This article tries to establish, by way of critical remarks on chapter 4 of Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People, that Christianity was from its very beginnings a Hellenistic religion deeply infused with Greek thought and principles. The Catholic Church did not demolish kinship groups in the Middle Ages “completely unintentionally”. It did so partly intentionally on moral and rational grounds, which is not to deny there were other motivations. I believe that The WEIRDest People will stand as one of the most important books in our attempts to understand why white people have been so different psychologically, and why they have been the most accomplished race in history and why they are inclined to welcome alien races into their homelands. That’s why I am paying close attention to this book.
Henrich argues in chapter 4 — “The Gods Are Watching. Behave!” — that the “universalizing religions” of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, which spread across the Old World during the first millennium CE, all played a similar historical role in the way they successfully “scale up” human cooperation among believers over and above (though not against) tribal ties. These religions were not WEIRD in their inception and beliefs, for they remain rooted in kinship institutions, but they did expand the field of cooperation beyond clan groups, and in this way promoted “collective” learning across ethnic networks.
For Henrich “cumulative cultural learning” has been the main propeller of historical change. The more humans have cooperated, the more they have accumulated knowledge and enlarged their “collective brains”. To the extent that these religions enhanced cooperation among humans, they played an important role in enhancing collective learning. Yet, for all the talk about “learning”, Henrich pays no attention to the intellectual content and quality of the beliefs contained in these universalizing religions. Henrich judges these religions solely for the role they played in scaling up cooperation beyond clannish ties. In this respect, all universalizing religions are alike. Henrich believes, as we will explain in detail in the next commentary, that when Catholics set out to destroy European kinship groups in the Middle Ages, and set the stage for the emergence of voluntary associations and the transformation of Europeans into WEIRD personalities, they did so “unintentionally”. The Catholic Church did not have any moral objections to kinship, and Europeans did not articulate rational arguments about the merits of voluntary associations until after kinship norms were debilitated.
In chapter 4 he focuses on “universalizing religions” in general, and, by extension, on Christianity before Europeans became WEIRD. His argument is that in the context of intense intergroup competition, which all human societies face in their struggle for survival, those societies capable of producing beliefs, rituals, and ceremonies with a wide appeal, managed to scale up the networks of cooperation among tribal groups, which made possible greater production of goods, larger societies and civilizations with greater capacities for intergroup competition. While rulers were strongly inclined to employ religious beliefs and practices to benefit their families and legitimize their authorities, intergroup competition was the main factor pushing humans to adopt these universalizing religions. Those communities that pulled together many clans and tribes under the umbrella of universalizing beliefs were the ones that managed to construct and sustain chiefdoms and states, outcompeting those communities that remained too clannish in their beliefs.
The promotion (by these universalizing religions) of fellow feelings for strangers was far less powerful in encouraging cooperation than the threat of punishment against those who violated the commandments of supernatural beings. Henrich writes: “If people believe that their gods will punish them for things like stealing, adultery, cheating, or murder, then they will be less likely to commit these actions even when they could get away with them”. The historical relevance of the rituals practiced by these religions is that they worked to induce members of the same community to build emotional attachments with each other. Henrich provides experimental surveys showing that religious people are far more motivated by fear of punishment than empathy for strangers to follow the moral codes of their religions.
Henrich effectively introduces in this chapter, moreover, the concept “CREDs” (credibility enhancing displays) about how humans as cultural learners are inclined to accept and “conform” to those religious beliefs that have great rituals, including food taboos, sexual prohibitions, fasts, martyrs, daily prayers, grace before meals, that enhance the credibility of the religion. Humans also gravitate towards prestigious or successful advocates of beliefs and rituals. He talks about CREDs in relation to the universalizing religions, and says that these religions were able to create “super-tribes” of believers with a greater inclination to trust members of other clans with the same religious beliefs.
But Henrich carefully notes that the broader cooperation the universalizing religions encouraged among believers did not dispense with the old kinship ties. These universalizing religions, together with the civilizations they worked to sustain, were in fact built atop the old kinship systems. Only later in the Middle Ages would Christianity set out to demolish kinship ties and thus promote a truly WEIRD pan-tribal world of Christian believers for whom shared beliefs alone functioned as their unifying identity rather than shared tribal lineage. This is the meaning of “Christendom”.
