Over at the National Review, the leading conservative journal in the United States, Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews Rodney Stark about his new book, which is entitled The Triumph of Faith: why the world is more religious than ever. Given that the book presumably does what it title expresses, this may come as a surprise to many, particularly those who think that religion has been on the decline since the time of Voltaire. But what particularly struck me about what Stark had to say was the concluding part of the interview:
The most important things all cluster; the rise of Western civilization was the direct result of Judeo-Christian religion. First is the belief in progress, that our history has an upward slope. In all the other major cultures, including Islam, history is regarded as headed downward. That not only discourages all efforts to improve anything, but justifies the suppression of improvements — both the Chinese and the Ottomans outlawed mechanical clocks. Second is the belief that the universe is rational — that it runs according to comprehensible rules — because it was created by a rational creator. Elsewhere the universe was believed to be an incomprehensible mystery, about which one could meditate, but it was absurd to suppose one could penetrate these mysteries. In the West, from early days, it was widely agreed that it should be possible to discover the rules by which Creation runs. And so we have and continue to do so.
That “the most important things all cluster” is something we are in grave danger of overlooking. Indeed, most of our woes may come from our inability to see the interconnectedness of things. Where religion declines (and while it may be on the rise in many places, it is certainly on the decline in Britain, especially among the ruling class) it takes a lot of other things with it. What many love to call “social cohesion” cannot easily exist in a non-religious society: cohesive societies tend to be religious. This may not mean that everyone goes to Church all the time, but it does mean that everyone, or nearly everyone, subscribes to a common language and a common culture.
Of course, one must admit that social cohesion is not always a good thing. Saudi Arabia is socially cohesive, but no one in their right mind would want to live there. I personally would not want to live in Japan, for that matter. But I would, and have, lived in Italy, which is a socially cohesive nation.
What this raises, and this is the other point that Stark makes, is that there are good religions and bad ones, to put it bluntly. John Knox’s Scotland, Calvin’s Geneva, the Wahhabis’ Saudi Arabia – none of these appeal. These sorts of societies are the type that outlaw too many things, whether it be mechanical clocks or fundamental human freedoms such as self-expression. But these sorts of societies are not just legislatively restrictive, they are culturally suffocating. The Ottoman Empire did have printing, but it failed to catch on, amazingly. What Stark has to say about religions seeing history on either a downward or an upward slope, and their picture of the universe as rational or otherwise, is clearly important.
This is where theology comes in. The concept of God is not univocal. It does not mean one thing and one thing only. When I say “God” and when a Muslim uses the same word, we do not mean the same things. There are profoundly differing visions of God in the world, and these dictate the sort of societies that we have built for ourselves.
Our politicians love to speak as if all religions worship the same God. This is true – there is only one God after all – but misleading.
It matters how you worship Him. If you adhere to an utterly transcendent vision of God, believing God to be above human understanding, then this will shape your view of the world and of human society. If however, you believe that the human mind can grasp the truth about God through analogy, as Catholics believe, then your vision of the world will be very different. Consider: while Gianlorenzo Bernini was creating sculptures such as St Teresa in Ecstasy, Ottoman artists were still just about producing some very pretty tiles in Iznik. This contrast in artistic achievement was not an accident – the culture of 17th century Rome, and that of the Ottoman Empire at the same period, were products of differing visions of God. But only one of those visions was the right one.