We Forget Just Why We Live in a WEIRDER World

A Forgetful Age

Ours is a forgetful age. Lots of us do not remember the names of our great-grandparents; perhaps it is unsurprising that we do not remember their world either. The rate of change in the last two centuries makes the past feel much further away than it actually is, which inclines us to fawn over the future, and either patronize the past or ignore it altogether.

Our technology does not help us here. We spend much of our lives on devices that are designed to need replacing every three years, accessing social media platforms that amplify the sense of a continuous present and an absent past. A huge number of well-educated people, for example, marked the end of 2016 by lamenting it (quite unironically) as “the worst year ever,” despite having marked the one-hundredth anniversary of The Battle of the Somme just six months before. Mainstream media outlets are no different. The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 was repeatedly described as unprecedented in its impact, despite the Spanish flu (or for that matter, the Black Death). More amusingly, I think of the European correspondent for Reuters in the 1970s who, apparently unaware of World War II, claimed that “Relations between Britain and Germany fell to an all-time low today over potato quotas.”1 In an era of instant news, amnesia is baked in. And amnesia has consequences.

Remaking the World

Andrew Wilson

In this skillfully researched book, Andrew Wilson explains how 7 historic events in 1776 shaped today’s post-Christian West and equips believers to share God’s truth in the current social landscape.

One is confusion. The dizzying number of social changes in the anglophone West from 2014 to 2017 alone—gay marriage, Brexit, Trump, #BlackLivesMatter, transgender rights, Antifa, #MeToo, and so forth—left many people reeling, punch-drunk, even fearful about what would happen next. For obvious reasons, periods of social upheaval are always disorienting. But they can be particularly distressing when we do not know our history. Everything feels unexpected, as if it is coming out of nowhere. Developments appear unconnected to the past, and indeed to each other. In the absence of a plausible historical narrative, people retreat into tribalism or conspiracy theories (perhaps both) to help them make sense of the pace of change, because the deeper currents that shape society over decades and centuries—what James Davison Hunter calls the cultural “climate,” as opposed to the “weather”—are invisible to them.2 The results can be painful.

Another result of amnesia is arrogance, and it is available in both conservative and progressive flavors. In the progressive version, our current mores are self-evidently correct, which means that anyone who thought differently a hundred years ago, or even ten years ago, must have been either stupid or evil (or both). In the conservative version, the only reasons for a person’s success are their own ability and effort, which means that anyone who highlights the importance of historical privileges, or oppression, must be either jealous or lazy (or both). Memory, in contrast, should generate humility: the acknowledgment of our past, with all its strengths and weaknesses, and the recognition that the reason we have the moral convictions we do, and the material advantages we do, is because of our ancestors. As James Baldwin relentlessly pointed out, we are our history.3

Remaking the World

I would suggest that 1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are.4 We cannot understand ourselves without it. It was a year that witnessed seven transformations taking place—globalization, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Enrichment, the American Revolution, the rise of post-Christianity, and the dawn of Romanticism—which have remade the world and profoundly influenced the way we think about God, life, the universe, and everything.

These transformations—some call them “revolutions”—explain all kinds of apparently unrelated features of our culture. They reveal why we believe in human rights, free trade, liberal democracy, and religious pluralism; they ground our preference for authenticity over authority, choice over duty, and self-expression over self-denial; and they account for all kinds of phenomena that our great-grandparents would have found incomprehensible, from intersectionality to bitcoin. 1776 provides us with an origin story for the post-Christian West.

That involves a combination of two claims. One relates to the world we live in today, and one to the world of two and a half centuries ago.

The first claim is that the most helpful way of identifying what is distinctive about our society, relative to others past and present, is that it is WEIRDER: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic.5 Those seven features make us outliers. The vast majority of people in human history have not shared our views of work, family, government, religion, sex, identity, or morality, no matter how universal or self-evident we may think they are. We are the WEIRDER ones.

