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Why Are We So WEIRD?

Joseph Henrich has some thoughts.

Joseph Henrich’s book, The WEIRDest People in the World, seeks to explain why Westerners are so different from everyone else. Not only do we live in the West, but we’re Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – WEIRD. Most people in the world are not. Why are we?

He argues that literacy is the explanation. That people in the West, beginning with Martin Luther, put great emphasis on learning to read the Bible, and this led them to varied paths of learning, resulting in innovation, entrepreneurship, and our capitalist and democratic way of life. 

But Henrich goes further. Why are we so committed to literacy? Henrich insists that what he calls the medieval Church’s Marriage and Family Program  (MFP) broke down the restrictive kinship cultures of Europe and liberated people unto choice in whom they would marry, where they would live, what they might learn, and how they might make a living. The Church’s MFP has been the driving force of social and cultural change in the West for a thousand years.

Henrich is an evolutionary thinker, so he has no place in his narrative for things like revelation or willing and glad conversion to Christian faith. Christianity ran roughshod over kinship cultures, demolishing and annihilating them by foisting Biblical views of marriage on everyone under the Church’s authority. That’s an extreme view of what happened, and probably not even the best explanation for why the West is so different from the rest of the world. But Henrich’s research is impressive, and his big book is a fun read. 

Christianity has actually contributed much more to making the West what it is, but Henrich has read the accounts of Church councils and canon laws selectively, to support his thesis. His insights are useful, but his theory is flawed, incomplete, and suffers all the shortcomings of a merely secular attempt to understand the world.

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