Medieval Catholicism's effects on human psychology

An interesting story from the Washington Post was picked up by one of Canada’s newspapers, the National Post. It summarizes a paper published in Science last week.

The researchers examined 24 different psychological traits in several different cultures and discovered that “countries exposed to Catholicism early have citizens today who exhibit qualities such as being more individualistic and independent, and being more trusting of strangers.”

According to the paper, the early church’s vigorous opposition to marriage among close relatives changed the way kinship networks worked, and eventually led to major psychological transformations within wider communities. All this happened before 1500, though (which was the end date for the study), so any changes that may or may not have followed the Protestant Reformation weren’t included in the study.

With regard to the mechanisms for these dramatic and rapid changes in human psychology, the Science paper may cover that, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. However, this paper about epigenetics, combined with this paper on microchimerism, gives us some biological tools to help explain the rapid trait changes among Christian cultures.

As Christians, we often want to believe that any favourable traits (e.g. greater prosperity, longevity, compassion for strangers, educational advances) are signs of God’s Grace that have nothing whatsoever to do with our biology. We’ve been willing for a long time to accept theological doctrines such as Original Sin that reinforce discouraging and depressing models of spiritual inheritance. What if we were willing to finally open our Hearts to Jesus’ original Kingdom teachings, which offered a positive and uplifting model for experiencing God’s presence in our lives? What if we started to actively embrace the role of heritable epigenetic factors as part of our Christian experience?

The honest truth is that the bullies and tyrants and psychopaths of the world have ALWAYS instinctively understood the role of transgenerational traits controlled not by DNA but by the environment and the culture. This is how they psychologically control large populations. So history teaches us the downside of epigenetics. But perhaps the time has arrived for Christians to think about the upside of epigenetics and to become a little kinder to ourselves.

It takes a long time for a critical mass of heritable psychological traits to emerge in a population to the point where communities change their values and moral codes to reflect these traits – and this can be a good thing or a bad thing (with Nazism being an excellent example of epigenetic traits leading to a bad thing). The important point, I think, is to note that Christians don’t have a monopoly on this biological reality. Any culture that makes a concerted, long term effort to break apart old cultural or religious patterns and replace them with new norms will eventually alter the psychological traits of large numbers of people.

I personally believe that Jesus’ teachings contain within them a virtually untapped source of wisdom about working with our biology instead of against it. But it would take a lot of commitment and effort to create a tide of change within modern Christianity.

Do you think we’re up to the challenge? Do you think we should try?

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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