Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Caught in the Matrix: The Power of Worldview

The following is the text of a sermon preached at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) on Sunday, June 27, 2010.

Caught in The Matrix: The Power of Worldview – ECBC, June 27, 2010

Romans 12:1-2 reads: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Eleven years ago, the remarkable movie, The Matrix, was released. It was followed by two sequels in 2003, and ranks as one of the most successful Hollywood franchises. The Matrix is built around the premise that the world as we experience it is an illusion—the result of an intricate computer simulation. Human-created artificial intelligence have taken over the ‘real world’ and enslaved human beings to suck the heat and energy out of their bodies. The real world sees human bodies ‘grown’ in vast fields, hooked up to electrical inputs to harvest their resources, and also hooked up to visual simulators that treat them to a virtual reality. This virtual reality, known as ‘The Matrix’, resembles human life on earth as we know it (in 1999, when the movie was released). Human beings who are in reality hooked up to machines have the vivid experience of working normal jobs, having relationships, and so forth. The virtual reality is so accurate that people do not realize they are being manipulated and deceived.

However, a group of humans has been awakened to the true nature of reality, and they wage a quiet rebellion against The Matrix. In the movie, the focus is on Neo Anderson, a computer hacker who questions his reality but has no idea of what is out there. Morpheus and Trinity, two ‘liberated’ humans, seek to enlighten Neo. They offer him two pills, one of which will return him to his virtual reality life, the other of which will show him what is really real. Neo famously takes the red pill, and his world is forever changed. He will never look at things the same way again.

This morning I want to talk about the power of worldview. In particular, I want to suggest that each of you can comprehend the importance of cultivating a Biblical worldview by identifying three key ways that worldview affects our thoughts and perceptions. Before we get to the influence of worldview, however, it is necessary to lay some foundational groundwork.

What is a worldview? A worldview is a lens through which we view the world around us. Our worldview contains a set of fundamental assumptions and understandings about how the world works. Our worldview is a person-specific matrix—a perception of reality, a filter through which everything flows as we seek to make sense of external data. Every worldview answers at least five fundamental questions: 1. Where did we come from? (or: the existence and nature of God); 2. What is the nature of reality? (or: the nature and character of the physical world); 3. What is wrong with us? (or: the origin and nature of man); 4. What is the solution to the problem? (or: the nature of salvation); and 5. Where are we going? (or: the nature of life after death). Every worldview makes assumptions in each of those four areas. For example: the atheist worldview claims that the universe sprang into existence from nothingness with no explanation, life arose on primordial earth through random chemical reactions, and human life evolved through random mutation and natural selection; our primary problem is enslavement to a superstitious worldview that promotes religious belief; the solution to the problem is intellectual evolution; and after we die we entirely cease to be. The Christian worldview has substantially different answers. In the beginning was God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All that is was created by Him out of nothingness; at its creation, everything was declared good by God. The problem with the world is the result of man’s rebellion and fall into sin. Instead of harmony and communion, mankind now experiences broken relationships with God, with self, with fellow human beings, and with God’s creation. God provides the means for redemption through the atoning death of Jesus—broken relationships can be healed and reconciled in Christ. After death, all men are judged on the basis of their relationship with God in Christ—believers experience eternal life in the presence of God. The difference between these two worldview matrices is significant, and greatly affects the way that we perceive the world around us.

Every person has a worldview—worldview is ubiquitous and universal. Some worldviews are consciously acknowledged; some are unconsciously entrenched. For example, I consciously hold a Christian theistic worldview which proclaims and worships God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many, however, unknowingly embrace a worldview which precludes the very possibility of God’s existence. Some worldviews are critically analyzed; others are unquestioningly embraced. For example, Gary Habermas grew up in a Christian home, but had his faith shaken by trials and tribulations, and by atheistic university professors. Dr. Habermas was forced to critically examine his worldview, and after years of philosophical and emotional searching, he concluded that Christianity was correct. He remains a vibrant Christian today, and a world-class philosopher and professor as well. Finally, some worldviews are challenged and eventually rejected; others are held firmly for life. For example, Billy Graham and Charles Templeton began their adult life on the same path—as promising and powerful Christian evangelists. In their mid-20s, they simultaneously went through a deep crisis of faith and belief. Billy Graham remained on the Christian path; Charles Templeton questioned and eventually rejected the Christian worldview, and is now an elderly agnostic.