The second claim is that all seven of those things are true because of things that happened in 1776. We can start to see this by considering just ten prominent events from that year.

In January, Thomas Paine released his pamphlet Common Sense in Philadelphia, arguing that the American colonies should pursue independence from British rule; it caused an immediate sensation and became one of the fastest-selling and most influential books in American history. In February, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which set new standards in history writing, while also challenging the established church and providing a skeptical narrative of early Christianity that endures to this day. James Watt’s steam engine, probably the single most important invention in industrial history, started running at the Bloomfield colliery in Staffordshire on March 8. The very next day, Adam Smith released the foundational text of modern economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

In an era of instant news, amnesia is baked in. And amnesia has consequences.

The most famous transformations of the year took place in the American summer, with the establishing of a nation that would play an increasingly dominant role in the next two centuries: the ratification of the Declaration of Independence (July 4), the Battle of Long Island and the taking of Brooklyn by the British (August 27), and the formal adoption of the name United States (September 9). On the other side of the Atlantic, Captain James Cook was sailing southward in the Resolution in the last of his three voyages to the South Seas, the impact of which can still be felt throughout the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and Australia. Immanuel Kant was in Königsberg, writing the outline for his Critique of Pure Reason, which would bring about a so-called Copernican Revolution in philosophy. In Edinburgh, David Hume finally completed his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, one of the greatest arguments against Christian theism ever written, before dying on August 25. The autumn saw Friedrich Klinger write his play Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”), which soon gave its name to the proto-Romantic movement in German music and literature, just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau was writing his extraordinary Reveries of a Solitary Walker. And in December, as Washington and his army were crossing the Delaware to surprise the British at Trenton, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on a diplomatic mission to bring France into the war against Britain. It would eventually prove successful, and lead ultimately to the American victory at Yorktown (1781), and the collapse of the French ancien régime into bankruptcy and revolution (1789).

Between them, those ten events represent a series of transformations that inaugurated the WEIRDER world. Some are so prominent that they have passed into everyday speech. People freely refer to the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution and the Enlightenment. Others are less recognized but no less significant. You could argue that the long-term impact of globalization or post-Christianity or Romanticism or the Great Enrichment has been just as “revolutionary” as American independence, if not more so.

As such, it is only fair to my American readers to point out that much of my book is not about America at all. For obvious reasons, people who look back to 1776 as the start of their nation are inclined to see it as a year in which only one significant event occurred; in the immortal words of Ron Swanson, “History began on July 4th 1776. Everything before that was a mistake.”6 But many of the momentous events that took place in this remarkable year had nothing to do with independence or war with Britain, and instead were occurring in French salons, Italian cafés, German theaters, Scottish pubs, and English factories.

It was a year in which the things that were done—battles, retreats, river crossings, and so forth—were not nearly as important as the things that were said and written. Indeed, it is hard to think of a year in which more quotable, seminal remarks were made than this one. Some of them, of course, have passed into folklore in America because of their rhetorical power in the context of the revolutionary war: Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls,”7 and Washington’s “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”8 Others are noteworthy for how well they articulated the implications of the revolution: Lemuel Haynes for his fellow African-Americans (“Liberty is equally as precious to a black man as it is to a white one, and bondage equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other”),9 Abigail Adams for women (“In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies”)10, and Edmund Burke for Britain (“I can hardly believe, from the tranquillity of everything about me, that we are a people who have just lost an empire. But it is so”).11 John Wesley, eager to defend his own loyalty to the Crown and his willingness to pay taxes, explained his radical commitment to simple living: “I have a silver teaspoon at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me lack bread.”12

Other statements are famous because they encapsulate the spirit of an age: a spirit of confidence in human reason and potential that was almost tangible in the late eighteenth century, and the aftershocks of which can still be felt today. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” declared Paine in one of the most audacious sentences ever written.13 Matthew Boulton, revealing his phalanx of steam machines to James Boswell, drew his optimism from the possibilities of technology: “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER.”14 Jeremy Bentham took the opportunity to reframe human ethics (“It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”),15 and Adam Smith did the same with economics (“He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention”).16 Horace Walpole captured the ambiguity of the age of enlightenment and sentiment with his trademark wit: “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”17 James Madison, making adjustments to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, insisted that the final section include the phrase, “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”18 Most influentially of all, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed it “self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”19

These ideas—and the individuals, institutions, and inventions with which they are associated—made us WEIRDER. We are who we are because of them.


