Book Review — Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West

7 December 2023

18.1 MINS

As I was recovering from a recent mountain bike accident — and feeling decidedly sore and sorry for myself — a friend suggested that I listen to a new audiobook by Andrew Wilson, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West (Crossway, 2023). And I must say that it was a rich blessing, especially coming at a time when I was restricted from doing very little else. Such is the wonderful providence of God.

To my shame, I have to confess that I have never read any of Wilson’s books before, but I was immediately impressed by three things: 1) Wilson’s ability to communicate complicated historical events clearly and concisely without being simplistic. 2) The breadth and depth of Wilson’s research and reading which is quite simply awe inspiring. 3) The beauty of Wilson’s writing style and own voice, which in both pitch and tone is perfect for an audiobook.

For those who were once like I was and are not aware of who Wilson is, he is the Teaching Pastor at King’s Church London, and has degrees in history and theology from Cambridge (MA) and King’s College London (PhD). All of these prestigious academic achievements definitely shine through in Remaking the World.

A Post-Christian World?

Andrew Wilson and Glenn Scrivener have produced a terrific podcast for The Gospel Coalition called Post-Christianity? which explores many of the themes in Wilson’s book, and which I would highly recommend. Scrivener has also produced an excellent book, The Air We Breathe (The Good Book Company, 2022), which argues for much the same thing but from a more thematic perspective. Nathan A. Finn makes this helpful and perceptive comment in his review of Wilson’s book for The Gospel Coalition:

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains how secularism became the intellectual “default factory setting” in Western culture. Tom Holland in Dominion describes how the West is animated by symbols, institutions, and ideas that reflect the pervasive influence of Christianity. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern SelfCarl Trueman narrates the development of expressive individualism and its effect on modern concepts of sexual identity.

Andrew Wilson’s book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West ties many of these existing threads together and moves the discussion forward.

However, Wilson himself clarifies that Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Penguin, 2013) and especially Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Become Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (Penguin, 2021) have also been significant influences on his thinking. In fact, readers should be aware that it was Henrich who first came up with the acronym W.E.I.R.D. to describe the modern world. Wilson acknowledges this and develops it even further, adding an additional two categories.

1776 as a Turning Point in World History

Wilson’s thesis is as simple as it is intriguing. While 1776 will be familiar to those in North America as the beginning of the American Revolution, Wilson argues that it was also coincidentally the year in which seven major trends occurred which have made us who we are today. As Wilson helpfully states at the beginning of the book:Remaking the World book

The big idea of this book is that 1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are. We cannot understand ourselves without it. It was a year that witnessed seven transformations taking place. Globalisation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Enrichment, the American Revolution, the Rise of Post-Christianity, and the dawn of Romanticism, which have re-made the world and profoundly influenced the way we think about God, life, the universe and everything.

These transformations, some would 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 which our great grandparents would have found incomprehensible. From intersectionality to Bitcoin. 1776 provides us with an origin story for the post-Christian West.

If the year 1776 seems arbitrary, it’s not. For somewhat auspiciously, Wilson identifies ten key events which occurred that year which would change the course of history.

  • Thomas Pain published his pamphlet Common Sense, arguing that the American colonies should pursue independence from Britain.
  • Edward Gibbon published the 1st volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which provided a sceptical narrative of early Christianity which endures to this day.
  • James Watts’ steam engine started running on March 8.
  • The very next day, March 9, Adam Smith published An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which would become the foundational text for modern economics.
  • The ratification of The Declaration of Independence occurred on July 4, with the formal adoption of the name United States on September 9.
  • On 12 July 1776, Captain James Cook set sail for his third and final voyage.
  • Immanuel Kant was writing the outline for his book Critique of Pure Reason, which would result in a so-called Copernican revolution in philosophy.
  • David Hume finished his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which many people consider to be the greatest argument against Christian theism ever written.
  • The play Storm and Stress by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger was published, which soon gave its name to the proto-Romantic movement in German music and literature, and Jean Jacques Rosseau wrote his Reveilles of a Solitary Walker.
  • Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris to negotiate French, helping America in its battle for independence.