So worldviews can be conscious or unconscious; examined or unexamined; rejected or maintained. But worldviews are like souls—everyone has one, even if they think they don’t. Unfortunately, the worldview of many (perhaps most) Canadians is unconscious and unexamined. The Greek philosopher Socrates declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To modify Socrates’ wisdom, I would also argue that the unexamined worldview is not worth holding. As Christians, we need to consciously hold and examine our worldview, and seek to see reality through the correct interpretive lenses. My purpose is not to argue for or establish the Christian worldview in its entirety. Rather, I want us to look at the importance of worldview in general, and draw some conclusions. Particularly, I suggest that each one of us can understand the necessity of cultivating a Christian worldview by understanding three essential ways they influence our interpretation of evidence and arguments. Through examining the three ways that worldview influences our interpretation of external data, I pray that we will understand how we should critically examine worldviews—our own and other peoples’.

I love detective shows, like Law & Order, and particularly Monk. When cops or crown attorneys have a working thesis concerning a particular crime, the way they treat evidence is affected by how that evidence relates to their governing thesis. For example, if they have a suspect who they think committed the crime in question, tiny bits of evidence will strengthen their position. In one Monk episode, called Monk and the Astronaut, Adrian Monk investigates the murder (a staged suicide) of a former call girl who was about to publish a revealing autobiography. Monk quickly becomes convinced that the murderer is a prominent NASA astronaut and rising politician. During the investigation, it is suggested to Monk that the woman’s autobiography was going to include a chapter relating how the suspect was intimately involved with the dead call-girl earlier, and was arrested at one point for beating her to a pulp. When Monk hears that, it supports his thesis that the astronaut is “the guy”. It provides “motive” for the murder. The evidence is not airtight—there are no surviving manuscripts of the autobiography, no solid proof that the woman was going to “out” the suspect, no concrete evidence that the call-girl was beaten up by the suspect. But it doesn’t take a big piece of evidence to support or maintain Monk’s theory.

As it is with criminal theories, so it is with worldview. It takes relatively less evidence (or less persuasive arguments) to support an existing worldview. This is the first way in which worldview affects the way we treat external data. Tiny shreds of external confirmation support our worldview and are clung to accordingly. You can see this with proponents of evolution. According to Darwin’s original theory, the fossil record should be replete with multitudes of examples of intermediate species, transitional fossils which highlight the evolution from one distinct species into another. While evolutionists acknowledge that the vast fossil evidence predicted by early Darwinists is simply not there, the theory persists. And every year or two, you hear about the proclamation of a new fossil discovery of a professed “transitional species”. There are not many of these intermediates, certainly not as many as predicted; but proponents of an evolutionary worldview cling to each new proposed discovery as “proof” of the truth of the theory. Alternatively, Christians who believe in life after death, that this physical life is only the introduction to eternity, can point to near-death experiences as proof that there is at least a minimal existence and consciousness after death. It doesn’t take a significant amount of corroborating evidence to support or reinforce an existing worldview.

A second way that worldview affects our interpretation of evidence and argumentation is in the accommodation of new, relatively neutral evidence. Simply put, worldviews interpret new data or arguments in a self-affirming manner. One example is the layers evident in the Grand Canyon. Mainstream geologists look at the data, carbon-date the rocks within the layers, and conclude quite logically that the various layers are the product of layers of sediment laid down millions of years after one another. This fits quite nicely within their basic worldview assumption that the earth is billions of years old, and that events on earth have progressed over time through predictable and lengthy physical processes.

A minority of geologists (known as young-earth creationists), however, look at the same physical data and come to radically different conclusions about what it means. From their perspective, the layers and even the ancient appearance of the Grand Canyon is not the result of millions of years of erosion, but rather represents the catastrophic effects of a global flood described in Genesis 6. The dire consequences of the flood, in their view, explains the inaccuracy of carbon-dating the rocks in those sediment strata—the flood changed the composition of the atmosphere, thereby rendering long-term past carbon dating useless. Young-earth geologists begin with a radically different set of assumptions, and thus interpret the same physical data in a radically different way. It must be emphasized that both groups of geologists cannot possibly be right. The data of the Grand Canyon cannot mean both that the earth is billions of years old and the rocks are layers of sediment laid down millions of years after one another; AND that the earth is only thousands of years old and the evident layers are the result of a single catastrophic flood. One camp is correct in their interpretation and the other is incorrect—or, perhaps, both camps are incorrect and some other explanation is the right one. For our purposes, it is not important who is right—what’s important is to note the power of worldview in determining how physical data is interpreted. The point is that worldviews interpret new data or arguments in a self-affirming manner. Young-earth geologists accommodate the data to fit their prevailing worldview; old-earth geologists do the same. If at all possible, people will accommodate new data within their worldview, rather than altering their worldview to suit new data.

