Taneer Greer, in the American Conservative, describes some research out of Harvard flying in the face of the conventional contemporary view of the Church of Rome as the enemy of Science, Liberalism, and Civilization, good for nothing but keeping rich cardinals equipped with mistresses and sending original thinkers to the stake.
Why did the West rise above the rest? Over the last two decades, academics and pundits have tried to answer this question. Most begin their search for the birth of the modern world somewhere over the last few centuries: the discovery of the Americas, the invention of the steam engine, perhaps the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Yet the research of two pathbreaking economists suggests that these answers are misplaced. In separate works, they argue that the invention of capitalism and liberalism in Western Europe should be traced to one surprising source: the medieval Catholic Church.
The research program of Jonathan Schultz, an economist currently attached to the Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution research group at Harvard, is built on a simple observation: Western Europeansâ€”and their cultural descendants in places like North America and Australiaâ€”think differently from people raised in other cultures. This is not a unique observation. Over the last two decades, psychologists have asked questions like â€œDo you think most people can be trusted?â€ and â€œIs it important to think up ideas and be creative, to do things oneâ€™s own way?â€ Theyâ€™ve complimented these questionnaires with games cleverly designed to test how willing subjects are to trust strangers, punish rule breakers, break rules themselves, and treat friends and family impartially.
Schultz and his team drew on 20 of these cross-cultural experiments (including several â€œnaturalâ€ experiments, such as the likelihood that a diplomat at the U.N. from a given country would call on diplomatic immunity to get out of a parking ticket) to sketch a psychological profile of the Western mind. They found that on average, Westerners are more individualistic, more trusting of strangers and public institutions, more likely to donate anonymously, less concerned with the opinions and judgments of their peers, less likely to cheat or bend rules (especially for the sake of friends and relatives), and far less tolerant of nepotism than those from other parts of the world.
This will come as little surprise to anyone who has lived both in and outside the West. It also wonâ€™t shock psychologists, who have even invented an acronym to label this unique psychological type: â€œW.E.I.R.D.â€â€”Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Developed. But in contrast to past research, which tended to emphasize the gap between Europe and the rest of the globe, Schultz and his team have focused their attention on differences within Europe itself. They have found that WEIRDness is not uniform across Europe. Some European populations are far WEIRDer than others. What explains this variation in WEIRD psychology? Schultz provides a simple answer: the date at which a region first fell under the influence of the Catholic Church. To predict how civic-minded, individualist, and trusting a population is today, you need only check whether a Catholic bishopric had been established there by the 7th century AD.
It is obviously true, if you think about it for a moment, that all of us descendants of Northern European peoples owe the gift of literacy and our membership in Western Civilization to the conversion to Christianity of our barbarian pagan ancestors by the Roman Catholic Church.