How Protestantism (Unintentionally) Spread Literacy
Joseph Henrich in Conversation with Andrew Keen on Keen On
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In this episode, Andrew is joined by Joseph Henrich, author of The Weirdest People in the World, to discuss how strange and exceptional Western society is when compared with most of the world.
From the episode:
Andrew Keen: Reading your book, I of course was reminded of Max Weber’s great thesis in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, suggesting that the origins of individualism and hard work lay, ironically enough, in the existential crisis that Protestantism triggered. How central is the Weberism thesis to your argument?
Joseph Henrich: It dovetails in an interesting way, because I sort of Iead off the book with showing the way that Protestantism spread literacy. So after 1500, you begin to get the first populations in the world to become highly literate, and that’s really driven by an obsession. It’s called solo scriptura—that everything comes from reading the Bible, and that everybody, men and women, should learn to read the Bible for themselves. And this places a premium on reading—this is one of these unintended consequences—and begins to spread literacy, which then literacy has tons of downstream consequences. Whereas the Protestants themselves just thought everybody should develop this human divine relationship by reading the sacred scriptures on their own. It was a very individualistic way of looking at religion.
The rest of the book is in many ways about getting to Protestantism. Which I do think the Protestantism had big and important effects. But you need to get to a place where you could even dream up a religion that’s so based on mental states and so focused on the individual that you could be arrogant enough to think that every individual should be able to read the sacred text for themselves and get anything out of it. And so, going back a thousand years to the late antiquity is getting to Weber getting to that argument.
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Joseph Henrich is an anthropologist and the author of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, among other books. He is the chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, where his research focuses on evolutionary approaches to psychology, decision-making, and culture.