For example, in Matthew 12:22-24, the Pharisees have a negative response to Jesus’ miraculous ministry. Then they brought to Jesus a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’ Jesus proceeds to rebuke them for their incoherence and their spiritual closed-mindedness. But what we often miss when we read this passage today is that the Pharisees were doing what comes entirely naturally to us as human beings. They were seeking to accommodate new data, new evidence, within their existing worldview presuppositions. They presumed that God worked through the established religious leadership and channels of second-temple Judaism – the rabbis, priests, temple sacrifices, and daily prayers. Jesus certainly did not fit that model – he proclaimed authority over the Sabbath, healed and taught in his own name and on his own authority. He was a rebel against the religious system. The Pharisees could not fit Jesus within the legitimate religious structure of Israel, hence they had to lump him in with illegitimate religious powers—Satan. Thus, they did not acknowledge the divine origins of Jesus or His ministry. Jesus’ power was unmistakeable; they had to attribute that power to something. The something could not be God, since Jesus was not one of them. Therefore, the power had to be Satan. While we rightly critique the Pharisees for missing the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in the person and ministry of Christ, let us also notice that they are simply applying their worldview to new and difficult data. The point, again, is that we seek to accommodate new data or information within our existing worldview.

Sometimes this requires a minor adjustment to the worldview. For example, the absence of transitional species in the fossil record has not led evolutionary theorists to abandon their commitment to random mutation and common descent. Rather, the underlying worldview is tweaked to explain the lack of supporting evidence. Hence, Stephen Jay Gould proposed punctuated equilibrium, whereby new species arise very quickly with a large number of mutative changes present in them. Punctuated equilibrium is not the same as Darwinian evolution, which required the changes to occur over long periods of time. But the fundamental worldview remains the same; evtolution is not governed by any type of intelligent designer or Creator.
That is an example of a slight alteration to worldview, and it leads nicely to the third influence of worldview upon our interpretation of evidence and arguments: worldviews can only be defeated or replaced by strong or overwhelming evidence, powerfully persuasive arguments, or significant experiential data. Worldviews represent core assumptions about the world. Such beliefs are not easily altered—especially when they have been critically examined.

For example, let’s go back to Monk and the Astronaut, the episode where Monk suspects an astronaut of murdering a former call-girl who was writing an autobiography. Monk’s primary obstacle in solving that case was the little problem of the suspect’s alibi—he was in a spaceship orbiting the earth at the time of the woman’s death. Alibis really don’t come much more airtight than that! How does Monk deal with that alibi? Does he say, “Oh well, the guy’s got a pretty solid alibi—he must not be the guy”? No—rather, Monk says, “I don’t know how he did it, but he did it. He’s the guy.” It would take more than an apparently air-tight alibi to convince Monk to abandon his thesis. As it happens, Monk was right—he Monk eventually figures out how the astronaut set conditions up for the woman to die while he was in space. The point is that Monk was not dissuaded by pretty powerful evidence that contradicted his thesis.

As it is with crime, so it is with worldview. Worldviews, particularly if they are consciously held, are held tenaciously. A little bit of contrary evidence of argumentation doesn’t do much to challenge a deeply-held worldview. One of the best examples of this that I have come across involves John Dominic Crossan, a scholar with the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s. Crossan once engaged in a public debate with William Lane Craig, one of my favorite Christian scholars and apologists, about the resurrection of Jesus. During their dialogue time, there is a fascinating and very revealing exchange.

First, Craig asks Crossan: “What evidence would it take to convince you [that the resurrection really happened]? Or are your preconceived ideas about the impossibility of the miraculous and so forth so strong that, in fact, they skew your historical judgment so that such an event could never even be admitted into court?” Craig is asking Crossan, what type and amount of evidence would convince you that Jesus really was raised from the dead? Is your worldview so set against the very possibility of such things that you could not be convinced no matter how powerful the evidence? Crossan’s reply is revealing, and worth quoting:
“But it’s a theological presupposition of mine that God does not operate that way. … What would it take to prove to me what you ask? I don’t know, unless God changes the universe.” In other words, there is no type or amount of evidence that could convince Crossan of the literal truth of the resurrection of Jesus. It’s a theological presupposition of his that God would not do such things. It is a part of his worldview. He is absolutely closed to the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection, because it does not fit within his worldview. In order to accept the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, Crossan would have to alter his entire worldview, which holds that there is absolutely no possibility of life after death, and that God never involves Himself in the affairs of the world.

