Joseph Henrich says less than 1% of the world’s population is WEIRD — Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. The Harvard University professor of human evolutionary biology says our WEIRD culture is “not shared by 99.3 percent of societies globally.” Henrich backs this with meticulous research in his book, “The WEIRDEST People in the World: How the West became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.”
But here’s the kicker. Henrich credits the Catholic Church for our WEIRD culture. But he’s not Catholic. He’s an agnostic. He’s simply describing how we became WEIRD.
Henrich traces WEIRD from a key turning point in world history: the “Marriage and Family Program” instituted by the Catholic Church from the sixth century onward. It forbade marriage to siblings, in-laws, and even distant cousins. That’s why, if you’re reading this and you don’t personally know anyone married to their cousin, you’re likely weird.
But there’s more. The Catholic Church, unlike other religions, held to the free consent of both parties to marriage. Limited in their eligible marriage partners, people had to look outside their extended clan for spouses. This led to greater relational mobility, undermining the power of patriarchs in arranging marriages to foster clan alliances. Weakened clans gave rise to greater commerce, capitalism, free markets, inalienable rights and democracy.
Henrich calls this turning point in history the “accidental genius” of the Catholic Church. It was genius. But it wasn’t accidental. This view of commerce is as old as the Eastern fathers of the Catholic Church, notably John Chrysostom. He wrote that commerce is the material bond among peoples that exhibits the mystical unity of the human race.
That raises a question: Why don’t most of us in our WEIRD culture recognize this? I can think of several reasons.
First, Harry Truman said the only “new” history is the history we don’t know. From the sixth century onward, after successive barbarian invasions had smashed centralized authority in the West, bishops such as Gregory of Tours (573-94) became managers of institutional wealth as well as spiritual leaders. They fostered religious capitalism. Few of us moderns know this.
A second “new” history (for most of us) is Catholic social teaching. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God’s special love for the poor. The Industrial Revolution exacerbated the problems of the poor, which Pope Leo XIII began to address in 1878. His letter prompted a series of letters over the years addressing a wide range of issues including faith, work, industrialization, commerce, capitalism, education and so on. Today, these letters comprise an “integral ecology” concerning people, plants, the planet, productivity — you name it — coalesced in what is called Catholic social teaching.
Unfortunately, a third history that’s not “new” to most of us concerns the recent spate of scandals in the Catholic Church. They’ve undermined much of her moral authority to speak into the problems of our modern age, all of which are moral. This includes capitalism, originally defined as an economic system dependent on a supportive moral system.
But there are other reasons why few recognize Catholicism creating our WEIRD culture.
For starters, Protestants have fostered a culture of anti-Catholicism in America from our nation’s very inception in 1620. Cultures are king, so most of us are culturally conditioned to unconsciously think Protestant good, Catholic bad. It’s an ugly dichotomy.
This ugliness has been reinforced by Protestants writing anti-Catholic histories over the course of several centuries. I first learned of this in 2016, after reading Rodney Stark’s ¡Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History.” Stark, who passed away in 2022, was Protestant. He was a professor at Baylor University, a Protestant Evangelical school. Stark’s book catalogues Protestant writers who, over the centuries, have misrepresented Catholicism, breaking the Ninth of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not bear false witness.
That brings me to my appreciation for the late Tim Keller. A Protestant pastor in the Reformed tradition, Keller recognized Protestants have no equivalent to Catholic social teaching. Protestant “faith and work” ministries have many fine points, but as Keller noted, it’s not as expansive as Catholic social teaching. I wish more Protestants recognized this.
I’m not saying the solution is Catholic good, Protestant bad. Henrich notes how non-WEIRD people use the left and right hemispheres of their brains about equally, but today’s WEIRD people bias their left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is narrowly focused. It doesn’t see the big picture. It accepts only those facts fitting its narrow frame. Most modern Americans’ frame is Protestant good, Catholic bad. But this undermines what made us WEIRD.
And that’s not weird. It’s tragic.