Wilson argues that these trends or cultural movements can be summarised by the acronym “WEIRDER”. Namely, Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. Although, he tackles these various movements though in a different order — WDEEIRR — to keep the story moving. To help whet the appetite of the reader, I’ll provide the following executive summary:

1. Western.

Wilson traces the journey of Captain James Cook, and makes paradigmatic the observation of a man from Bora Bora named Mahine, who accompanied Cook for about twelve months. After leaving Easter Island, Mahine summarised the dire situation of the people there in just four words: tata meitai, fenua ino, which means: “good people, bad land.” Wilson uses this statement as a paradigm for why the world became Western after 1761 under six w’s:

  • Weather. In Europe, this was temperate and conducive enough to facilitate large-scale food production as well as travel. In short, civilisations need to avoid climates which are too hot, cold or prone to tropical diseases.
  • Width. Large land masses obviously have greater advantages than small ones. As Wilson explains, “… a wide continent has advantages over a tall one. Continents that run largely east to west, like Eurasia, have a geographical privilege that continents that run largely north to south, like America or Africa, do not. That is because environmental conditions — like temperature, rainfall, day length, seasonal variations, habitats, and diseases — change far less when you move east-west than when you move north-south. So it is far easier for animal species, plant species, and even human beings to move horizontally than vertically.”
  • Water. Access to fresh water is essential for sustaining large populations, providing drink for humans and animals, irrigation for crops, and waterways for travel and transport of goods.
  • Wood. This provided essential resources for building houses and ships, as well as fuel for cooking and heating.
  • Wheat. Wilson argues, “Today, cereal crops provide over half the calories that human beings eat in a day. They are effectively grasses with large edible seeds, which are either ground into flour (like wheat, maize, and barley) or cooked and eaten as grains (like sorghum and rice). Because they provide so many calories per acre of land, they form the core of the diet for a large percentage of the world’s population, and have done so for about ten thousand years — which means there is a huge benefit to living in a part of the world with a native cereal crop.”
  • Wildlife. Once again, Wilson helpfully states: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. If you live in southern Africa, the large mammals in your surroundings are ideal for a safari but completely unsuitable for domestication. You cannot milk a giraffe, ride a zebra into battle, make a rhino pull a plough, or breed hippos for food (and that is without mentioning carnivorous mammals like big cats and hunting dogs, which pose even more problems). In Australia, your options are fewer, but equally unpromising. Most large animals simply do not lend themselves to domestication by humans. Globally, there are only thirteen or fourteen species of herbivorous mammal that weigh over one hundred pounds and were domesticated before 1776, and only five that are so useful that they have spread all over the world.”

However, while geography is important, it would be a mistake to suggest that Wilson sees this as the sole reason for the West’s rise to prominence. This is particularly pertinent when one considers why none of the other European nations rose to prominence. As Wilson states:

Compared to many of the Eurasian empires, Britain’s population was small. Their land was less suitable for growing staple crops. Their climate and even their history were unpromising. Said al-Andalusi, an eleventh-century Muslim scholar, had described England in the period of William the Conqueror as a cold and dark land populated by stupid, lazy, unscientific people who lived more like animals than humans. Yet from the late eighteenth century onward, they pulled ahead of all the other Eurasian empires, including Qing China. By the early 1840s, they were sending gunships up the Yangtze River to impose a so-called treaty by force. What happened?

The answer that Wilson provides is that Cook wasn’t motivated “… mainly about tribute, protecting trade or even the projection of power. Fundamentally, they were about discovery… His expeditions were motivated, in other words, by a mixture of curiosity (charting new territories) and commerce (the possibility of new trade routes).”

I think Wilson’s argument here is spot on. Although, I think his book would have been greatly strengthened if he had interacted with the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey’s work, Cook’s Epic Voyage: The Strange Quest for a Missing Continent (Viking, 2020), which is a must-read on the topic. There can be no doubt, though, that Cook’s voyage definitely facilitated the West’s rise to world dominance in the next two centuries.

2. Educated

Wilson does a masterful job of explaining the significance and influence of key Enlightenment figures such as Emmanuel Kant, David Hume and Edward Gibbon. While Wilson is intimately familiar with his subject, and he explains the details of their belief systems brilliantly, I found the following quotes especially helpful as a more general overview of the period:

We used to rely on holy books and divine revelation, when we were unaware and immature, but now we have graduated: from divinity to humanity, from dogmatic theology to critical enquiry. We used to look at humanity through theological lenses; now we look at theology through human lenses (or, as we might call it, the cognitive science of religion). [101]

After centuries of darkness, tutelage, and perhaps even barbarism, people were being emancipated. The light of knowledge was banishing the darkness. Humanity was coming of age and beginning to think for itself. The world was becoming educated. [102]

3. Industrialised

Wilson states that “Watt’s steam engine, like Arkwright’s mill and the Bridgewater canal, was launched commercially in 1776. Taken together, those three breakthroughs make 1776 a pretty good starting point for the Industrial Revolution.” It is difficult to summarise everything Wilson writes here. But he does make five very significant points which are worth highlighting:

