Wealth may have driven the rise of moralizing religions

One of the things that a lot of people are often surprised to hear, is that most scholars don’t believe that religion was always concerned with morality, that moralizing religion didn’t exist to any significant extent before the ‘Axial Age’ circa 500 BC.  Psychologist Nicolas Baumard has a theory about what may have led to moralizing religions: Wealth may have driven the rise of today’s religions | Science/AAAS | News.

Religion wasn’t always based on morality, explains Nicolas Baumard, a psychologist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. For the first several thousand years of human recorded history, he notes, religions were based on rituals and short-term rewards. If you wanted rain or a good harvest, for example, you made the necessary sacrifices to the right gods. But between approximately 500 B.C.E. and 300 B.C.E., a radical change appeared all over Eurasia as new religions sprung up from Greece to India to China. All of these religions shared a focus on morality, self-discipline, and asceticism, Baumard says. Eventually these new religions, such as Stoicism, Jainism, and Buddhism, and their immediate successors, including Christianity and Islam, spread around the globe and became the world religions of today. Back in 1947, German philosopher Karl Jaspers dubbed the pivotal time when these new religions arose “the Axial Age.”

So what changed? Baumard and his colleagues propose one simple reason: People got rich. Psychologists have shown that when people have fewer resources at their disposal, prioritizing rewards in the here and now is the best strategy. Saving for the future—much less the afterlife—isn’t the best use of your time when you are trying to find enough to eat today. But when you become more affluent, thinking about the future starts to make sense, and people begin to forgo immediate rewards in order to prioritize long-term goals.

Baurmard has discussed this theory before, that agricultural productivity led to moralizing religions.  I’m not sure I buy it, primarily related to the correlation is not causation maxim.  It looks like some scholars agree:

Some religious studies scholars are skeptical, however. “It’s an interesting hypothesis” that deserves to be investigated, allows Edward Slingerland, a historian who studies religion in ancient China at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada. But when it comes to the transition from ritual religions to moralizing religions, the authors drew on outdated ideas, he says. For example, religion scholars now doubt that this change took place entirely during the narrow window of the Axial Age. “In early China, a lot of the moralizing stuff is arguably earlier than that,” whereas in the Arabian Peninsula it didn’t appear until about the 7th century C.E., Slingerland notes. He favors a hypothesis that has less to do with a certain fixed time period and more with the size and complexity of a given society; as people find themselves needing to cooperate with more and more strangers, belief in a high god encouraging morality helps smooth those new interactions and contributes to the overall success of the culture.

But both the political complexity and affluence hypotheses suffer from a lack of recent statistical data on religion, Slingerland says.

The “size and complexity” theory seems similar to the one presented by Ara Norenzayan in his fascinating book ‘Big Gods’, which I review last year.  Norenzayan has asserted that moralizing religion goes much further back than is commonly accepted among scholars.  I’m currently reading his primary source for this assertion: ‘Religion in Human Evolution‘ by Robert Bellah, which will likely generate a post or two in the future.  (Possibly in the far future.  The book is massive and a very slow read.)

But the idea that larger societies need moral codes more than smaller societies, doesn’t strike me as particularly controversial.  Nor that those moral codes would have been entangled in their religions, since religion permeated everything in pre-modern societies.  In fact, one way to think of religion is as old cultural systems that we in the west cordon off and label “religion” to separate them from our overall secular culture.

Anyway, as the article suggests, both hypotheses are badly in need of more actual data.  But they’re both still interesting ideas.

29 thoughts on “Wealth may have driven the rise of moralizing religions

  1. 500 B.C. is probably to late for saying moral codes where introduced. Zoroastrianism (especially) and Vedism have a moral code, as does Judaism, Eygyptian, and others. Part of the Ancient Near Eastern religious construction is to create and validate Law and Order, so you’d have to go back to the foundation of city states at least.
    Aestheticism is also found in the rig-vida which is way earlier than these religions. Jainism and Buddhism come straight from that spring, so it sounds like the scholar over focused on what interested them. And arguably there is nascent aestheticism in the realm of sacrifice in that you bear the suffering for losing a child, food, etc.

    But look at the credentials of Baumard > Psychologist, not historian. Slingerland also doesn’t list what religious history he has studied. Granted there are lay experts, but when appealing to authority you actually need to have it.


    1. Thanks. I’m not familiar with the Vedas, but I do know Egypt had Ma’at (both the concept of justice and order, and the goddess of those things) and that Hammurabi invoked the gods as justification for his laws. But it’s interesting that most historians seem to think that moralizing religions were scarce before 500 BC. It’s the psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists who seem more inclined to think they started earlier.

