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How the Catholic Church Made Westerners the WEIRDest People in the World

How did the modern world emerge? In his 2020 book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, Harvard University Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology Joseph Henrich says the credit (or blame) falls to the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and family. People from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) cultures differ vastly in psychology from people from non-WEIRD cultures in terms of individualism, time, thrift, hard work, adherence to impartial principles, and analytical thinking.

A WEIRD psychology eventually gave rise to free markets, inalienable rights, and democracy. Where did this distinctive psychology come from?

Family Structures in the Medieval Era

Henrich’s answer is that “the medieval Catholic Church inadvertently altered people’s psychology by promoting a particular set of prohibitions and prescriptions about marriage and the family that dissolved the densely interconnected clans of Western Europe into small, weak, and disparate nuclear families.” Considered historically, the Church’s distinctive marriage and family norms were not shared by 99.3 percent of societies globally. Unlike other religions, the Church forbade marriage to siblings, in-laws, and even distant cousins. Limited in their eligible marriage partners, people had to look outside their extended clan for spouses. The search for spouses led to greater relational and residential mobility.

The Church also insisted on the free consent of both parties to marriage. This undermined the power of patriarchs in arranging marriages to foster alliances useful to the extended family. Henrich notes, “Norms about arranged marriages empower patriarchs to strategically use their daughters’ marriages to nourish their clan’s network of alliances and relationships.” The free consent of medieval marriages weakened these clans.

Read more at The Public Discourse

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