3.1. Metals. “Britain is undoubtedly lucky in her allocation of coal. There is plenty of it, mostly at or near the earth’s surface, and the location of her coalfields means that even in the eighteenth century, coal could be transported to major population centres (most notably London) with relative ease. But her subterranean good fortune does not end there. Her geological history has also given her an impressive diversity of metals — copper, lead, tin, zinc, and iron in particular — which are often found near each other. Moreover, many deposits of iron ore happen to be found near rich seams of coal, which is one major reason why Britain was able to produce iron and steel so abundantly, and so early.” [174-175]

3.2. Mechanisation. “The most obvious feature of early British industrialization, at least from the perspective of today, is the use of machines. Water mills, wheels, turning machines, lathes, and eventually engines proliferated. Though mechanization would later be seen as dehumanizing and grotesque, as we have already seen in Manchester, it initially prompted a mixture of admiration and wonder.” [175-176]

3.3. Management. “Separating complex processes into simpler ones, whereby ten people are assigned one task each rather than one person doing ten, is such a basic feature of our world that we can forget how astonishing it was to many at the time.

Jabez Fisher, visiting Boulton’s factory from Philadelphia in 1776, described “a theatre of business, all conducted like one piece of mechanism, men, women and children full of employment according to their strength and docility. The very air buzzes with the variety of noises. All seems like one vast machine. … Tis wonderful, astonishing, amazing.”

The German aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was similarly impressed: “Each workman has only a very limited range, so that he does not need constantly to change his position and tools, and by this means an incredible amount of time is saved. Thus, for example, each button, fashioned in boxwood, ivory, or anything else, passes through at least ten hands.” [176-177]

3.4. Marketing. Wilson relays the fascinating life and times of Josiah Wedgewood and how he went about promoting his pottery as the original social media ‘influencer’. As Wilson explains, “… he had a flair for what we now call marketing. He practically invented it: loss leaders, celebrity endorsements, traveling salesmen, advertisements, catalogues, buy one get one free, direct mail, public relations campaigns, free delivery, and money-back guarantees all go back to Josiah Wedgwood. He was arguably the first manufacturer to think seriously about why ordinary people bought things, where they heard about them, and how they could be persuaded to buy more.” [178]

3.5. Money. In some ways, this was the most significant aspect of all, and so Wilson devotes an entire section — chapter 9 — to explaining its significance.

4. Richer

The influence of Christianity produced what Wilson refers to as the ‘Great Enrichment’. Wilson makes the following helpful summary of the period:

The late eighteenth century saw the start of something completely new. Living standards began to increase dramatically, first in north-western Europe and then across the world, as productivity outstripped population growth by an order of magnitude. Today, human beings consume around seventy times more goods and services than we did two centuries ago — an increase not of 70 percent but of 7,000 percent — while world population has only increased by a factor of seven. That means that the average person today, in very rough terms, has a standard of living around ten times higher than in 1776. If the Pilgrim Fathers lived on $2 a day in today’s terms, and the average person in the eighteenth century lived on $3 a day, the average person now lives on more like $30. In richer countries, it is closer to $100. [214]

The reasons for why this occurred are multi-faceted. Namely, the impact of institutions, the motivation of greed, the influence of culture, and the presence of fragmentation. But an excellent example as to how nuanced Wilson’s analysis is can be demonstrated by the following summary assessment:

The great enrichment is a case study in moral ambiguity, especially for Christians. On one hand it is the product of institutions (explanation 1) and culture (explanation 3) that owe a great deal to Christian influence, and it has dramatically increased living standards and life expectancy for billions of people, as well as enabling a massive expansion in global mission.

On the other hand, its origins lie in the fragmentation, competition, and warfare of what used to be Christendom (explanation 4) and the exploitative GREED of professing Christians (explanation 2), and its results also include the amplification of most of the seven deadly sins, the emergence of white supremacy, the widespread veneration of Mammon, and the swatting aside of traditional moral and social structures by the invisible hand of the market.

Understandably, therefore, it has met with ambivalent responses from the church. Some have seen the increase in prosperity as a providential gift from God to humanity, or a sign of divine favour. Others have seen it as a curse that only looks like a blessing, like Pandora’s Box or Turkish Delight, or even proof of divine judgment. Perhaps it is both. [240]

5. Democratic

It is difficult to over-emphasise how important the founding of America as a nation has been to the history of the modern world. As Wilson states,

“Modern democracy flourishes only in societies that share certain norms and institutions. When we consider the most obvious of those norms and institutions — universal suffrage, the rights of women, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and so forth — it is striking how many of them go back to 1776.” [88-89]

Wilson does an excellent job of summarising the history which led to the formation of the United States of America. As this should be of interest to everyone as we have all been impacted by the values that arose from that event. As Wilson writes:

