On the face of it, two of this year’s most stimulating books would seem to be saying precisely opposite things. Philip Jenkins’s Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions argues that religions (including Christianity) are more successful when families are larger. Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous argues that Western Christianity became successful, and shaped the psychology of the modern West in extensive and definitive ways, by making extended families, and the obligations owed to them, smaller.
Admittedly, the two books (and their authors) are very different. Jenkins is a historian (at Baylor University), and his book is mainly about demography; Henrich is an anthropologist (at Harvard University), and his book is mainly about history. Jenkins writes as a Christian; Henrich is agnostic. Jenkins is looking to the future, and considering how fertility shapes religion; Henrich is looking to the past, and explaining how religion shaped psychology.
But they shed interesting light on each other nonetheless. Does Christianity, like all other religions, have a stake in large families, high fertility, traditional morality, and high levels of deference to institutions, cultural norms, personal relationships, and the good of the community (as Jenkins believes)? Or is Christianity chiefly responsible for the overthrow of these things, by gradually dissolving extensive kinship-based networks, and changing the key actors in history from extended families to autonomous individuals and impersonal markets (as Henrich believes)? Or are both of them somehow true? Has Christianity unwittingly sown the seeds of its own demise?
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
In The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich draws on cutting-edge research in anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology to explore these questions and more. He illuminates the origins and evolution of family structures, marriage, and religion, and the profound impact these cultural transformations had on human psychology. Mapping these shifts through ancient history and late antiquity, Henrich reveals that the most fundamental institutions of kinship and marriage changed dramatically under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. It was these changes that gave rise to the WEIRD psychology that would coevolve with impersonal markets, occupational specialization, and free competition―laying the foundation for the modern world.
Fertility and Faith
Jenkins’s book is the shorter and more focused of the two. It also makes the more intuitive case: that high birth rates are associated with high religious commitment, and that this link has significant implications for the church in the 21st century. We can debate which causes which, or whether a third factor accounts for both, but statistically speaking, there is no debate over the fact that falling fertility corresponds to lower levels of religious enthusiasm, as well as to higher levels of material prosperity, existential security, gay rights, female employment, medical technology and state welfare (chapter 1). The classic example is 20th-century Europe, especially since the 1960s, where fertility has collapsed (chapter 2) alongside a dramatic fall in religious participation and institutional power (chapter 3). A similar demographic and religious transition has taken place in East Asia and Latin America (chapter 4), and although the United States seemed to buck the trend for a generation, it now looks to be heading in the same direction (chapter 5).
In Africa, meanwhile, both fertility and religious enthusiasm are booming, which has significant implications both politically and ecclesially (chapter 6). The Islamic world might seem to provide some counterexamples, but these generally result from differences between the theocratic laws of the state and the habits and beliefs of the wider populace (chapter 7). At a geopolitical level, it helps to understand the connection, because it stands behind the domestic politics of countries ranging from Israel and Turkey to India and Russia (chapter 8). And it’s important for the church as well, since a low-fertility world—like the one most of us are approaching—will raise new challenges as well as new opportunities (chapter 9).
On the face of it, two of this year’s most stimulating books would seem to be saying precisely opposite things.
Put like that, it all sounds rather bleak, even dystopian: a world with few children and fewer churches. And Jenkins is clear that both outcomes are likely indeed, unless you live in Africa or parts of Asia, and that they may hit Americans sooner than we think: “We should contemplate the possibility that in religious terms, the 2020s will be for the United States what the 1970s were for Western Europe” (118). Yet there is plenty of nuance here. Jenkins is careful to distinguish religious attendance and institutional power, on the one hand, from religious beliefs and spiritual practices (like reading sacred texts or praying), on the other. Falling fertility is clearly connected to the former, but it may not be to the latter. People don’t necessarily stop believing in God when they stop going to church, temple, or mosque, as we can see with the rise of the “nones” in the West. “Crucially, the changes that we have seen in Europe portend grim times for organized institutional faith, but not necessarily for faith itself” (186).
We Are WEIRD
Henrich’s book is a different animal, broad and sweeping, filled with charts and psychological experiments and maps. It makes a much more surprising claim: that one of the key turning points in world history was the “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP) instituted by the Western church from the sixth century onward. To brutally summarize a 700-page book in three sentences: If you’re reading this, you’re unlikely to know personally anyone who married their cousin. You’re also likely to be WEIRD in your psychology—that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. And historically speaking, the second of those statements is true because of the first.
It’s a bold and engaging argument. You and I are WEIRD, and psychologically peculiar to boot: “highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical” (21). We define ourselves by our achievements more than our relationships. We’re unusually patient, trusting of strangers, overconfident, and impartial. We believe in universal laws, free will, and individual choice. We’re prone to cognitive dissonance and to overvaluing our own possessions. We’re more likely to give blood than most human beings are, and more likely to pay parking tickets, even if we don’t have to. There is data for all of this.
