Oftentimes you hear people lament religion and how it is the cause of so much conflict and violence throughout the world. “If only religion were to disappear,” they say, “then we would all live in peace.” As a self-described agnostic, I usually nod my head in agreement or “like” such prophetic Facebook statuses.
Well, it turns out we are all probably wrong. Religious conflict represents much more than differences between one sacred book and another, or who’s considered a Prophet and who’s not. Research has shown that religious differences very often represent completely different ways of perceiving the world, differences in how our brains are wired. Take the centuries-old European conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, for example.
The Catholic and Protestant ideology represents two fundamentally different ways of thinking, which revolve around two contrasting conceptions of human nature: Catholics tend to view humans as inherently good, while Protestants see humans as inherently bad. This basic, fundamental difference in thought influences everything from our trust in centralized authority to our opinions on the role of government, the functioning of our economies and even our conceptions of time.
The inherent difference between Catholic and Protestant views on human nature are represented by contrasting conceptions of what it means to sin. Henri Blocher, a prominent Protestant theologian has defined “sin” as a “universal sinfulness, consisting of attitudes, orientations, propensities and tendencies which are contrary to God’s law, incompatible with his holiness, and found in all people, in all areas of their lives.” In contrast, an 1849 catechism of the Catholic Church defined sin as, “an offense against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” While Blocher and the Protestants contend that all humans are inherently immoral and that their lives are naturally incompatible with God’s will, the Catholic definition shows how they view sin as a mistake where one “wounds” the inherently good nature of man.
This difference between Catholics and Protestants can even be found in the roots of their respective words for “sin.” In the traditionally Catholic nations of Spain and Italy, the term for “sin” is pecado and peccato. Both words come from the Latin root of pes, which signifies a bump in the road or the process of falling. Just as in the definition above, the root word of pes shows how Catholics perceive sin as something contrary to human nature.
In contrast, the English word “sin” is derived from the Old English synn, a root word that also appears in several Germanic languages as synd or sünd. Ultimately, all of these root words used in Protestant countries come from the ancient Indo-European root *-es that means “to be” or “being.” Thus, this root demonstrates how Protestants see immorality as something inherent in human existence.
The inherent “badness” of humanity led to Protestant John Calvin’s assumption in 1536 that God had preordained those who would be able to resist their “badness” and be saved, and those who were damned from birth. Philip Zimbardo, renowned psychiatrist and author of the famed Stanford prison experiment, contends that this Protestant Calvinism created a society consumed by anxiety, where everyone tried to prove to everyone else that they were one of those that were destined to be saved rather than damned. Zimbardo claims that one way that people demonstrated their own “chosenness” was through a life aimed at success, prestige and the accumulation of wealth. In order to achieve these ends, Protestants had to learn how to be “future-oriented” and delay gratification. This future-oriented thinking created a strong work ethic and a new entrepreneurial class that helped power the industrial revolutions in Northern Europe and the United States.
Zimbardo contends that since Catholics did not believe in the inherent evil of humanity, they never developed the extremely competitive, future-oriented mindset of their northern Protestant neighbors. It’s true, too — as someone who lived in Spain for a year, trust me when I say that they are about as YOLO as you can get. When you party in Spain, you usually don’t leave the club until around 6 a.m., the work day is split up by three hours of siesta, and there is even a popular saying in Spain that goes, “Others live to work, but Spaniards work to live.” And while my life during that year in Spain may have not been as “efficient” as a year here at UCSB, it was by far the least stressful and most memorable year of my life.
These contrasting differences between how Catholics and Protestants view human nature represent two cultures that in many ways are not compatible with each other. As Europe’s single currency (the euro) becomes increasingly endangered and traditionally Protestant, “financially responsible” countries like Germany start demanding more efficiency and sacrifice from their Catholic, debt-ridden neighbors, the possibility of conflict will increase. Once again, the YOLO worldview of gratification and fulfillment will be pitted against the world view of efficiency and sacrifice. The religious labels of “Catholics” and “Protestants” really don’t matter. Strip them away, and you are still left with two fundamentally different ways of thinking that are in conflict with each other.
Riley Schenk lives life by one creed: YOLO