“It was the harbinger of a permanent change in the moral imagination of WEIRDER people. In the late eighteenth century, concepts like rights, consent, choice, and equality were used to discuss questions of government. But their influence quickly spread far beyond that. By the late twentieth century, they were being used to settle questions of morality in general: my right to x, your freedom to choose y, equality for z, and so forth. In many debates, they now serve as conversation stoppers, axioms with unimpeachable moral authority, unencumbered by other categories like duties, obligations, virtue, or wisdom (let alone providence).” [92-93]

6. Ex-Christian

The rise of scepticism was another significant factor that Wilson says characterised the late 18th The writings of Voltaire and Denis Deridot were, Wilson says, “two of the brightest stars of the French Enlightenment.”

What I found especially helpful and enlightening, though, was his treatment of the depraved lifestyle and writings of Marquis de Sade. This is a figure which I didn’t really know much about, but is someone who has had an enormous impact since his death.

Once again, though, Wilson demonstrates a nuanced understanding as to just how anti-religious various figures of the period were. For example, Wilson writes:

“Based on the individuals we have considered so far, we could construct a sort of scale of ex-Christianity in 1776, moving from ‘softer’ to ‘harder’ varieties. At the lower, softer end you have (1) professing Christians like James Boswell, coming to terms with the fact that Christian beliefs are now optional rather than assumed, even as he holds them himself.

Next to him you have (2) irenic deists like Ben Franklin, arguing that certain values should henceforth be regarded as universal and self-evident rather than specifically Christian, although without any particular hostility toward Christianity itself.

In the middle you have (3) polemic deists like Voltaire, raging against the Church while insisting that belief in God remains important for society. Then you have (4) combative atheists like Diderot and d’Holbach, adamantly rejecting theism and seeking to extirpate it but continuing to celebrate values and even narratives that derive from Christendom. And at the hard end you have (5) God-haters like Sade, for whom Christianity’s entire moral framework should be upended and eliminated along with its theology.” [143]

Interestingly, Wilson also discusses the ‘negative’ impact of the Protestant Reformation. Why this is viewed by many in this way is because of the impact that it had on the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. Wilson sees this as being demonstrated in four main ways (and it’s hard not to appreciate his penchant for alliteration):

  • Disaster

The results were devastating. Salvation was defined in terms of subjective personal experiences (like individual faith or encounters with the Holy Spirit) rather than objective corporate practices (like the seven sacraments). Sectarianism became endemic. Worse still, without the canons and councils of the Catholic Church to guide them, no two Protestants could agree on what Scripture actually meant, which quickly brought disagreement, which brought conflict and then war. Thus medieval Christendom was shattered into a thousand pieces, each filled with people who thought their personal view of reality mattered more than Church doctrine, and it was all the Reformers’ fault. Western Christianity never recovered. [152]

  • Division

Luther, Eck, Erasmus, Zwingli, and Müntzer could not all be right. Gradually, “churches” would replace “the Church,” which would lead inexorably to calls for religious toleration and then religious pluralism and ultimately the privatization of religion.

It would also contribute to the rising prestige of experimental science: in a world where people disagreed about Scripture, tradition, and religious experience, science produced the same results whether you were Protestant or Catholic, and this made it a prime candidate to replace the Church as the umpire of modern thought.

And it would have huge implications for the roles of the state, the market, and the university, which were set to become the only institutions whose authority was effectively uncontested. Gregory’s subtitle sums it up nicely: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Protestantism brought division, which over time would bring theological, ecclesial, moral, and intellectual pluralism. That is modern secularism in a nutshell. [153]

  • Disenchantment

A shoemaker could be just as godly as a monk. And that focus on the holiness of ordinary activities — eating, drinking, work, sex, and all to the glory of God — gradually made possible what Taylor calls the “anthropocentric shift,” which he describes as “a revision downward of God’s purposes for us, inscribing these within an immanent order which allows for a certain kind of human flourishing, consonant with the order of mutual benefit.” This combination of disenchantment and anthropocentrism is crucial for the development of modern secularism, and both of them were turbo-charged by the Protestant Reformation. [154]

  • Doubt

Protestantism did not create religious doubt. What it did do, however, was to weaponize it. Scepticism — of papal authority, of Church councils, of the power of relics or shrines, of doctrines like transubstantiation — became a crucial tool in the Reformers’ battle against Roman Catholicism. Sermons and pamphlets were scornfully sceptical of Catholic theology and practice. Before long, Catholics were returning the favour, highlighting the areas where Protestants were most vulnerable.