For many people, like Crossan, worldviews are very stubbornly held. Contrary evidence does not convince them to abandon their worldview and adopt a different one. Another way of putting this is to say that worldviews are inherently conservative. They are not changed except under extreme duress. Nonetheless, worldviews do sometimes change. This happens when many formerly Christian students abandon the faith in university—they convert from an unexamined, unconscious Christian worldview to an unexamined but conscious atheistic or agnostic worldview. On the other hand, C. S. Lewis was an atheist until well into his professional adulthood, when he converted to Christianity. In 2004, Antony Flew, Britain’s leading intellectual atheist for the past 50 years, abandoned the atheistic worldview which he had defended quite consciously and critically.

Biblically, the apostle Paul serves as a paradigm example of a worldview conversion. Paul affirms in Philippians 3:4-6 that he a zealous and convinced Jew. He persecuted the early Christian church because he perceived it as blasphemy against the God of Israel. It took an overwhelming personal encounter with the risen Christ, narrated in Acts 9:1-19, for Paul to see that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. He had heard the sermon of Stephen at his martyrdom in Acts 7, but was not swayed. Only a personal encounter with the living God enabled a worldview change and a conversion to Christ.

This is why it is vitally important to cultivate our biblical Christian worldview—to allow God’s Word to shape the way that we view the world and interpret that data and arguments that we come face-to-face with. The worldview that we hold influences the way we interpret the world around us. It takes less evidence to support an existing worldview; new data is interpreted to fit within an existing worldview; and it takes overwhelming evidence or arguments to overturn a consciously-held worldview. It is important that we as Christians consciously hold our Christian worldview, understanding what we believe, why we believe it, the logical and evidential support that confirms our faith. It is easier to share our faith with others if we know what we believe and why we believe it. It is difficult to share Christ with others if we’re not precisely sure what our Christian worldview is or why we hold it to be the truth. Our desire to share our faith with others requires that we know what we believe and why. But it also requires that we engage opposing worldviews.

Many non-Christians are consciously committed to an anti-Christian worldview. If we desire to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then we need to expose the weaknesses and flaws in their worldview. For example, many non-Christians deny the existence of any transcendent Being; simultaneously, they promote vibrant moral standards which all people ought to embrace and follow. However, they cannot provide an adequate foundation for the moral standards they promote. This is a flaw which we can pursue to demonstrate why an atheistic worldview is lacking and needs to be replaced by a coherent, liveable (Christian) worldview.

Other non-Christians are unconsciously operating under a worldview which excludes the possibility of God. If we desire to reach them with the Gospel, then we need to highlight their core worldview assumptions. Often they will reject these assumptions when they are forced to admit them, because the unspoken assumptions are untenable. For example, many people today unthinkingly embrace moral relativism—the view that what is right for me could be wrong for you, and vice versa. When pursued, however, such folks will almost always admit that there are some things which are actually and fundamentally wrong—rape, child abuse, torture, cold-blooded murder. But their admission that there are some things that are objectively wrong undermines their professed acceptance of ethical relativism. When you uncover the weaknesses and flaws in others’ non-Christian worldviews, you can begin to bring down their opposition to the Christian faith. Looking back, that was instrumental in my own conversion. I had friends who were willing to challenge my atheistic worldview, and put the truth of Christianity forward for me to consider. Over time, it sunk in, and I became open to considering Christianity.

It is important that followers of Jesus are able to both cultivate a conscious Christian worldview and engage with the non-Christian worldviews of neighbors and friends. The Christian worldview acknowledges that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. The world that God created perfectly good is marred as a result of mankind’s fall into rebellion and sin. We can be redeemed only through faith in the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we hold to this worldview consistently and consciously, it will affect the way that we interpret the world around us. It is also essential to understand that the contrary worldviews that others hold affect the way that they see and interpret the world around them. It will also enable us to understand how others see the world differently, and thus must interpret We need to have a conscious, well-thought-out worldview, and be willing to challenge the worldview of our non-Christian friends. This is a part of both defending our faith, and of presenting the glorious truth of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know Him. In Matthew 6:22, Jesus says: The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! Worldview exerts great influence upon how we perceive and understand the world. It is essential to ensure that your worldview is a lens, a matrix, which will enable you to see the world God’s way.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review - Stark, For the Glory of God

Here is a brief summary and critique of Rodney Stark's intriguing historical work, 'For the Glory of God.' Enjoy!

Stark, Rodney. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 488 pp.

Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion with no eminent sympathy for the Christian faith, wants to set the record straight. World historians have, for the past two centuries, maligned and reviled the historic Christian Church for its perceived sins of the past. Stark insists that Christian monotheism has been an incredibly positive force, mobilizing millions of Europeans to achieve admirable goals (11). He deplores the efforts of historians “to dismiss the role of religion in producing ‘good’ things such as the rise of science or the end of slavery, and the corresponding efforts to blame religion for practically everything ‘bad.’” (12) For the Glory of God is his ‘humble’ attempt to provide a balanced account of Christian history—conveying the worthy accomplishments of the Church as well as noting its more sinister side. He pursues his goal by surveying four broad ‘events’—the Protestant Reformations (Chapter 2), the rise of modern science (Chapter 2), witch-hunts (Chapter 3), and the abolition of slavery (Chapter 4).