Traits like these aren’t random. Behind all of them, and many others, stands the influence of the Western church in the Middle Ages. In fact, there are striking correlations between the length of time that an area was exposed to the Western church, and its levels of conformity, individualism, trust, moral universalism, cooperation with strangers, impersonal honesty, analytical-mindedness, and response to third-party punishment, as well as blood donation and payment of parking tickets under diplomatic immunity (227–29). The church has made you WEIRD. There is data for all of this, too.
The church has made you WEIRD. There is data for all of this, too.
The reason for the connection, Henrich argues, is as follows: Ever since the advent of farming, human beings have functioned best in intensive kin-based institutions involving extended families, clans, and tribes. That is still how much of the world works, and you can see it everything from honor/shame dynamics to mealtimes to family businesses. The Western church, however, beginning with Pope Gregory the Great (597), gradually dismantled kinship-based relations in medieval Europe through a combination of monogamy, taboos against cousin marriage, bilateral (as opposed to patrilineal) descent, nuclear families, and neolocal residence (whereby newly married couples form a separate household from their parents’).
The cumulative effect of those changes, across 1,000 years or more, was huge. Polygamy and cousin marriage all but vanished. Women got married and had children later. Families got smaller. Europeans began choosing their relational networks rather than being born into them, and began forming voluntary associations like charter towns, guilds, universities, monasteries, and convents. Artisans and merchants traded on the basis of their reputation, not their family connections, which incentivized impartiality, cooperation with strangers, precision, punctuality, and diligence. By the High Middle Ages, Europe was experiencing urbanization, a rise in trade, commerce and credit, renewed interest in the law, improving transport connections, and even a craze for towns having their own clocks.
The implications of all this would ultimately feed into the Protestant Reformation, the rise of science and markets, the industrious and industrial revolutions, and what we now call the “modern” world—including what is between your ears.
These two books weren’t intended to be read together. Given the difference in their respective fields, I doubt if either author knew what the other was working on until both were published. But I’m a big fan of counterpoint reading, and I think the contrasts between them are genuinely illuminating. I’ll finish by mentioning two.
One is methodological. Jenkins is focused, careful, and balanced, and goes only as far as the facts will allow him. Despite the cover (do we really need both “revolution” and “transformation” in one subtitle?), the argument is actually quite steady, even cautious, though its conclusions might seem doom-laden for the Western church. The WEIRDest People in the World, by contrast, is sweeping, polymathic, counterintuitive, and provocative. In a number of places it looks like Henrich is shoehorning facts into his theory—notably his summary of the history of world religions (chapter 4), his tracing of neolocal residence to the Western church rather than Genesis 2 (chapter 5), and his treatment of the Eastern church (chapter 6)—but he hits far more than he misses, and the book is much more interesting for its audacity. In theological terms, to read Jenkins is like picking up a solid evangelical commentary, with no great “wow” moment but lots of good points united in a clear, well-written argument. Reading Henrich is more like reading N. T. Wright or Douglas Campbell: the splutters of incredulity you experience are more than made up for by the breadth and chutzpah of the narrative.
The other counterpoint relates to the argument, and takes us back to where we started. Does Christianity thrive, generally speaking, where there are large families and traditional social mores (Jenkins)? Or does it dissolve these things in the end, in spite of itself, through its sexual ethics (Henrich) and perhaps even through its very gospel (Tom Holland, Larry Siedentop)? The answer, it seems, is both.
Our hope doesn’t come from demography or psychology. It comes from the God who raises the dead.
If we step back from the canvas of individuals and churches, and simply look at the global church through history, it does seem that the longer a society has had the gospel, the more likely it is to leave it behind and forge a secular gospel of its own making, searching for the kingdom without the King. I suspect that Henrich is right to say Christianity makes societies more individualistic, if given long enough—and that Jenkins is right to say this will ultimately make Christian mission, and building Christian institutions in particular, much harder.
It sounds ominous. If they’re right, then the church becomes a victim of its own success. We become empty nesters: having raised teenagers in our image, we eventually discover they want nothing more than to leave home, phoning only occasionally if they need help or money. Perhaps that is what the Western church faces in this generation.
But at the heart of our message is the story of a teenage boy who took his inheritance, left home, lost all his bearings, and spent all his money—and a Father who never stopped waiting for the day when he would finally come home. Our hope doesn’t come from demography or psychology. It comes from the God who raises the dead. “For this son of mine who was dead is alive again; he was lost, but now he is found.”