  1. John Simpson, Strange Places, Questionable People (London: Pan Macmillan, 1999), 131.
  2. Interview with Christopher Benson, “Faithful Presence,” Christianity Today, May 14, 2010, https://www.christianitytoday.com/.
  3. James Baldwin, as quoted in I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, (Artemis Productions, 2016).
  4. This paragraph and some of what follows in the remainder of this chapter was first published in Andrew Wilson, “1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West,” Think Theology (blog), February 25, 2021, https://thinktheology.co.uk/.
  5. The acronym WEIRD was first coined by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World?,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2010), 61–83. There are numerous other ways of referring to this world, but all of them suffer from significant limitations. Some—the First World or the civilized world or the free world—are patronizing and inaccurate. Geographical descriptors like the Western hemisphere make little or no sense to anyone who has consulted a globe and seen where “Western” countries actually are. Chronological terms like modern, late modern, or postmodern are complicated by heated disagreements over what exactly “modernity” is and whether we are still in it. Some terms highlight ideas and values (secular, liberal, or pluralist), or institutions and systems (capitalist, democratic), to the exclusion of material circumstances. Others do the reverse and focus on material or technological development, like industrialized, rich, developed, urban, bourgeois, postindustrial, or digital, although these terms are too broad to stand on their own, since they apply just as much to Shanghai and Dubai as they do to Paris or Chicago. By contrast the term WEIRDER, in bundling seven adjectives into one, combines geographical, material, ideological, historical, and even emotional features of the world it describes, which gives it a range and nuance that other terms lack.
  6. Parks and Recreation, season 6, episode 1, “London,” directed by Dean Holland, aired September 26, 2013, on NBC.
  7. Thomas Paine, The American Crisis (No. 1) (Boston: 1776).
  8. William Heath, Memoirs of Major-General Heath. Containing Anecdotes, Details of Skirmishes, Battles, and Other Military Events, During the American War (Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1798), 60 (September 15, 1776).
  9. Lemuel Haynes, Liberty Further Extended, or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of SlaveKeeping; see Ruth Bogin, “‘Liberty Further Extended’: A 1776 Antislavery Manuscript by Lemuel Haynes,” The William and Mary Quarterly 40, no. 1 (1983), 95.
  10. Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776; see John Adams and Abigail Adams, The Adams Papers: Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761–May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 369–71.
  11. Edmund Burke to Richard Champion, May 30, 1776; see Edmund Burke, Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 4 vols. (London: Rivington, 1844), 2:107.
  12. Luke Tyerman, The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, 3 vols.(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1872), 3:234–35.
  13. Thomas Paine, Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America (Philadelphia: Bradford, 1776), 161.
  14. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791; repr., London: Penguin, 2008), 510.
  15. Jeremy Bentham, A Fragment on Government (London: Payne, Elmsly, and Brooke, 1776), ii.
  16. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 2 vols., ed. Andrew Skinner (1776; repr., London: Penguin, 1999), 2:32.
  17. Horace Walpole to Anne, Countess of Upper Ossory, August 16, 1776; see Horace Walpole, Letters Addressed to the Countess of Ossory, From the Year 1769 to 1797, by Horace Walpole, ed. Robert Vernon Smith, 2 vols. (London: Bentley, 1848).
  18. Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 29, 1776), art. 16, National Archives (website), accessed December 20, 2022, https://www.archives.gov/.
  19. The Declaration of Independence, National Archives (website), accessed December 20, 2022, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

This article is adapted from Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West by Andrew Wilson.

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