitalism lets men reap what they have earned in life.  Where Christianity demands obedience so that men may be commanded by God, capitalists obey Nature so that She may be commanded by man.  When the Christian bows his head, the entrepreneur raises his.  Christians kneel before God and raise the sword against non-believers; capitalists shake hands cordially.

One could hardly pick a more antagonistic pair of ideals than Christianity and a free market.

If as Mr. Zhao states, the dominance of Christianity with its ethical teachings is the reason for western prosperity, then why was there not a capitalist boom seventeen hundred years ago?  Or a thousand years?  Or five hundred?  Why did Augustine bewail a vale of tears and not trumpet a cornucopia of goods?  Why did Torquemada deal in souls instead of sous?  Why is the gaberdine despised and the frock admired, when the one means profit and the other penance?  Why did Martin Luther, in nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, condemn the fraud of indulgences instead of offering a better product for the money?  Why, instead of accepting cash in through a window as is done at fast food restaurants today, did Protestants choose to toss Catholics out of a window in Prague in 1618?

The fact is that the economic explosion in the west waited for the decline of strict religious thought as it was displaced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.  This transformation accompanied, by no mere coincidence, the urgent need for colonists to survive in a hostile new world, to think, to innovate, to trade.  It accompanied, again by no mere coincidence, the emancipation of ordinary men from kings and popes and feudal lords.  As political freedom rose, religion fell away, leaving its shell.  Individuals discovered that they had the ability to read for themselves not only the Bible, but other things as well.  When Luther and Calvin shook the minds of men in order that each may contemplate his own sinfulness, they inadvertently freed those minds for other, more worldly thoughts.  This could not be taken back.  The Tree of Knowledge had been shaken, and it was apples everywhere; Sir Isaac Newton happened to be watching one of them as it fell, much to the benefit of mankind.  

As the Enlightenment glowed brighter, Christianity dimmed.  There is nothing unfair about this.  Christianity had had its day – more than a thousand years of days, and what historian Daniel Boorstin aptly called the “Great Interruption” of recorded history – and humanity suffered and prayed and sacrificed and accepted worldly misery just as Christian doctrines prescribe.  Now, however, there was a New World.  Superstition was useless; humility, impractical.  A monk perishes where a frontiersman survives.  The sailor has his superstitions, but they are put aside while navigating.  When starvation loomed, fasting was something to be avoided.  Did Jamestown overcome famine and disease because of prayer or because of industry?  Conversely, did Salem hang its women because it was profitable to do so or because Christian fervor demanded it?  

The band of separatists that leaped onto the deck of the Speedwell in August of 1620 and stepped off the deck of the Mayflower in November were likely seeking a heavenly paradise very different than the earthly one they found.  Launched by faith, they nevertheless landed with two feet on the ground.  They tilled the earth and planted when they arrived, and fortunately, the Puritan dourness and piety never really took root as well as did English commerce and good governance.  Piety is something of a weed.  It existed and was even cultivated by habit in some places, but only where it could not choke off commerce.  The churches were built soon enough… but only after the houses were up.

And of these churches: Mr. Zhao writes, “In the U.S., the spires of churches are more numerous than China’s banks and rice shops.” However one may point to the many steeples in America, one may just as easily point to the vermiform appendix in the body.  It is as absurd to claim that the churches account for our riches as it is to claim that the appendix accounts for Homo sapiens.  Perhaps both of these vestigial organs – faith for the masses and appendix for the man – had a purpose in pre-history, but neither is needed or wanted today.  Indeed, if either rises out of dormancy to make itself known and felt now, it is only to inflame and infect and kill.

And this brings me to the purpose of this post.  If religion were merely irrelevant to the ideals of America, I would direct my attention elsewhere.  But it is not.  Religious faith is hostile and antagonistic to the ideals of free men everywhere, and in America today it is Evangelical Christianity that most directly threatens our freedom.  (Yes, even more so than Islamic totalitarianism.)  To claim that western prosperity is a result of Christianity is an outrageous distortion based, at best, on superficial and selective observations.  To recommend that we revive these superstitions in a modern world is unforgivably reckless.


1.  Rob Moll, “Want More Growth in China? Have Faith,” Wall Street Journal, 8 Aug 2008, p. W9.  (available online, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121815556386722667.html?mod=taste_primary_hs)


Rev 1: Changed "burn" to "hang" per Comment 1. 


Stephen Bourque said...

A quick fact check: LB informs me that the Salem witches were hanged, not burned. (Specifically, she said, "It was the 17th century, for God's sake - burning them would have been barbaric!")

Also, the two of us wondered if in some colony or other, especially in New England, the settlers just might in fact have built the church before the houses. It seems crazy, but I suppose it's possible.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Your readers might be interested in Andrew Bernstein's article: "The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages: A Critique of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason" It appears in Vol. 1, issue No. 4, of The Objective Standard at:


The full title of Professor Stark's book is The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. It presents the recently emerging argument for Christianity as the cause of all the good things in life in the West.

Stark's book, in my analysis, is a package-deal of important questions, perceptive insights, illogical arguments, and misrepresentations. He and other Christians will continue to get away with this approach until some objective historian someday answers this question in full:

Why did Western Civilzation, properly defined, arise and continue to flourish (off and on) when and where it did--initially in Western Europe--and not somewhere else and some other time?

Thank you for your well written and comprehensive article.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the reference to Andrew Bernstein's article, Burgess, which I had completely forgotten about. I just retrieved it from the bookshelf and started to re-read it. The essay is extremely relevant to my post, providing a thorough dismantling of Stark's argument that Christianity is behind the success of the west. Dr. Bernstein puts it concisely, "Stark's claims are historically false and philosophically impossible." To anyone interested in this topic, Bernstein's article is essential reading.