Chapter 1 – The Protestant Reformations

Stark begins by provocatively insisting that the Protestant Reformation launched by Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 was not new. He defines reformations as “efforts to restore or renew standards of religious belief and practice to a more demanding level, within a religious organization.” (16) If such attempts are thwarted (as Luther’s ultimately was), the reformation turns outward and becomes a new sect. The need for reformations is the tendency of religious organizations to become lax and lower-intensity over time (17). Hence, reformations are a fairly constant presence within religious bodies. Stark briefly discusses early Christian reformation movements—the Marcionites (27-28), Montanus (28-29), the Donatists (36-37), and Arians (39). He argues that the latter two groups were repressed out of existence, an occurrence which is inherent to monotheism wherever it possesses the power to do so. Stark claims that “religious intolerance is inherent in monotheism,” because “those who believe there is only One True God are offended by worship directed toward other Gods.” (32)

Stark’s main concern throughout this chapter is to challenge popular myths concerning the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. First, he insists that medieval Europe was not a highly religious, consistently Christian entity, as most modern historians claim (17). On the one hand, the majority of the population of northern Europe (Germany, Scandinavia) was only nominally Christian, often combining belief in Christ with residual pagan beliefs and practices. On the other hand, the medieval Catholic Church was often perfectly content with that situation, so long as the coin continued to flow into its coffers (46). Second, he argues that reforming movements were not new in the sixteenth century, despite protestations to the contrary. Stark argues that the Catholic Church had long been divided between the governing Church of Power, and the energizing Church of Piety (40). The former ran the show, while the latter sought to bring greater religious vitality to the clergy and laity alike. Furthermore, there were numerous reforming movements both within and without the Catholic Church. Stark mentions numerous pre-12th century heretical movements (46-47), the Cathars (53-55), the Waldensians (56-57), Free Spirit heresies (58-59), the Flaggelants (60-61), Wyclif and the Lollards (64), and John Hus (65-67). The reforming movement ran deep and wide throughout the medieval Catholic Church. This leads Stark to debunk a third popular medieval myth—that the Catholic Church was peopled by fanatically religious monks, priests, and bishops who sought to instill oppressive religious requirements upon the lay population of Catholic Europe (17). Stark argues that, on the contrary, the priesthood of the Catholic Church was depressingly “immoral and indolent,” and that most sincerely religious Europeans were burdened by the rampant immorality and impiety of the Church.” (68) However, reform-minded popes were unable to achieve the results they sought.

The Protestant Reformation was not, in Stark’s opinion, a successful reformation. Rather than reforming the church from the inside, Luther ended up with a new sect altogether (79). His original goal was simple reform, particularly concerning the sale of indulgences (82). However, as Catholic opposition to his reforms intensified, and he was branded a heretic, Luther was radicalized, and proposed “a complete religious revolution.” (83-84) Luther’s reforms were not theologically innovative—indeed, most of them were represented in the Hussite movement in Bohemia (86-87) generations earlier. Why then did the Protestant Reformation succeed where earlier movements had not? First, Luther framed the religious doctrines in a clear, concise fashion: “salvation by faith alone . . . the priesthood of all believers.” (85) This summation allowed his views to be widely disseminated, a process greatly aided by the newly-invented printing press. Second, Protestants (especially Calvinists) were remarkably effective at sharing their new-found faith with friends, neighbors, and family (95-96). In this way, the spread of Calvinist Protestantism resembled the spread of early Christianity. Stark spends the most time, however, discussing three other factors which determined where Protestantism succeeded, and where it failed to make long-term inroads.

First, the degree of Protestant success was directly proportional to the degree of local Catholic weakness (104). Some newly-Protestant areas (e.g. Denmark, Scandinavia) had been more recently Christianized, and Stark rightly indicts the Church for being satisfied with surface conversion. Other newly-Protestant areas (e.g. southern France, Germanic principalities) were marked by long-standing hostility to agents of the Catholic Church. For example, southern France still retained strong memories of the extermination of the Cathars, and there were still Waldensian communities who had been (and were being) repressed by Catholic France (105-07). Both of these factors led to “local Catholic weakness,” and enabled Protestant success.