      Personally, I’m not sure what to believe at this point. It’s why I’m reading Bellah’s book, to see what his rationale is for early moralization.


      1. I think it comes from modern religious studies rejection and love of uniformitarianism as it suits their need to publish new books.

        Yet, a good historian would immediately say, “moral religions more along modern views.” Cause moral is itself a shifting construct.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I share your Skepticism (and raise you a Serious Doubt). Apes and chimps (and other animals) have been shown to have a sense of “fairness” which may lay at the root of moral systems. And I agree with the above comment that 500 B.C. is too late.


    1. I probably should have been more clear that the contention is at what point the gods and associated religion started caring about morals. I don’t think any of the scholars or researchers question that morality itself is prehistoric, with prehuman roots. Hunter-gatherers and pre-literate farming societies have morals, but the spirits they worship don’t seem concerned about those morals.


      1. I’m not anthropologist enough to argue the point one way or the other. I suspect it depends a lot on how you define “morals.” What little I do know suggests their various gods and religious systems (often some form of animalism) did have codes of behavior.

        Maybe religions just got more sophisticated along with everything else around that time.


        1. Everything I’ve read about hunter-gatherer religion relates that the relatively small spirits they worship are amoral. It makes sense if you think about it. You have less need of a cosmic code of conduct if you live in a small society where everyone knows everyone else.

          Of course, this is based on observing modern hunter-gatherers. There’s no guarantee the ancient versions were the same. But it seems excessively cautious to think their psychology wouldn’t have been somewhat similar to the common elements of the geologically separated societies that have been studied.


      1. Was there no prescribed or proscribed behaviors expected by the spirits? What was the point of the spirits? (We don’t really even know, do we? It’s not like there’s any written history for those times.)


        1. We know for modern hunter-gatherers through anthropological studies. But all we can do for ancient ones is extrapolate. Still, elements common to modern foragers probably have some resemblance to the ancient ones.

          From what I’ve read, you mollified spirits so they wouldn’t make you sick, cause a drought, cause you to get attacked by a wild animal, etc. Perhaps you prayed for a spirit to cure your toothache. Hunter-gatherers and pre-literate farming societies are reportedly pretty pragmatic about these things, dropping worship of a particular spirit if it’s not helpful.


          1. Ah, good, we’re in the same starting place. It’s that mollification that I’m getting at. Don’t we there see the roots of the idea of behavior to appease god(s)? Once that seed is planted, isn’t the rest just different ideas about what behaviors and which god(s)?

            Even animals can have a sense of “fairness.” It’s not hard to see that urge being transferred to a spirit you believe capable of affecting reality. “Be fair or suffer,” has clear evolutionary advantages in terms of allowing a productive social group.

            There’s a parallel to the law. The belief — though frequently false in execution — that you will go to prison for a crime acts as a limit on the behavior of the group. The limiting effect is very much correlated with the belief.


        2. Having spirits care about our morals may seem intuitive to us, but it doesn’t appear to have existed in primitive societies. It makes sense if you think about it. For small scale societies, my reputation is probably enough incentive for me not to be a cheat, but once I’m in a large scale society, having the gods care about whether I’m a cheat starts to have a societal purpose.

          I like the hypothesis, but the fly in the ointment is that many historians assert that it didn’t exist in Greek, Roman, or Mesopotamian societies, despite being fairly large scale.


  3. Before I got to this line, I was having not-yet-verbal versions of this thought:
    “I’m not sure I buy it, primarily related to the correlation is not causation maxim.”
    Yes, indeed. It would take a more in-depth and honest analysis of religions to determine. Good luck on your reading! I think I’ll let you do the work and I’ll wait for your blog post version. 🙂

    If I had to take a guess between the two, I’d go for the theory that morality and religion became more intertwined as societies grew more complex. I can’t see the connection so clearly with wealth.


  4. Well I am a part of that “lot of people”, because before reading this I would have guessed that morality and religion have been tied together the entire time religions existed. This is very interesting stuff. What books or other resources would you recommend for this subject?


    1. Well, I can tell you what I’ve read. ‘Big Gods’ by Ara Norenzayan. After reading that, I read this paper by Baumard and Boyer: http://artsci.wustl.edu/~pboyer/PBoyerHomeSite/articles/BaumardBoyer2013TiCS.pdf
      as well as portions of ‘Ancient Religions’ by Sarah Iles Johnson (actually this book is authored by several authors), ‘The Religion of Ancient Rome’ by Cyril Bailey, ‘The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia’ by A. H. Sayce.

