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Press: Washington Post knows its science and religion

22 November 2019


ONE of the byways of medieval history is the use of consanguinity to annul inconvenient royal marriages. It was the accepted way for kings to trade up in the marriage market: they would discover that, all along, their present wives were within some forbidden degree of relatedness, and so piety, as well as self-interest, compelled them to put them to one side in favour of some princess better endowed with strategic lands.

I had never supposed that this might be part of the explanation for the American defeat in Afghanistan. Yet a thoughtful piece in The Washington Post last week, which reported the findings of a new study, suggested that the medieval Church’s ban on cousin marriage may be one of the roots of the distinctively Western psychology that liberal humanists suppose to be the state of nature (News, 15 November): “The researchers assert that they can trace all sorts of modern-day differences among cultures — from donating blood to strangers to paying parking tickets — to the influence of medieval Catholicism.

“‘The longer the duration under the church will predict greater individualism, less conformity and obedience, and more cooperation and trust with strangers,’ said Joseph Henrich, one of the researchers.”

The study itself says: “The branch of Christianity that eventually evolved into the Roman Catholic Church — hereafter, the Western Church or simply the Church —systematically undermined Europe’s intensive kin-based institutions through a combination of religious prohibitions and prescriptions. . . The Western Church’s policies . . . began with targeted bans on certain marriage practices used to sustain alliances between families (e.g., levirate marriage); however, by the Early Middle Ages the Church had become obsessed with incest and began to expand the circle of forbidden relatives, eventually including not only distant cousins but also step-relatives, in-laws, and spiritual kin. Early in the second millennium, the ban was stretched to encompass sixth cousins, including all affines.

“The Church also forced an end to many lineages by eliminating legal adoption, remarriage, and all forms of polygamous marriage, as well as concubinage, which meant that many lineages began literally dying out due to a lack of legitimate heirs. As a result, by 1500 CE (and centuries earlier in some regions), much of Europe was characterized by a virtually unique configuration of weak (nonintensive) kinship marked by monogamous nuclear households, bilateral descent, late marriage, and neolocal residence. Our theory, by synthesizing these insights, predicts that populations with a longer exposure to the medieval Western Church or less intensive kin-based institutions will be less conforming but more individualistic and impersonally prosocial.”

One important feature of their work is that they do not argue that these traits arose genetically, as a result of the new breeding practices: rather, they are the kinds of behaviour which are most advantageous in societies where intensive kin networks have been broken up, and so children will naturally be socialised into them. “Impersonally prosocial individualism” is one way to describe the attitudes needed to make liberal rule-based societies work. In any case, they then mapped these attitudes, as revealed by large-scale psychological surveys, on to the populations of the present world, and the exposure that their ancestors had to medieval Christianity.

The Washington Post is miles ahead of any British secular media outlet when it comes to the handling of religion, and this story shows how they can do real science-and-religion stories, too.


TALKING of which, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, and even the Mail on Sunday have all picked up on the HuffPost UK’s scoop about the prosperity gospel operation SPAC Nation (Press, 15 November).

The Guardian ran two stories, both concentrating on the church’s links to the Conservative Party. The Sunday Times had one shorter piece, which looked to me as though lawyers had dined at length on it: “Spac Nation . . . is accused of raising money by persuading parishioners to set up companies and arrange overdrafts with a bank. The companies are then struck off for failing to fill in annual returns, leaving banks out of pocket. More than 50 suspicious companies were set up by people alleged to be SPAC Nation members, most of which were dissolved with no activity, according to the dossier.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian revealed that cases of child abuse involving supposed witchcraft and black magic were rising steadily in Britain: 2000 were recorded last year.

IT IS a relief to turn to harmless supernaturalism. No prizes for guessing where this headline comes from: “When baby monitors go bump in the night, are they picking up paranormal activity?” Still, if you’re going to write fluff and nonsense for the Mail, this was a masterclass in how to do it: “A friend of a friend had posted that she had seen a ‘figure’ in her child’s room on her monitor. Another mother commented that she didn’t invest in a baby monitor because of so many unsettling tales she’d heard about them picking up ‘paranormal activity’.”

No matter how modern your machine may be, the ghosts will find their way in.

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