Religion has become associated with having a focus on morality. But that wasn’t always the case, researchers say. Academics have long suspected that the modern world’s major religions were born of major spiritual movements which emerged in Eurasia about 2,500 years ago due to a population boom, and a subsequent need to create a moral order out of what could have been chaos in increasingly large communities. However, a recent study challenges that theory, proposing that ancient affluence and rising standards of living spurred the rise of morality religions. Is this a case of ‘more money, more morals’?
Lead author of the study published in science journal Current Biology, Nicolas Baumard, research scientist at École Normale Supérieure in Paris believes that the philosophies of today’s major religions — Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity—originally arose because populations in the great civilizations in Eurasia increasingly had access to energy, free time, and wealth.
“The authors investigated variables relating to political complexity and living standards. Affluence emerged as a major force in the rise of moral religion, in particular, access to energy. Across cultures moral religions abruptly emerged when members of a population could reliably source 20,000 calories of energy a day, including food (for humans and livestock), fuel and raw materials,” reports Scientific American.
The researchers propose that the newfound access to steadily procured food and fuel, and not having to worry about immediate problems such as shelter or predators allowed the people of early civilizations to relax and turn thoughts to the purpose of life, the afterlife, and moral responsibilities. When energy was bountiful populations had to compete less with neighbors, cooperated more, and more importantly, started to consider long-term strategies over short-term gains.
Baumard explains that although religion today is often associated with self-discipline, morality, asceticism, moderation and compassion, spirituality of the ancient past wasn’t necessarily invested in such concepts. Early hunter-gatherer societies had spiritual traditions which focused on ritual, sacrifices, offerings, taboos, and protection from evil or misfortune.
All that shifted between 500 BC and 300 BC in the “Axial Age”, when new beliefs and a cultural convergence almost simultaneously arose in different places in Eurasia from in Greece, India, and China in the form of Stoicism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
According to the study, “These doctrines all emphasized the value of ‘personal transcendence, the notion that human existence has a purpose, distinct from material success, that lies in a moral existence and the control of one’s own material desires, through moderation (in food, sex, ambition, etc.), asceticism (fasting, abstinence, detachment), and compassion (helping, suffering with others).”
The self-denial was thought to be a means of attaining a higher spiritual understanding or existence. Simply put, “You need to have more in order to be able to want to have less,” Baumard says.
Baumard and colleagues aren’t necessarily convinced early societies with moralizing religions functioned better, however. He says, “Some of the most successful ancient empires all had strikingly non-moral high gods. Think of Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Mayans.”
The team also acknowledges that morals are independent of religions, and may have been a part of the human condition long before the major religions focused on them.
Indeed, others have challenged the study findings.
Anthropologist Barbara King of the College of William & Mary suggests that the morality of humans was inherent, and were more visibly obvious when a reliable calorie count became available. King tells Scientific American, “Anthropologists and psychologists have found deep roots of morality and compassion in other primates. I don’t see any reason to assume that cosmological morality and compassion were not important to earlier hunter-gatherer groups.”
Edward Slingerland, historian of religion in ancient China at the University of British Columbia believes that the research has merit, but the concepts are outdated. Religion scholars now doubt the Axial Age timeline. He says, “In early China, a lot of the moralizing stuff is arguably earlier than that,” according to the journal Science.
Slingerland instead thinks that belief in a moral god and a practice of morality smooths interactions with strangers who need to cooperate as societies grow and become more complex.
Is the line drawn between affluence or energy and moralistic religions a correlation only, and not a cause?
In an article written on this subject by Yale psychology graduate student Konika Banerjee and psychology professor Paul Bloom, the pattern seemingly flips after time.
In “Religion: More Money, More Morals” published in Current Biology, Banerjee and Bloom write, “Today, the most affluent countries are actually the least religious, while less affluent countries tend to be far more religious. There may in fact be a sort of inverted U-shaped relationship between societal wealth and moralizing religions. Some threshold of affluence has to be passed for moralizing religions to emerge, but further affluence may in fact promote secularization, at least in the modern world.”
“This seems very basic to us today, but this peace of mind was totally new at the time,” Baumard told Science Daily. “Humans living in tribal societies or even archaic empires often experience famine and diseases, and they live in very rudimentary houses. By contrast, the high increase in population and urbanization rate in the Axial Age suggests that, for certain people, things started to get much better.”
Featured Image: Wallpainting in a Laotian temple, depicting the Bodhisattva Gautama (Buddha-to-be) undertaking extreme ascetic practices before his enlightenment. A god is overseeing his striving, and providing some spiritual protection. The five monks in the background are his future ‘five first disciples’. Public Domain
By Liz Leafloor
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