Second, “other things being equal, to the extent that local governments responded to popular preferences, they turned Protestant.” (108) Protestantism was a popular movement, and if the government was responsive to popular demands, it was more likely to turn Protestant. Third, “some regimes had much to gain in terms of wealth and power from turning Protestant, while some regimes had far less to gain, having already minimized Church authority and exactions.” (105) German princes, like the Danish and Swedish kings, had both wealth and power threatened by the position of the Catholic Church, giving them strong incentive to embrace Protestantism (114). Spain and France, meanwhile, already exerted strong control over the Church, including its offices and finances, and had little incentive to turn Protestant (112-13).

Chapter 2 – The Religious Origins of Science

Most schoolchildren today are taught that modern science was the result of an “Enlightenment” in which the shackles of religious superstition were thrown off by courageous skeptics. The Christian Church fought the advance of scientific knowledge tooth and nail, but eventually the power of the truth won out, and Christianity receded while science pushed on. Stark refreshes the tableau and sets the record straight. His thesis in this chapter is fairly simple: “not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science.” (123) Pursuing this thesis requires the debunking of another set of powerful public myths.

First, Stark refutes the ‘Columbus myth,’ which teaches that Columbus had to fight against an oppressive Church which believed that the world was flat, not round. This myth, like so many others, originated in Andrew White’s magisterial work of deception, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (122). All of Columbus’ contemporaries, including the learned Christian Scholastics, believed that the world was round—their dispute with Columbus was over the circumference of the earth. [Incidentally, on that score Columbus’ opponents were correct; Columbus was fortunate that there was a Western Hemisphere—otherwise he would not have lived to tell his tale!] However, the myth presented by White is a necessary part of the militant atheistic Enlightenment tale—hence its enduring power.
Second, Stark refutes the myth of the “Dark Ages,” presenting medieval Europe as a hotbed of technical innovation (130-33) and Scholastic learning (134-43). Proponents of the Enlightenment require a ‘Dark Ages’ to contrast their own views; but the proposed perspective of medieval Europe is simply mythical. Stark notes that medieval Europe not only created technical innovations of their own, but rapidly implemented innovations derived elsewhere (133-34). Meanwhile, the universities, founded and endowed by the Church, promoted scientific learning and theorizing.

Third, Stark refutes the myth that the advance of science required the discarding of Christian theism. Rather, science required a Christian foundation on which to build. “Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.” (147) Christian theology presented a positive framework in which scientific hypotheses could be tested with confidence. Stark notes that neither China (149-52), Greece (153-54), nor Islam (154-55) contained sufficient theoretical and theological boundaries for modern science. Christian doctrine alone provided the key: nature is because it has a transcendent Creator; God’s laws govern natural regularities; knowing nature enables deeper comprehension of God (157). Further supporting Stark’s thesis, an examination of the most prominent scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries uncovers a remarkable degree of pious, devout Christian faith (162-63).

Fourth, Stark builds upon earlier arguments and rejects the mythical “Enlightenment.” (166) Just as the hypothesized ‘Dark Ages’ were non-existent, so too was the ‘Enlightenment.’ On the one hand, the Greek classics did not have to be rediscovered—they were already known, discussed, and generally rejected by Scholastics throughout the universities of Europe (156). On the other hand, the emergence of science was built upon the earlier insights of medieval Scholastics (166). Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, Christian theologians and scientists were mutually willing to adopt and acknowledge one another’s insights (176). Christians were active in natural theology (173) and astronomy (173-74), and eagerly sought to unite science and theology (174).

Fifth, Stark refutes the myth that evolution is a battle between science and religion. Rather, it is “an attack on religion by militant atheists who wrap themselves in the mantle of science in an effort to refute all religious claims concerning a Creator—an effort that has also often attempted to suppress all scientific criticism of Darwin’s work.” (176) There is no inherent contradiction between Darwin’s theory itself and Christian theism—Stark demonstrates that numerous Christians had adopted some type of natural selection and intra-species deviation through evolutionary means long before Darwin published Origin of Species (176-77). But Darwin’s theory is marred by numerous difficulties, improbabilities, and unproven assertions (178-83). Nonetheless, atheists seized upon Darwin’s theory as the best one yet put forward, and presented it as categorically disproving the existence of the Christian God (185). In belated response to continual harsh rhetoric, many Christians eventually adopted a defensive stance and rejected Darwinian evolution wholesale (187). Christians were not being asked to accept the simple scientific hypothesis that life had evolved; rather, they were ‘required’ to “agree to the untrue and unscientific claim that Darwin had proved that God played no role in the process.” (187)

Finally, Stark disputes the argument that scientists have become increasingly hostile to religion. He presents surveys from throughout the 20th century demonstrating both that belief in God is surprisingly robust amongst natural scientists and that such belief has not altered over the past century (193-94). Despite the hopes and claims of militant skeptics, theism continues unabated.