As Christians openly ridiculed and expressed incredulity toward the beliefs of other Christians, unquestioning belief became harder to sustain (ironically, just as “faith alone” was becoming more important), and these doubts were only increased by the regular discoveries of peoples and nations who knew nothing of Christianity, and did not seem minded to accept it. [155]

While I really appreciated Wilson’s argument here, I would have liked him to critically engage with it more. Yes, Christendom is not what it was at the time of the Reformation, but it was well under way by the time 1761 arrived. I’m not sure Protestantism to totally blamed, but as Wilson points out, it did play a part.

7. Romantic

This final aspect is somewhat fascinating, and I think exerts more of an influence than I had previously recognised. What exactly Wilson means by the term ‘romantic’ is as follows:

  1. Inwardness. All that is most important in life, from personal feelings to artistic creativity, comes from inside a person rather than outside. Introspection is good, and authenticity matters more than compliance with expectations. In Hegel’s oft-cited definition, Romanticism is about “absolute inwardness.”
  2. Infinity. There is a longing for the indescribable and inexplicable over the delineated and defined, whether in nature, art, architecture, or (especially) music. “Art is for us none other than the mystic ladder from earth to heaven,” wrote Liszt, “from the finite to the infinite, from mankind to God.”
  3. Imagination. Only by allowing one’s ideas to run free, unconstrained by schools, rules, or reason, is genuine creativity possible. This is why death, sex, dreams, and nightmares are such important sources of inspiration; it is why Blake desired “to cast off Bacon, Locke, and Newton from Albion’s covering, to take off his filthy garments and clothe him with imagination.”
  4. Individuality. What counts is the specific rather than the universal. “I am made unlike anyone I have ever met,” declared Rousseau on the opening page of his Confessions. “I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different.”
  5. Inspiration. Great artists began to be viewed as geniuses: inspired and inspiring figures who broke rules, transformed art, lived differently, and became iconic. The obvious example is the cult-like admiration of Beethoven for his behaviour and image as much as his music; it was of a completely different order to the admiration of the equally gifted Mozart just a generation before.
  6. Intensity. There is an emphasis on deep, vivid, and visceral emotional experiences, whether paroxysms of rapturous joy, furious rage, or suicidal melancholy. In Wordsworth’s famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, it was made explicit: “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
  7. Innocence. Many leading Romantics were fascinated by childhood, by rustic idylls, and by “noble savages,” all three of which pointed to the purity of a former time, an Eden uncorrupted by society, war, or industrialisation. Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Blake are classic examples, especially the latter’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789).
  8. Ineffability. Some Enlighteners talked as if everything in the world could be categorised, analysed, and understood by the use of reason. The Romantics protested against this, often fiercely. Some realities, they insisted — passion, art, poetry, sex, feeling, music, the soul, God — were beyond words and could not be dissected like physical laws. (The idea of defining Romanticism in eight alliterated bullet points, for instance, would no doubt have made many of them physically nauseous.)

Wilson gives many historical examples as to how these romantic ideals developed and played out over the coming centuries.

So What Now?

One of the aspects that I really appreciated about Wilson’s book is that he doesn’t simply seek to analyse the past but also to provide an answer for how we should respond as Christians going forward. It would be easy to react to Wilson’s comprehensive — but also nuanced — analysis with despair. But this doesn’t have to be the case. For a start, Wilson concludes that the WEIRDER world we now live in is “not so much post-Christian as post-secular.” As Wilson helpfully explains:

Secular reason will always have its place, he argues, but it cannot ground itself (as we saw at the end of chapter 10), and that is a major problem. It can proclaim the goodness of science and choice and liberal democracy until it is blue in the face — but it cannot explain why we should develop particular technologies, choose particular goods, conceive of morality in a particular way, or be motivated to act in solidarity with others. It cannot even ask these questions, let alone answer them.

To offer whys as well as hows, ends as well as means, you need faith: a worldview, a set of moral commitments, a religion, grounded in something beyond secular reason. The title of one recent work in which Habermas makes this case says it all: An Awareness of What Is Missing — Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Reports of Christianity’s death, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated. [274]

Wilson argues that as believers, we have three main things in our favour, namely: grace, freedom and truth. These are given extended historical illustration through the figures of John Newton, John Wesley and Johann Georg Hamann. Overarching all of these virtues, though, is the Providence of Almighty God. This is what Wilson rightly argues governs the events of human history and why we can be so confident that His sovereign purposes will always prevail.

All of which is to say, Remaking the World is definitely one of the most significant books published in the last ten years and, as such, is a must-read. Wilson’s work belongs on the bookshelf of every serious thinker and especially pastor, because it helps us to understand why the world is the way it is today.


Photo by Pixabay.

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