Despite the diffusion of Christopher Dawson’s fundamental studies, the historical relationship between Christianity and progress continues to be controversial. Many people quite simply consider the two things incompatible; moreover, the concrete history of humanity reportedly illustrates how the faith has always hampered sound progress. This latest volume by the American sociologist Rodney Stark now responds to numerous objections, helping to discredit clichés that continue to darken the history of the Church. The book covers a time frame going from the foundation of the Church to the dawn of that Enlightenment marking the beginning of a new epoch in the relationship between faith and reason. First of all, the author dedicates many pages to the interpretation of Christianity as “a religion of the oppressed”, illustrating how part of the early followers were learned persons of the middle-upper classes. Christianity certainly was attractive for the poor, but not in the partial sense to which people wanted to restrict it. In effect, if “the core point is that the Christian faith offers a sedative for the sufferings of this life by promising we shall receive our reward in the next life, when ‘many who are first will be last, and the last, first’ (Mt 19:30)”, it is nonetheless equally true that “Christianity makes life better here and now, not only in psychological terms as can be done by any faith in an attractive life after death, but in terms of concrete worldly benefits. For example, a study of ancient tomb stones revealed that the early Christians lived longer than their pagan contemporaries! This shows that Christians enjoyed a better quality of life” (pg. 141). The reason for this is to be sought in the works of mercy carried out by the community: “in the midst of misery and illness, Christianity created a island of mercy and security. Conversely in the pagan world, and especially among philosophers, mercy was considered a defect of character and pity a pathological emotion. . .” (pg. 150).
The result was that “Christians managed a miniature welfare state inside an empire that to a great extent was bereft of social services”. But this was only possible because “Christianity created the congregations, true and genuine communities of believers who organized their life around their religious affiliation” (pg. 152). In brief, and despite how politically incorrect this may appear: the ancient world progressed to the degree that it let Christianity spread publicly from East to West. This shows that the way of conceiving God is not extraneous to the development of a civilization. For example, if the elderly began to see their dignity was being recognized this was mainly due to Christians, who, bringing the Gospel into a fatalistic society, decreed the disappearance of inhuman paganism.. Analogous reasons attracted women. In effect, “women were especially attracted by Christianity because it offered them a life greatly superior to what they would have had otherwise. In no social group were women equal to men, but there were substantial differences in the degree of inequality suffered by women in the Greek-Roman world. The women of the early Christian communities were much better off than their pagan and Hebrew counterparts” (pg. 162). Therefore, when comparing “the circumstances in which the pagan and Christian women lived, it is surprising that not all the women of the Roman Empire hastened to join the Church (pg. 10). The most interesting pages of the book, however, are the ones dedicated to the so-called “Dark Centuries”, the time when “Europe actually made a great leap forward in theological and intellectual terms, which placed it at the head of the rest of the world, [with] various revolutions in agriculture, sources of energy, transport, manufacturing and trade [that] went unnoticed (pg. 316), and this without mentioning the abolition of slavery and the achievements of science. In summary, out of love for historical truth it is necessary to reiterate once for all that “the thesis arguing that Europe had fallen during the dark centuries was to a great extent a swindle perpetrated by strongly anti-religious intellectuals like Voltaire and Gibbon, who wanted to affirm that theirs was an age of “Enlightenment” (pg. 315).
R. STARK, Il trionfo del Cristianesimo. Come la religione di Gesù ha cambiato la storia dell’uomo ed è diventata la più diffusa del mondo, [The Triumph of Christianity. How the religion of Jesus changed the history of man and became the most widespread in the world], Lindau, Torino 2012, pgs. 543, Euro 27.20.)