Chapter 3 – Witch-Hunts

The tragedy of witch-hunting in late medieval Europe is a tremendously misunderstood phemonenon. First, it is often asserted that millions of people, particularly women, were executed during the persecutions. The truth, Stark insists, is that only 60,000 – 100,000 people were executed, one-third of whom (at least) were men (202-04). Second, modern historians generally attribute the extent and brutality of the witch-hunts to the fanatically religious Inquisitors. The truth, however, is that ecclesiastical authorities were much more hesitant to prosecuted accused witches than were secular courts, and that punishments handed out by Inquisitors tended to be considerably lighter (204). Third, today’s students are taught that the witch-hunts were ended by the triumph of secular rationalism. The truth, Stark argues, is that no atheistic voices were raised in protest against witchcraft until after the witch-hunts had ceased—the witch-hunts were stopped by other factors (286-87). Stark endeavors to set the record straight, proposing a model for causes of the witch-hunts, as well as factors in their cessation.

To set the necessary framework, Stark begins with a brief discussion of magic (205), sorcery (205-06), and Satanism (206-07). Only the latter could result in charges of witchcraft and the associated death penalty—and such charges could only arise in monotheistic cultures (206). Stark then debunks eight common assertions of why the witch-hunts occurred (208-23). A brief discussion of magic in the Greco-Roman world establishes that when the Christian Church “came to power, magic was everywhere. Virtually everyone believed in it.” (226) The later rejection of witchcraft was not a return to the golden age of Greek rationalism; rather, it was something entirely new. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church struggled with the reality that all types of magic—Church and non-Church alike—sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed (230). Church authorities acknowledged that pagan magic sometimes worked, and struggled to understand how this could be so (236). Eventually, Scholastics deduced the only logical, rational conclusion: non-Church magic worked through the power of evil spirits, particularly Satan (237). “There was no place in their worldview for causation that was neither natural nor fully supernatural. … Thus did logic and reason lead the best minds of the time into catastrophic error.” (238) Stark is remarkably lenient toward the Scholastic authorities who concluded that non-authorized incantations, potions, and spells necessarily relied upon satanic power!
Stark then builds a theoretical model to account for the rise, occurrence, prevalence, and intensity of witch-hunts in various geographic locations. He posits three key factors to account for “when and where” witch-hunts occurred (245). Each factor is necessary but not sufficient—only the combination of all three factors was sufficient for witch-hunts to occur (254). The first factor is the continuing practice and efficacy of magic (246). The second factor is the presence of “intense and constant religious conflicts.” (246) Stark notes that the time of the most intense witch-hunts, 1590-1640, also marks the height of the Catholic-Protestant wars, as well as severe incursions of Ottoman Turks in Europe (246-50). The third factor is the lack of strong, centralized political or ecclesiastical authority (251). Local officials easily got carried away by witch crazes; central authorities, where able, continually reigned them in (251-54). In times and places where magic was effectively practiced (particularly parts of Europe that had never been effectively and thoroughly Christianized), religious conflicts were prevalent, and central authorities were weak or non-existent, witch-hunts took strongest form and shape.

Case studies bear out Stark’s hypothesis. Spain, France (except the “borderlands”), Italy, and England were generally devoid of intense witch-hunts (256-62). The lowlands of Germany, as well as the Scandinavian countries, were marred by severe and intense persecutions and executions of accused witches (263-73).
Stark then proposes four factors which contributed to the cessation of the witch-hunts. Notably, the rise of skeptical Enlightenment materialism is entirely and consciously absent from his list (277). First, witch-hunts could easily target and eliminate marginal members of society; but once those “socially inexpensive” members of society were executed, the costs of witch-hunts rose to “unsustainable levels.” (279) Arresting and prosecuting acknowledged outcasts and misfits was easy; when prominent members of society were implicated by new accusers, witch-hunts became in-credible and unsustainable (278-79). Second, the establishment of religious peace through the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 removed ongoing warfare as a contributing factor in witch-hunts. “Just as the outbreak of severe religious conflicts brought on the search for witches, the end of the religious wars and the implementation of treaties of toleration brought it to an end. In nation after nation, witch-hunting collapsed after the Peace of Westphalia.” (282) Third, the strengthening of central political authorities following 1648 placed stricter guidelines of prosecutions of accused witches (282). Finally, increasing skepticism concerning the existence and practice of witches led to the demise of witch-hunts (283). However, this skepticism did not arise from atheists who disbelieved in magic. Rather, Scholastics and Inquisitors led the charge against the accuracy of accusations of witch-craft (283-86). Well-trained and deeply committed Christians, “responding to the evidence of their sense,” brought the witch-hunts to an end (287).

