I've often thought in terms of the Europeans taking advantage of more useful and plentiful natural resources than, say, those in Africa and the middle east at the time. But there are some interesting ideas outlined in this interview of Rodney Stark. Most of the story has to do with misconceptions about the Crusades, but I hadn't really thought about the impact of Christianity being the dominant religion in western society:
"Christianity was the basis of western civilization. When you look at western civilization and see what it has, it came from Christianity. The notion that somehow western science broke through against the resistance of religion is total nonsense. Without the religious background, there wouldn't be any science, because the fundamental notion that separated the West from everybody else was the notion that God is rational and created a rational universe, so there were rules out there to be discovered.With respect to Muslim societies, specifically, many of the aspects of their religious beliefs had the opposite impact on their development:
"Nobody else looked for the rules, because they didn't believe they were there to be found. They didn't believe that the world had been created in the same rational way. The marvelous thing is that these early Christian scientists, including Newton, believed God had created a rational world, went ahead and looked for the rules of that rational world -- and darned if they didn't find them. In an interesting sense, it was a scientific confirmation of the Christian religion."
"On religious grounds, Muslim scientists would have faced many challenges. It was widely held theologically that the notion of physical law was blasphemous. The laws of science presumed to limit the power of Allah, and therefore they could not be true. Clocks and printing presses were prohibited for centuries on the grounds that they were somehow blasphemous.
"Implied in the notion of scientific law, Muslim theologians felt, was that Allah would not be free to do whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased. They did not imagine Allah as the Great Clockmaker. He does as he pleases. That creates two impediments. One is it basically declares science itself heretical. But second, and more important, it says that science is impossible. If the concept of scientific law is regarded as theologically contradictory, then there are no rules there to be found. So who is going to go looking for rules that do not exist?
"You have astrology all over the world, but scientific astronomy only really happened in Europe. You have alchemy all over the world, but it turned into chemistry only once -- in Europe. And so it goes. And that's why in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Europeans could sail around the world, when everyone else could only row around a "lake" like the Mediterranean.
"The most surprising discovery for Europe when the age of exploration began was not the discovery of the New World or the civilizations in the Americas. It was the fact that the whole rest of the world was so far behind them. They had rather assumed that China would be way ahead of them. But that wasn't the way it was."