Bearing False Witness
by Rodney Stark
Templeton Press, £19
The Age of Reason began in the 2nd century AD. How about that for a claim? Rodney Stark is not a man to equivocate. In his judgment, the Catholic Church has been routinely traduced by “distinguished bigots” – historians who have twisted or ignored the evidence and polluted popular understanding. Hence Stark’s determination to put back by a millennium-and-a-half the dating of the Age of Reason, which really began, he argues, with certain Church Fathers and their decision to conduct theology; that is, formal reasoning about God. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine: they all insisted on the power of reason and its place in God’s plan.
St Augustine went into raptures about the “sagacity” with which “the movements and connections of the stars have been discovered”. Man’s rational nature was an “unspeakable boon” conferred on us by God.
Hence also Stark’s fury about the term “Dark Ages”. It is remarkable how politicians and journalists wanting to convey disgust these days, whether for the actions of ISIS or for rules about wearing high heels at work, are liable to call such a thing “medieval” or “a return to the Dark Ages”.
And this darkness was, of course, the doing of the Catholic Church. Edward Gibbon said so. So did Voltaire. Daniel Boorstin, librarian of the United States Congress, wrote that the Church “built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge”.
Rubbish, says Stark. The Dark Ages are nothing but a hoax invented by intellectuals to glorify themselves and vilify the Church. The period from 300 to 1300 was, in fact, one of the great innovative eras of mankind.
Technology was developed and put into use on a scale no civilisation had previously known: water mills, the three-field system, the horse collar, selective plant breeding, chimneys and much more. These things transformed productivity, increased the population, and widened horizons all over supposedly benighted Europe. But high-minded men of letters saw fit not to notice such things.
What else? Human dissection for scientific purposes began in medieval universities and without serious objections from the Church. Stark reels off clergymen-scientists who preceded Copernicus and who, among other things, fought and won the battle for empiricism in science.
There was moral progress too. The irony of ISIS comparisons, given that group’s recourse to abduction and enslavement, is that most of Europe had waved goodbye to slavery by 1300. Though not cited by Stark, Hugh Thomas, the great modern historian of the Atlantic slave trade, attributed the later resurgence of slavery to the memory of antiquity: “If Athens had slaves to build the Parthenon, and Rome to maintain the aqueducts, why should modern Europeans hesitate to have slaves to build its new world in America?” As for the treatment by some historians of the Church’s record on slavery, Stark accuses them of lying in plain sight.
And so, in Bearing False Witness, Rodney Stark takes aim at one “myth” after another about Catholicism. The Spanish Inquisition? A “pack of lies”, originally spread by English and Dutch propagandists. The Inquisition “made little use of the stake, seldom tortured anyone and maintained unusually decent prisons”.
The Crusades? Stark begins by saying, in effect, “the others started it”, and goes from there. He is particularly hot in attacking the idea that the Crusaders were driven by dreams of land and loot. Stark’s style is brusque and clear. He is like a man carefully setting up skittles before firing down bowling balls of fact and argument to send them scattering (though in a couple of cases he is, in reality, rebalancing rather than overturning the debate).
All of which means that Bearing False Witness is stirring, compelling, often convincing stuff. Some bits are especially fascinating, as when Stark makes the case for monasteries as the first true capitalist firms. One hopes that, as can happen when the pursuit of truth gets wrapped up in controversy, Stark is not carting more away from the evidence than he should. It would be fascinating to read a riposte.
And, of course, the greatest obstacle nowadays to perceiving the Catholic Church as a force for good is not the myth of the suppressed Gospels, or the myth of the Protestant work ethic, or whatever else. It is the anything but mythical abuse scandals.
Finally, a word on Professor Stark himself. He is co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, once a hotbed of militant anti-Catholicism. He grew up an American Protestant, “raised on the glories of the Reformation”. More recently, he has described himself as incapable of religious faith, an agnostic.
One thing Stark is not, therefore, is a Catholic: “I did not write this book in defence of the Church,” he states, looking possible critics straight in the eye. “I wrote it in defence of history.”