Chapter 4 – Slavery

The typical school textbook of Western history presents slavery (explicitly or implicitly) as a novel invention of colonial Christian Europe, and insists that the abolition of slavery was achieved not by moral suasion but by Enlightenment humanism (291-92). Sadly, though happily from a Christian perspective, this widespread myth is entirely fictional. In this final chapter, Stark sets out to tell the story of slavery the way it really happened.

First, slavery has been an institution in human cultures since before the Egyptian pyramids, and has permeated every area of the globe. North American Indians, those ‘noble savages’ of Western romantic imagination, engaged in intense slavery (293-95). Greece and Rome, so admired as the ‘classical civilizations’ by Renaissance and Enlightenment secularists, were built on the backs of slaves (295-99). Slavery was institutional in Islamdom (301-03), partly based upon the personal example of the Prophet Muhammad, who owned, captured, and traded slaves himself (338). Enslavement of Africans was not initiated by Christian colonialists, but had long standing between African tribes themselves (304), and was furthered by Muslim incursions. In fact, Christian European nations relied on long-established African slave runners for their continual supply of slaves (307). However, when European nations founded colonies in the ‘New World,’ they captured and utilized slaves as a primary labor force (309-23).

Second, while European nations did delve into widespread slavery, the Church was hardly complicit in the practice. On the contrary, Christian theology had outlawed slavery since early in the Middle Ages (291). Thomas Aquinas could speak of slavery as a quaint and obsolete institution, no longer practiced by Christian Europe (329). While the occasional pope (e.g. Innocent VIII) ignored canon law and possessed slaves, such violators were generally guilty of ignoring the rest of canon and biblical law as well (330). The papacy in general condemned slavery, and considered an excommunicable offense (331). As Stark proclaims, “The problem wasn’t that the Church failed to condemn slavery; it was that few heard and most of them did not listen.” (332) There were indeed some clergy who sent (or lived out) mixed messages; but they were exceptions to the rule (337).

Third, monotheism alone possessed the moral suasion to condemn and outlaw the institution of slavery. Stark makes a fascinating side foray into the issue of morality and religious theology, arguing that monotheism alone is capable of promulgating a strong, binding, effectual system of morality. Plural gods do not have the authority; impersonal gods cannot sustain the notion of ‘sin’ at all; philosophy on its own conveys no moral weight (324-25). Only monotheism can provide a concerned, personal, omniscient, omnipotent God who enacts moral laws and expects conformation (325). Some Jewish sects developed abolition movements (328-29), and Christianity in general was directly opposed to slavery from the outset.

Stark develops this last thesis as the fourth pillar of this chapter. He proposes the thesis that abolitionist movements arose when three factors coincided. In the first place, anti-slavery movements required an appropriate moral disposition (339). This was provided by Christian sects—particularly Quakers and Methodists in America, and Methodists, Quakers, and the Clapham sect in Britain (340-41, 349-51). In the second place, anti-slavery movements could only arise when they were proximate to the practice of slavery itself. Thus, abolition movements were strong in the northern States, which though they did not practice slavery themselves, were intimately familiar with the plight of slaves in the South (not to mention Caribbean colonies). (347) In the third place, the proximity and moral persuasion of anti-slavery movements needed to be distant from any perception of self-interest (339). Stark develops this thesis quite persuasively, but the key assertion he is making, which runs contrary to the trends of modern historians for the past two hundred years, is that it is Christian moral persuasion which was responsible for the abolition of slavery (353, 365).

Fifth, and finally, Stark refutes the widespread belief that Enlightenment secularism (rather than Christian conscience) was responsible for abolition. Having already established that Christian ethics were a necessary element of anti-slavery movements, Stark proceeds to debunk the first part of the equation. He presents a list of prominent Enlightenment thinkers—Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Burke, and Hume—who “fully accepted slaver.” (359) Indeed, it was very much not the philosophical intellectuals “who assembled the moral indictment of slavery, but the very people they held in such contempt: men and women having intense Christian faith, who opposed slavery because it was a sin.” (360)

Postscript – Gods, Rituals, and Social Science

Stark closes with a fascinating postscript in which he debunks the sociological axiom (based upon Durkheim’s theses) that religion is fundamentally about ritual, not belief in supernatural Gods (367-68). Stark shows that, to the contrary, “Gods are the fundamental feature of religions.” (376) Furthermore, not all religions can underwrite a moral order (373); but rather only “images of Gods as conscious, morally concerned beings.” (374) Hence, Christianity possessed the moral resources to oppose slavery, where secular rationalism, polytheism, and impersonal religions did not.