Did Affluence Spur the Rise of Modern Religions?

Jun 24, 2015

by Bret Stetka

About 2,500 years ago something changed the way humans think. Within the span of two centuries, in three separate regions of Eurasia, spiritual movements emerged that would give rise to the world’s major moral religions, those preaching some combination of compassion, humility and asceticism. Scholars often attribute the rise of these moral religions—Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity included—to population growth, seeing morality as a necessary social stabilizer in increasingly large and volatile human communities. Yet findings from a recent study published in Current Biology point to a different factor: rising affluence.

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.

“This number appears to correspond with a certain peace of mind,” says lead author Nicolas Baumard, a research scientist at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. “Having a roof over your head, not feeling like the world is full of predators and enemies, knowing that you’ll have enough to eat tomorrow.” As Baumard points out, psychology research shows that affluence appears to influence our motivations and reward circuitry away from short-term gain to also considering the benefits of long-term strategy. In other words, with a steady energy supply, we had more time to cooperate, cultivate skills and consider consequences. Affluence also allowed more time for existential pondering: maybe we have some greater moral responsibility; perhaps life has a purpose.


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33 comments on “Did Affluence Spur the Rise of Modern Religions?

  • I was just reading something along those lines, but my source, The Buddha, credits the spiritual changes to the shift from farming to a mercantile society. I think it is both. When one doesn’t have to focus on staying alive, it seems natural to start looking around and wonder. And when social norms change quickly, in this case from rural to urban, it also seems natural to feel lost and want stability. Religion fits the bill.



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  • Affluence also allowed more time for existential pondering: maybe we have some greater moral responsibility; perhaps life has a purpose.

    Affluence probably provided enough non-subsistence working, for the elite to engage in political plotting, religious conning of the lower ranks by a priest class with “answers”, and the development of specialist weapons manufacture to enforce the status quo in and between, larger groups.



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  • The social strata was already established. If anything, the priest class took the opportunity to try to get more power from the elites. I don’t think the peons were a significant factor.



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  • Vicki
    Jun 24, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    The social strata was already established. If anything, the priest class took the opportunity to try to get more power from the elites.

    I think if you look at dominant leaders with lieutenants, from small territorial groups such as chimps, to groups of hunter-gatherers, scaling up to larger human tribes or Gelada monkeys, the structures emerge.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Gelada

    The comparisons between Chimps and Geladas shows interesting parallels with humans, as Chimps are hunter-gathers in smaller groups, while Geladas are vegetarian in large “tribes”, which do fight each other.



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  • I disagree with Crespi’s theory that it is the opposite: “The main idea in the article is fascinating, but the causal link between increasing affluence and religion remains to be established. Our work actually suggests that the authors might have their causality reversed—that religion itself drives increases in affluence via its effects on increased cooperation.”

    This whole time period, known as the Axial Age, was pretty amazing. Without any mass communication, every major demographic except Egypt went through spiritual changes that have lasted through to today.



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  • I’m currently reading Richard Carrier and he claims the opposite (unless I’m reading it wrong). It is in times of oppression and desperation that people form these mystical/ mystery cults where their salvation will be found in a spiritual realm not in the here and now. They are basically rebelling from the oppressors including their own religious leaders. He claims (and I agree) that this is how Christianity started. It was the poor and disenfranchised that needed an escape hatch and a heavenly God who offered rewards in the after life was their way out.



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  • Also, that chart- many things influenced Christianity not just stoicism. This is way too simplistic a chart and way too simplistic a proposition.



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  • 10
    mombird says:

    This proposition of affluence may have a small part in the formation of modern religions, but let’s face it, it is a teeny, tiny part of the equation. To say that religion (any of them) grew out of affluence is naïve. People have been wondering and making stuff up to explain life since the dawn of time and that certainly did not come because they could lay back in comfort with full bellies and contemplate their navels! Life is a struggle now and in the past. People look for comfort, answers and stability despite affluence not because of it. It’s probably true the ones who weren’t in survival mode and weren’t watching their children die of starvation had more time to dwell on religious matters but they could not get a substantial following or buy- in if it didn’t include the starving, ignorant masses.



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  • 11
    mombird says:

    And as for Buddhism- Didn’t Siddhartha renounce all affluence? Buddhism is more of a philosophy anyway and one that people in survival mode don’t have the luxury of indulging in like sitting and contemplating their navels under the Bodhi Tree.



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  • 12
    mombird says:

    I found something interesting from Wikipedia on the ancient Cynics:

    “The first philosopher to outline these themes was Antisthenes, who had been a pupil of Socrates in the late 5th century BC. He was followed by Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a tub on the streets of Athens.[2] Diogenes took cynicism to its logical extremes, and came to be seen as the archetypal cynic philosopher. He was followed by Crates of Thebes who gave away a large fortune so he could live a life of cynic poverty in Athens. Cynicism spread with the rise of Imperial Rome in the 1st century, and cynics could be found begging and preaching throughout the cities of the empire. It finally disappeared in the late 5th century, although similar ascetic and rhetorical ideas appear in early Christianity.”