My view is that Christianity was from the beginning a very different universalizing religion, more rational and educated than any other religion in history, with incipient WEIRD characteristics. Henrich describes all universalizing religions with a broad brush, without making any distinctions in the nature of their beliefs. Religions are pretty much the same in their irrational beliefs about supernatural beings, heaven and hell. Henrich is actually perplexed why humans believe in the existence of spirits, demons, and ghosts which are so incompatible with their “own direct experiences” and “worldly expectations” in the everyday world of survival they inhabit. He thinks there was some sort of “cognitive glitch” in our evolutionary history leading us to acquire a “dualistic inclination” to believe in an afterlife “in which your body goes in the ground and your soul departs for heaven”. He wonders why to this day, in our highly scientific culture, “nearly half of adults believe in ghosts.” Why would so many Westerners continue to believe in these things when “the best available science” has taught us that “our minds are produced entirely by our bodies and brains, they can’t have an independent existence”? In his view, natural selection “inadvertently created a cognitive glitch…that left us susceptible to believing that minds and bodies are separable”.This is the way many secular, pro-diversity academics, and evolutionary theorists, approach religion today. Religions have relevance only in the degree to which they can be shown to have played a role in the orderly functioning of societies or as ideological justification for the ruling class. All religions are equally irrational. The same Henrich who makes “cultural learning” the centerpiece of his argument about historical change is uninterested in considering the possibility that Christianity, having originated in the highly literate and learned world of Hellenistic Greece, developed a set of WEIRD beliefs unlike any of the beliefs found in the other universalizing religions of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.
In part 2 of this review I wondered why Henrich speaks of the impact of literacy on the neurology of the brain only in regards to the spread of reading among the lower segments of the population rather than in regards to the presence of highly literate elites who can read, write, and think properly. I mentioned Greece as a society where literacy was actually more widespread than in the Germany which produced the Protestant Reformation that Henrich holds responsible for the spread of literacy and the development of sharper analytical capacities. What about the Hellenistic Greek world within which Christianity originated where around 20 to 30 percent of the population in the major cities was literate?
Hellenistic Intellectual Roots of Christianity
Christianity is the only religion that originated and developed within a metaphysical framework consistent with a rationalistic understanding of the natural world and in an intellectual setting where freedom was the subject of much discussion. It has been argued that from the middle of the third century BC the Greek philosophical language entered into the very core of Judaism long before the New Testament period. Judaism was Hellenistic from this early period on. Christianity too was born inside the womb of Hellenism. The Greek language, rather than Hebrew, was the language through which the Christian faith spread. The first Christians were Hellenized Jews. All the books of the New Testament were written in Greek. The Gospel of St. John reinterpreted Jesus in Platonic terms, and non-Jews who became Christians were typically educated Greeks. The majority of Jews in the first Christian century were not living in Judea but in the politeuma of Alexandria, Antioch, and the Hellenistic oikoumene at large. Hellenized Judaism was the first critical step in the transformation and adaptation of Christianity to Hellenism. Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 50 AD) played a significant role in this adaptation. Convinced that the Scripture could be elucidated through the use of Greek philosophy and science, Philo started a theological tradition within Christianity by bringing together in a rich mixture the religious beliefs of the Septuagint, the Torah and Mosaic Law, and the Platonic and Stoic idea of a single rational law inherent in nature. By the early 2nd century, Christ had come to personify the Logos, the “Word” of the opening of St. John’s Gospel.
The four fathers of the Latin Church, St. Ambrose (340-397), St. Jerome (340-419), St. Augustine (354-430), and Gregory the Great (540-604), received a thorough classical education that taught them that God is a purposeful designer of the world who can be known through the things He has made. The Christian leaders responsible for the development of Latin Christianity were the products of a meticulous classical education. The Latin apologists, Tertullian, Minucius Felix (late 2nd century), and Lactantius (250-326), came to Christianity from a classical professional background. Minucius deliberately borrowed the Greek literary style of the dialogue, together with the Roman use of legal rules of evidence, to persuade pagans that Christianity was consistent wit the classical search for wisdom and goodness. Lactantius, known as the “Christian Cicero,” told his readers that the Stoic notion of a cosmic rational order was consistent with the Christian idea of a benevolent Creator who rules the world providentially.
As members of the educated middle and upper classes joined the congregations, they found much in common between the leading Stoic school of thought and Christianity. Both agreed that a single spirit, “intelligence,” created and guided the movement of the world and, further, that all humans participate or have equality in the divine regardless of kinship ties and ranking. While the evangelicals were still preaching and speaking in parables and the message of the Sermon on the Mount was never lost, it is also the case that—long before scholasticism in the Middle Ages—Hellenism demanded from Christians a more deliberate and more argumentative form of prose discourse, including modes of WEIRD deductive proof, logos.
The rationalizing impulse that transformed early Christianity into a theology was the subject matter of a now classic study by Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (1888). His thesis was that Christianity was “profoundly modified by the habit of mind of those who accepted it. It was impossible for the Greeks, educated as they were with an education which penetrated their whole nature, to receive or retain Christianity in its primitive simplicity”. Christianity became “no less a philosophy than a religion”. The way Greek reason entered into Christianity could be seen, first, in the search for clear definitions around the idea of God and in the effort to demonstrate, on rational grounds, the truthfulness of the definitions. It could be seen in the tendency to draw inferences from definitions, to construct systems from these inferences, and to ascertain the validity of these inferences in terms of their logical consistency within those systems.
