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The possible origin of modern religion

World religions blue on blueContrary to popular belief, throughout most of history, the world's religions were in fact not moral or spiritual in nature. Instead, they focused on rituals, sacrifices, and taboos. The rise of modern religions, with their emphasis on spirituality and morality, would not occur until a mere 2500 years ago. Oddly enough, when this modern form of religion arrived, it arose simultaneously in three different areas of the world – China, India, and Mediterranean basin. Curious as how this could be, Nicolas Baumard (University of Pennsylvania) and colleagues hypothesize that affluence explains why moral and spiritual religion emerged.

The rise of such moral and spiritual religions has come to the known as the Axial Age. The Axial Age covers Ancient Greece, China, and India. All three of these regions independently stumbled upon religions with an emphasis on self-discipline, asceticism, spirituality, and morality. Such religions that emerged during the Axial Age include Buddhism, Jainism, Brahmanism, Daoism, Second Temple Judaism, and Stoicism. A puzzle that has long plagued researchers is why and how three independent regions developed similar religions all around the same time?

To answer question, Baumard and colleagues tested a possible solution: that axial religions occur when societies are sufficiently affluent. They developed a model that took into account the varying levels of affluence a society has as well as that society's political success and political complexity. Without getting into details of the data that went into their model, suffice it to say that they freely admit that when dealing with ancient civilizations not all of the desired data is readily available. That said, they did make the best use they could of archaeological evidence and tried to make their model as robust as possible.

After running their model, they had two major findings. First, the political complexity models failed to explain the emergence of axial religions even when compared to the null model. That is, social and political complexity did an even worse job of predicting the growth of axial religions than mere chance would. By contrast, five out of the six affluence models outperformed the null model, suggesting that affluence very well could explain the rise of axial religions.

Second, one of the political success models had a statistically significant chance of explaining the data. In order to be open to the possibility that political success rather than affluence explains the axial age religions, the researchers looked more closely into it (specifically, into the state population and energy capture). As it turned out, even upon closer examination, political success models did not have sufficient predictive power.

The researchers conclude that, “The results support our initial hypothesis that economic development rather than political complexity explains the emergence of axial religions.” They speculate that the reason why affluence led to axial religions can be found in evolutionary theory. When the demand for resources is tight, societies do not focus on leisurely activities like morality and spirituality. Instead, they focus on their survival, and so would have religions reflecting that situation. However, when societies develop sufficient affluence and so can feed all their people and have recreational time, religions can develop that better fit the needs of these well-fed people compared to more survival-based societies. Furthermore, the researchers argue that the affluence of axial societies was concentrated mainly in urban areas, and urban areas demand tolerance for diversity. Consequently, religions would develop in these affluent urban areas that encourage people to get along with each other because this would increase that cities odds of survival (hence the emphasis on spirituality and morality).

Speculative or not, the researchers have an interesting theory as to why the actual age religions emerged when they did and where they did. While some may not like the speculative nature of their theories and models, when dealing with the ancient world even the most affluent societies have limited resources.

For more see “Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions” in the journal Current Biology.

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