    More like a rejection of affluence!



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  • Islam has contributed to deaths in Karachi Pakistan today. A 45 degree Celsius heatwave has killed 800 people so far. The fact that it is Ramadan, and that people are not aloud to drink water, is said to be contributing to the huge death toll.

    While this article argues that affluence may have caused the rise of modern religion, it means nothing if you are dead from dehydration at your god’s orders.

    The heatwave has coincided with severe electricity cuts and the holy month of Ramadan, when most Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-23/death-toll-from-pakistan-heatwave-rises/6568350



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  • …people in survival mode don’t have the luxury of indulging in…

    That is precisely what the article is claiming. Way back, the people were helpless against the elements, so they gave their gods power to control those. As farming and storage became more efficient and various peoples engaged in trade, survival took on better odds. That is about the time they expanded their gods’ reach to cover not just the elements, but morality as well.

    Buddhism is more of a philosophy anyway…

    Gods factor in, but they don’t have any influence over humans. And they too are subject to continuous reincarnation. It really is more of a philosophy, although it has stringent guidelines on how to live and behave. But when a Buddhist dies, it isn’t the end. I guess that’s where it becomes a religion.



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  • Vicki
    Jun 24, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    This whole time period, known as the Axial Age, was pretty amazing. Without any mass communication, every major demographic except Egypt went through spiritual changes that have lasted through to today.

    I’m not sure that can be said about the Central and South American cultures.



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  • 17
    mombird says:

    You know , it makes you wonder who sat around and thought this all up. Maybe the Greeks? They were obviously drinking too much Ouzo! Maybe the Indians smoking to much hash. Whatever it was their imaginations and hallucinations took on a life of their own!



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  • 18
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Buddhism is more of a philosophy

    That’s an argument I hear a lot and even though there is some truth to it, it makes me uncomfortable when I hear it. A belief system that includes a philosophy of ethics should not be confused with actual Philosophy (notice the capital P):

    Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language.

    You are obviously an educated person so I’m pretty sure that you don’t confuse the two but I submit that the casual use of the word to describe what is really a religion can be very misleading to people who do not possess the level of education needed to make the all too important distinction. More about philosophy:

    As a method, philosophy is often distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its questioning, critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.

    A religion is by definition any belief system that makes claim about the supernatural without any recourse to rational discourse or empirical evidence. Buddhism does make such claims: Samsara and Karma (cycle of reincarnation), Nirvana (paradise). Buddhism also relies on holy scripture (Dharma) like most religions do.

    So I think that what misleads people into believing that “Buddhism is a philosophy” is the fact that Buddhism is a nontheistic religion. It rejects the idea of a creator/overseer deity. But it is a religion nevertheless.

    And the part that really makes me uneasy is this kind of misconception can all too easily be used by liars and manipulators such Bill O’Reilly and other demagogues on Faux News to call Christianity a “philosophy”. And that really gets my goat because uneducated people fall for that crap hook, line and stinker.

    I think that saying this kind of thing conveys disinformation and provides ammunition to unscrupulous neo-conservative SOB de-educators like Hannity, O’Reilly, Limbaugh et. al.



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  • NearlyNakedApe
    Jun 25, 2015 at 11:59 am

    I submit that the casual use of the word to describe what is really a religion can be very misleading to people who do not possess the level of education needed to make the all too important distinction

    I think there can be no doubt that Buddhism is a religion – with doctrines and supernatural beliefs in reincarnation etc.

    Some Buddhists could however, technically be called “atheists”, as they lack belief in gods.



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  • Buddhism as in the teachings of Buddha perfectly lie in the definition of philosophy that you cited. It was later that the people made rules, added and modified as per their interpretations and changed it to a religion. Buddha never set out to start a religion. All that you have heard of reincarnation, karma and dhamma were not to be believed as fact. They were what one would realise in the process of meditation. You do not have to blindly believe anything. Buddha, in my opinion never preached anything, but simply taught a universal technique of meditation which was most effective and most basic. It is completely based on reason and science. Vipassana as taught by Shri Goenka would show you how. Its a worldwide organisation. Do check it out



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  • 21
    mombird says:

    Nearly Naked Ape: Yes, I understand. Thanks for the clarification. I think anything that has too much restrictive dogma is a religion. When philosophy goes from observation and thinking (science) into rules and absolutes it becomes a religion. I’m not sure I’m being clear but when going from general observation, problem solving, and study morphs into saying this is the way it is and one must follow suit, then religion rears its head. I’m no expert on Buddhism but it seems to me to be less didactic than the others, that’s my point.
    As for O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and the rest, I don’t listen to them and those who do…. well let’s not get into that!!



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  • dehydration

    Perhaps a state of emergency fatwa will be declared (no sarcasm);

    so-called “Arctic Circle” (Norway) Muslims are allowed to adapt for latitude issues. General guidelines are now being mulled over in Sweden. It should then follow that fatwas are put in place, in reaction to unusual Pakistan weather (heat wave / climate change) to avoid deaths.



