Protestantism Raised Literacy

One important way in which Protestantism differs from Catholicism is that Protestantism encourages reading Christian scripture directly where Catholicism encourages learning scripture from religious leaders. Consequentially, the spread of Protestantism correlates to a spread of literacy across Europe from the 1500’s through the 1800’s. Joseph Henrich writes about this phenomena and its importance in his book The WEIRDest People in the World.
“The wave of Protestantism created by the Reformation raised literacy and schooling rates in its wake,” Henrich writes. The increased literacy in a region, created by the spread of Protestantism, had long lasting effects on literacy. Henrich continues, “countries made up entirely of Protestants had literacy rates nearly 20 percentile points higher than those that were all Catholic.” And he writes, “regions with early Protestant missions are associated with literacy rates that are about 16 percentile points higher on average than those associated with catholic missions.” Higher literacy spread throughout these regions and changed the cultures, “Protestantism likely caused a rise in female literacy.”
Henrich has shown that reading changes our brains and our psychologies. When a region is becoming more literate, more people’s brains and psychologies are changing, especially if literacy is expanding to women and other marginalized groups within a region. These changes help us understand why things like representative government and the industrial revolution took hold in Europe. By chance, a religion which encouraged direct reading and interpretation of religious texts spread through Europe. That religion increased literacy rates and eventually changed the way people’s brains were structured which changed how they thought and behaved. This created long lasting cultural differences that still shape how people from various regions think, behave, and are perceived. Protestantism raised literacy, started to create WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) people, and changed the world.

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