Clement of Alexandria’s (150-215) effort to write a regular and orderly treatise of Christian beliefs, a theology, has to be seen in this context as an effort to elevate the unreflecting faith of simple “Jesus believers” to a higher understanding by means of classical learning. The goal was not to elevate philosophy above faith but to employ philosophy as a “preparatory discipline” to the study of Christianity and thus to the establishment of a Christian theology. Clement, who was extremely well read in Platonic philosophy, argued that although faith was sufficient for salvation, it was consistent with Christian faith to educate and discipline one’s mind to reach a higher, more coherent understanding of God. Origen, who succeeded Clement as head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria, took further this effort to construct a systematic body of truth on the basis of rigorous argumentation. His On the First Principles starts with the elements of faith of apostolic preaching and then goes on to maintain, as F.E. Peters words it, “that in many cases apostolic tradition did no more than announce that a thing is so, without explaining the how of the why“. Origen is said to have provided the “first Summa Theologica” in presenting all Christian beliefs in the manner of a dogma, a canon, a system of beliefs (Peters, The Harvest of Hellenism, 1957).
There is a section in this chapter where Henrich inadvertently slips out that “by roughly 200 BCE universalizing religions included [concepts] of free will…[and] moral universalism”. Don’t we need humans with WEIRD psychologies to have concepts of free will and moral universalism? He distinctly identifies “free will” in chapter 1 with the WEIRD “notion that individuals make their own choices and those choices matter”, and he lists “moral universalism” as one of the key WEIRD traits. His point may be that universalizing religions contained some incipient ideas about free will and moral culpability based on religious texts rather than on customary obligations stemming from kinship ties. But the truth is that we don’t have any textual evidence that any religion other than Christianity developed fully articulated concepts about free will and moral universalism.
The first proper articulation of the idea of free will can be found in the writings of the Hellenistic thinker Epicurus, who thought that it was possible for human decision or choice to exist outside a causal chain of determinism, and thus for humans to be responsible for their actions, and for praise and moral blame to be possible (A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, section “Free Will”). But others have argued that it was a Hellenized Christianity that gave Europeans a richer and more self-aware idea of freedom. For Christianity made the notion of liberty universal by granting a fundamental equality to all human beings in the sight of God and by recognizing each individual as equal in their uniqueness rather than in their sameness. Hellenized Christians were the first to elaborate philosophically the concepts of person, conscience, truth, dignity, and liberty.
The academic degrees Henrich obtained were in anthropology. This discipline requires students to view all cultures and religions as equal in value and moral content. The ranking of cultures in terms of their cognitive content is prohibited. The distinction he makes between “WEIRD” and “non-WEIRD” are relative and not intended to draw distinctions in learning. This is odd for someone who emphasizes so much “cumulative cultural learning”. But for reasons that have to do with political correctness he never praises the cultural achievements of Europeans even after, by his own account, Europe witnessed a proliferation of WEIRD ideas never seen before after the Catholic Church demolished kinship groups. He wants us to believe that the “contextual thinking” of primitive peoples, or non-WEIRD peoples generally, was no less truthful than the “analytical thinking” of WEIRD Europeans. We will see later than Europeans also developed the most complex forms of contextual thinking, and that talk in academia about how non-Europeans are “holistic” and more capable of seeing things in context is child play.
Nevertheless, Henrich has a deep background in cognitive psychology, and he deserves the utmost credit for being the first anthropological psychologist to offer a lot of experimental evidence supporting the idea that Westerners developed the modern world because they became WEIRD in their cognition and morals early on their history before the industrial revolution. In a future post I will go over the nature of the excellent and substantive “experimental” evidence Henrich provides in support of his finding about the different psychologies of Westerners and non-Westerners. One point for now is that, as excellent and confirmatory as this evidence is, it brings out the beliefs and perceptions of average individuals. Henrich tends to neglect the evidence which comes from the best scholarly books about these universalizing religions and the theological nature of Christianity. One can’t apprehend the nature of Christianity, its deep roots in the high culture of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, by surveying the beliefs of ordinary individuals today.
I have cited a few sources, but there are many additional books and articles explaining how Christianity was substantially rationalized long before the Middle Ages. Henrich provides a very impressive bibliographical list of books in anthropology, psychology, and the economic and legal history of Europe, particularly after it started its modern historical trajectory. But this list seriously neglects the ancient world, antiquity, and early Christianity. One really pertinent book he leaves out is Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins Of Western Liberalism (2015). Because Kevin MacDonald believes that northern Europeans were naturally selected for smaller families and weird individualistic traits back in prehistoric times, and that the ancient Greeks and Romans were already practicing monogamy against polygamy and cousin marriage, he has no difficulties incorporating Siedentop’s argument that Christianity was responsible for a weird moral revolution in the first centuries AD before the Middle Ages. This revolution called for the moral equality of all humans regardless of ancestry, and insisted that humans are intentional beings and not the playthings of forces beyond their cognition, but in possession of an inner conscience which should not be reduced to external mandates.