A study in the journal Science describes how individualism and independent thought evolved in Western countries as an outgrowth of the Medieval Catholic church’s ban on incest.
It turns out that Western educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies — WEIRD — developed differently than any other society as a result of the church’s rules on marriage and incest. And the unintentional consequences of those rules are still with us today.
Jonathan Schulz and colleagues from George Mason University and Harvard University in the US wanted to know why people from WEIRD societies are, well, different.
“Western Europeans and their cultural descendants in North America and Australia tend to be more individualistic, independent, analytically minded, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity, obedience, in-group loyalty, and nepotism,” the authors write in the journal Science.
Psychological testing has documented the prevalence of these traits in Western society. But just how they came to the fore is poorly understood.
While it may be counterintuitive, the church’s prevalence in the lives of Europeans may have led to our penchant for independent thinking,
Their theory goes like this: until Rome got involved, marriage among cousins – and occasionally even siblings – was common practice, a part of life in large, extended families with strong kinship ties. Such kinship groups were the fundamental pre-modern social unit, and were characterised by respect for elders, conformity and obedience.
But from the early Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church condemned such marriages, even disapproving of marriage between people as distantly related as sixth cousins. The Church, say the researchers, became “obsessed” with incest. It also promoted the idea of marriage by choice instead of arranged marriages.
These new rules broke down the old kinship networks and instead produced small, nuclear households, with weak extended family ties and high mobility. And this in turn fostered individualism, non-conformity and a greater tendency to engage with and trust people outside the family group.
At the same time, the Constantinople-based Eastern Orthodox Church was less concerned with incest and policing rules relating to cousins marrying.
An interesting theory, to be sure. But how to test it?
To test their theory, the researchers built a database calculating the spread of influence of the Western and Eastern churches in every country of the world, and more finely in 440 regions of Europe.
They then tallied this data with Vatican records of cousin-cousin marriages, and findings from a range of previous tests comparing 24 different psychological characteristics and behaviours across countries and regions.
Their results showed a clear correlation between the length of time that the Western Church had been active in a geographic region, the decline of kinship structures, and the prevalence of characteristics such as analytical thinking, independence and individualism.
So we have the overbearing, smothering Catholic Church in Medieval times to thank for our notions of freedom? You buying it?
I’m not sold, but it’s a fascinating theory. We have seen that our ideas about free speech, democracy, individual liberty, and government are far different from how those traits are viewed in the Middle East, Asia, and even Russia, which can never seem to decide if they’re European or not.
The theory depends on various assumptions that are hard to prove empirically, especially “psychological characteristics and behaviors” by region or ethnicity. But our different way of thinking had to come from somewhere. It didn’t arise in a vacuum. At least the researchers appear to have made an honest effort to arrive at a logical conclusion.