The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Here’s the weird thing about a post-Christian Christendom

St. Peters's Square at the Vatican on Nov. 1. (Andreas Solaro/Afp Via Getty Images)

About 10 years ago, psychologists Joe Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia pointed out something odd: Virtually all research psychology studied only the countries they dubbed WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.

Given that only about 12 percent of humanity lives in such a place, the researchers wrote in their 2010 paper, “The Weirdest People in the World?,” “members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.”

WEIRDos are more individualistic and independent, less conformist and obedient, more likely to favor “impersonal prosociality” — the idea that one set of moral rules should govern how you treat everyone, from the most distant stranger to your nearest kin. This seems normal to them, but in a global context, WEIRD people really are extremely weird. And as modernity erodes the last vestiges of traditionalism, they are probably getting WEIRDer and weirder by the day.

This is, well, rather odd. How did we get so WEIRD? Christianity, says Henrich (now at Harvard University), in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science, with co-authors Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrami-Rad and Jonathan P. Beauchamp. More specifically, Western Christianity; the number of years that one’s ancestors were exposed to the medieval Catholic Church correlates pretty nicely with things like social trust, creativity and willingness to do things like donate blood — and correlates negatively with traits such as nepotism.

Follow Megan McArdle's opinionsFollow

The world abounds in spurious correlations, of course. But the authors of “The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation” propose a very plausible mechanism: the Catholic Church’s extreme obsession with incest, which isn’t found in the Eastern Orthodox branch. The church kept banning marriages between more and more distant relations, up to sixth cousins, which smashed the tight kin-based networks common to agricultural cultures.

Over the centuries, Europe thus had to reinvent its society around the individual rather than the family. After which all sorts of possibilities arose that had not been available in a world where “family values” ruled every aspect of individual life. Ironically, one of those possibilities is not being religious at all, which is where WEIRD societies seem to be heading.

Of course, annoyed Christians have long pointed out how much secular liberal morality owes to Christianity — though they don’t necessarily specify that this includes the very values that are now undermining religious traditionalism throughout the West. Militant secularists might enjoy the irony, though they might also bridle at the implication that they owe their most fundamental values to church fathers such as Augustine of Hippo — that they are, arguably, merely completing the revolution started by those men of God.

As that revolution nears completion, we might ask what Christendom will look like when it is almost entirely scrubbed of Christ. Will it extend the trends that have accompanied the long secularization of the West: more prosperity, more liberty, more happiness? Or does WEIRDness need a certain amount of old-fashioned traditional morality to keep it from spinning into insanity?

The militant opponents of traditional morality will consider the answer to this question too obvious to even speak out loud. Yet whatever its faults, Christianity also stressed certain key virtues, like radical forgiveness, that might have helped soften conflicts in a world where we deal mostly with strangers rather than close kin. It also promoted family formation, providing the population growth without which individualist WEIRD institutions like the welfare state will most assuredly break down.

Nor is that necessarily the only thing breaking down in the new dispensation. Traditionalists might note that the left fears and hates President Trump’s post-religious followers on the right even more than it loathed the Moral Majority. And they might note, too, that the secular left sounds suspiciously religious when it talks about social justice, suggesting that the question might not be so much “Should we do without religion?” as “Can we?” or “Which one?”

As to which Christians will no doubt want to point out the ways in which post-Christian Christendom compares badly with the original model: how much today’s “cancel culture” looks like heretic-hunting without the possibility of absolution.

Speaking of which, they could suggest, too, that an epidemic of loneliness and deaths of despair might be what you’d expect from a society that reified the individual without stopping to consider that humans were neither created nor evolved to be truly self-sufficient. All in all, one can make a worryingly persuasive case that even the most militantly secular among us would be better off if we were at least a little more normal and slightly less WEIRD.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: Conservatives say ‘I do.’ Liberals say ‘Why bother?’ And that’s a problem.

Michael Gerson: American politics doesn’t need a Christian supremacy. It needs solidarity.

Michael Gerson: Some white evangelicals are difficult to recognize as Christians at all

Elizabeth Bruenig: Talk of a rising religious left is unfounded. It already exists.

Ben Howe: Evangelicals have abandoned their mission in favor of Trump