I one camp is Jared Diamond, who argued in Guns, Germs, and Steel that national differences are attributable to quirks of geography thousands of years ago.
In the other is the Turkish-Armenian-American economist Daron Acemoglu, who is famous for blaming all the Third World's problems on the evils of Western colonialism.
Both theories are widely praised by liberal scholars, but savagely criticized by experts in the field. The appeal of these theories is that they instill guilt about enjoying the fruits of western civilization.
They try to explain why Christian Europe (and later the USA) passed up the rest of the world in the last millennium. Both of them do agree that favorable institutions do play a role in national wealth:
Among the good economic institutions that motivate people to become productive are the protection of their private property rights, predictable enforcement of their contracts, opportunities to invest and retain control of their money, control of inflation, and open exchange of currency. For instance, people are motivated to work hard if they have opportunities to invest their earnings profitably, but not if they have few such opportunities or if their earnings or profits are likely to be confiscated.I am sure those institutions make a big difference, but it seems to me that they are ignoring some more fundamental institutions -- that of religion and family.
Acemoglu and his coauthor Robinson do say that slavery and the slave trade disrupted family and marriage structures. But unless the argument is part of an anti-colonial blame game, they deny that religion, culture, or family structure have anything to do with national prosperity.
Christianity developed in Europe, and is inseparable from the cultural factors that contributed to European advancement. It is impossible to imagine such advancement if Europeans had been Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, or pagan. There are families all over the world, but not necessarily European family types. Much of the world believes in cousin marriage and polygamy.
I don't have a simplistic explanation for the rise of western civilization, but I know enough to doubt the leftist academics who only consider leftist explanations and do not even consider the obvious. Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker is another one with a grand theory about the decline of violence, but adamantly denies that Christianity has had anything to do with it. That is crazy. Surely Chistianity has had a lot to do with the success of modern civilization. I do not know how anyone can deny it.
This may seem like an obscure academic historical debate, but it has present-day importance. American culture is being transformed by laws and trends that are redefining families, and by massive legal and illegal Third World immigration. These changes have been sold to the public as being consistent with changes in the past. But if the changes are contrary to what made America great in the first place, then they are not changes for the better.