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.
Can reading make us less violent? Steven Pinker thinks that it can. Specifically, Pinker thinks that reading can expand our circle of empathy, getting us to think about more than just our own thoughts. Reading has a power to open new perspectives and invites us into the mind of another person for a long amount of time. We see what they think, we consider their thoughts and emotions, we imagine what we would do if we were in their situation and weigh our response against the response of the author or the characters they employ.
Pinker writes, “reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point.” Reading, whether we notice it or not, shifts our perspective and takes us out of our own narrow thoughts and self-interest. It gets us to consider that other people have different thoughts, but that they still think and feel the way that we do. This allows us to start building greater empathy. Pinker continues, “empathy in the sense of adopting someone’s viewpoint is not the same as empathy in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route.”
I don’t know how much I agree that increasing literacy expanded people’s empathy and reduced violence, but I think it is an interesting argument. I think reading does have the ability to shift ones perspective and get people to consider more than their own self-interest. I’m sure there is a correlation between literacy and violence, but I’m sure it is a messy correlation with many conflicting variables. I would expect that there are other variables and factors that both make people less violent and make people more inclined to learn to read and read frequently.
Regardless of my doubts, I think greater literacy is a valuable thing. I think that encouraging people to see the world beyond their own lens and to take the perspectives of others is a good thing. The causal mechanism for how those two factors reduce people’s levels of violence toward others makes sense, even if I am still hesitant to say that is what explains the correlation. If there is a chance that increased literacy makes us less violent, then we should pursue that chance and study the impacts of our efforts to expand literacy so that we can better understand Pinker’s argument and hopefully have a less violent world.
In February of 2020 I finished a book called Risk Savvy by Gerd Gigerenzer. At the time I read the book, I could not predict that thinking about risk would come to dominate the remainder of the year. Throughout 2020 and into the start of 2021, humanity across the globe has demonstrated how poorly we think about and handle risk. The United States has clearly been worse than most countries, as we have failed to understand the risk of COVID-19, failed to grapple with the risk of crowds and appropriate uses of force, and failed to adequately assess the risk of a President living in a state of denial and delusion. As Gigerenzer writes on page 6 of his book, “Risk Literacy is the basic knowledge required to deal with a modern technological society,” and in many ways, the United States and the rest of humanity have shown that risk literacy is deeply lacking.
Gigerenzer believes that we are smart, that we are resourceful, and that with proper aids and education, we can become risk literate. Whether we recognize it or not, we already calculate risk and make decisions based on risk. Understanding risk can lead to us packing an umbrella and wearing a waterproof windbreaker when the weather station forecasts rain. We can make sound investments without understanding every aspect of an investment thanks to savings vehicles that help us better understand and calibrate risk. And we can decide to go to a movie or skip it based on aggregated reviews and ratings scores on Rotten Tomatoes
At the same time, we have had trouble understanding our individual risks related to COVID-19, we have had trouble understanding the risks and benefits of wearing masks, and we have dismissed what seem like impossible possibilities until they happen to us personally, or happen in a dramatic way on tv. We are capable of making good decisions based on perceptions and understandings of risk, but at the same time, we have still shown ourselves to be risk-illiterate.
It is clear that moving forward societies will have to do better to become risk literate. We will have to improve our ability to communicate risk, estimate risk, and take appropriate precautions or actions. We cannot live in a world free from risk, and new technologies, ecological pressures, and sociopolitical realities will change the risk calculations that everyone will have to make. Improving our risk literacy might mean that we don’t have over 400,000 people die
during future respiratory pandemics. It might mean we have robust economic systems that don’t damage the planet. And it might mean we are able to live together peacefully with global superpowers competing economically. Failure to address risk and failure to improve risk literacy could lead to disaster in any one of those areas.