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  • 23
    mombird says:

    You wouldn’t think the Muslims in Norway or Sweden would not have an issue with dehydration! I’m just kidding- no I’m not, but it goes to show how stupid dogma is when you have to issue a fatwa for common sense!



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  • Religion’s house of cards would fold, were it not for conciliations. How convenient.

    (comment @ 1:07 was re-phrased while in transit)



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  • 25
    mombird says:

    I used a double negative in my sentence above ahhhhh 🙁
    Yes, like when eating meat on Fridays was a mortal sin and now it’s not! Religion has had to back pedal on so much of its dogma, still some think the world is flat and that Satan sits on your left shoulder!



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  • Buddha, in my opinion never preached anything, but simply taught a
    universal technique of meditation which was most effective and most
    basic.

    The Buddha taught an advanced meditation with the goal of reaching enlightenment and eventually nirvana–the end cycle of reincarnation. In that respect, it was a religion.

    One thing I like about him was he insisted his monks always verify what they’d been taught. If an idea didn’t ‘gel’ with them, they could reject it.



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  • 27
    mombird says:

    Nimish and Vicki:

    You do not have to blindly believe anything. Buddha, in my opinion
    never preached anything, but simply taught a universal technique of
    meditation

    This seems to be the crux of the matter. If one could reach a meditative state by any other means than what Buddha taught I have a feeling he would be ok with it. He wouldn’t tell you that you will burn in hell or are possessed by the Devil. He would not teach his method by means of fear and guilt. He seems to be more of a teacher than a priest in that sense.
    At any rate, do you suppose Buddhism could be evidence of a transitional stage from philosophy to religion? or do I need to get off the computer and quit stressing my little grey cells???



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  • The churches have evolved to become more adept at raising money, both by increasing flock size, and by making up new lies to induce people do “donate”. Money given when threatened with eternal torture should hardly be called a donation. That is simple extortion, little different from what ISIS does.

    What we need is a clerical Wikileaks.

    conversations contemptuous of the rubes fleeced.
    books on just what they do with the money
    confession of lack of belief in what is preached.
    admission that prayer is useless.
    laughing at rubes who think the clergy have special powers.
    outing atheist pastors.



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  • Vicki, By basic, I meant fundamental. Sorry about that.

    Mombird. Didn’t all religions begin probably as philosophies but gradually degenerated as people appended to it. Buddhist philosophy seems to be designed in such a way so as to avoid such a degeneration. But with time, damage does get done.



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  • Following on from the comments about Buddhism, I hope the Mods will forgive me for repeating a joke I first heard on the BBC’s Radio 4 Sunday morning religious programme.

    The Buddha goes into a pizza restaurant and orders a large one. The waiter asks the Buddha what he wants on it.

    Make me one with everything

    The waiter goes away and comes back with the enormous pizza.

    That will be $9.50 sir

    The Buddha hands over a $20 bill and proceeds with his meal. Feeling fully repleted he then realises that the waiter hasn’t brought his change back.

    Why have you not brought my change?

    Change must come from within sir“.



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  • Regarding the general question of affluence and religion, a brief look at history shows that religion and the growth of private property ownership were closely entwined. Always a useful tool for the ruling class to protect their own privileged position, as it still is, in places like Saudi Arabia. Christianity was a bit of an exception in that it sprang out of the slave based Roman Empire. It gave some hope to the oppressed and it was welcoming to all comers, unlike the Roman religions where you had to buy your way in. The Empire tried to suppress Christianity and failed, so, instead, adopted it officially, – to the exclusion of all other religions ! Oh blessed St Peter who founded the richest single church on Earth ! Only in the USA, where religion is big business, does Christianity still have the same hold over people’s minds that it used to have in Europe. I look at places like France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, all now modern countries, and see the inexorable decline of the RCC. The ruling class now has other ‘opiates’, football, celebrities, pop music, Top Gear, and others, to distract those who work for a living from their real position as wage slaves.

    It seems the RCC, in the modern world thrives upon ignorance and poverty.



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  • 32
    mombird says:

    Mombird. Didn’t all religions begin probably as philosophies but
    gradually degenerated as people appended to it.

    Nimish: I don’t know. In a way it’s like asking which came first the chicken or the egg! I am still pondering this. I think superstition played a big roll in all of it tho.



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  • Did Affluence Spur the Rise of Modern Religions?

    Clearly there needs to be a large enough group with a food and resource surplus, to support a free-loading priest/ shaman/ witch-doctor class, who can talk their way into a free living, while being of sufficient service to the dominant leadership, to secure their position in the community.

    As group sizes grew, aggressively invasive religious groups which had an enforced unified mind-set, and even more resource surpluses for a warrior class with weapons manufacture, over-ran, asset-stripped, and enslaved their more peaceful neighbours.



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