      And I’m currently reading ‘Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age’ by Robert Bellah. (Bellah is scathing in his assessment of the books by Wright and Boyer. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as good a writer as they are. Of course, that doesn’t meant he’s wrong.) Incidentally, another book I enjoyed immensely was ‘The Evolution of God’ by Robert Wright, although it’s mostly focused on Abrahamic religions.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. There might also simply have been an exchange of ideas. The system of trade routes known as the silk road connected Europe, India and China. The persian empire (with its Zoroastrian religion, but relatively tolerant to religions) spread from the mediteranean to india and parts of the steppes. It provided for the exchange of ideas. Aramaic was used as a language of administration in northern india. After Alexander had conquered the Persian empire, greek became an important language in the area. It is possible that ideas from greek philosophy spread east. Buddhism spread on the silk road from India to central Asia and China and for some time was the dominant belief system in parts of the steppes, e.g. among the Tocharians. There where Jewish traders in the western part of the silk road (Aramaic speaking) and nestorian christians, manichaeism spread as well. Ideas from China spread west. Of course, this trade also created wealth. I think the role these trade connections played in the history of Eurasia is underappreciated. A lot of important and interesting developments where going on in the steppes.


    1. Excellent point. We tend to think of these ancient cultures in isolation, but in reality they had contact with each other. Although Egypt and China didn’t have direct contact, their ideas would have been spread through numerous intermediaries over decades and centuries.

      I also think we tend to over interpret the Axial Age because that’s when writing really started to take off with the spread of relatively simple to use alphabets (as compared to cuneiform, hieroglyphics, etc). A lot of ideas that simply hadn’t made it into writing yet suddenly appear in the records, but it’s unlikely they popped into being out of nowhere. Of course, with writing, it gave scholars the ability to study each other’s ideas and build on them, which likely did cause more rapid development of new ideas.


      1. I think so. The spread of alphabetic scripts that made it simpler to learn reading certainly was important, thats a good point. In the Persian empire, Elamitic and Babylonian as well as Persian Cuneiform was partially replaced with the easier to learn alphabetic script of Aramaic (written on papyrus instead of clay tablets), which developed into an important language of trade and administration in the empire and in the western parts of the silk road. In northern india, even after the Persian empire had disappeared, Aramaic was used as an administrative language until the script was adapted to Indian languages. Greek played a role as a written language in several states that developed in the area, like the Parthian empire or the Tocharian Kushan empire (that also stretched into India). Pythagoras probably was in India (and the Persian empire that stretched from Greek-speaking areas of what is now Turkey to Egypt and India enabled him to travel so far) and he seems to have had an influence of Plato. And these are just examples.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks ‘SAP’, good reading, I hadn’t seen that yet. As Slingerland sums up, these are early days so, a bit cliche’ it may be, but there’s bound to be interesting stuff ahead.

    Here’s the linked-to piece in the 2nd quoted section – the “the size and complexity of a given society;” link – from another source:

    ‘On the Origin of Religion’, Culotta 2009 http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~ara/media/On%20the%20Origin%20of%20Religion%20-%20Science.pdf?page=full

    It’s from Norenzayan’s ‘media’ page – there’s quite a bit more there too, if like myself you’ve not happened upon that page before.

    Good luck with Bellah – one question(if you’ve gotten into it far enough): Does he elaborate at all on why he lambasts the books of Atran, Boyer, etc so forcefully?


    1. Thanks for the paper. It looks fascinating, and I find anything that discusses Gobekli Tepi gets my interest. I’ll read it when I get a chance.

      Bellah doesn’t mention Atran or Boyer in the book (I just searched). It’s possible he discusses and contradicts their ideas, but I haven’t recognized any of them yet in by mid chapter 3 (although I haven’t read Atran or Boyer at length, so I might have missed them).

      Bellah does take explicit, and I think gratuitous, shots at New Atheists such as Dawkins and other atheists like Steven Weinberg. In fact, he goes off on a lot of tangents and often takes 20 pages to say what he could have said in 2. It’s making the book an, at times, tedious slog. I haven’t even gotten to any of the historical or even paleolithic stuff yet, just psychological theorizing, although it is interesting at points.


      1. And color pictures too! Nice for a change 🙂

        Thanks for looking, I got the impression reading yesterday that Bellah is not terribly taken with cognitive by-product theory so maybe it’s just that.

        I cringe a little every time I read someone in the field take those kind of shots. It gets to be a major distraction at times, then again, were I in the field … I don’t know.


        1. Read it last night. An interesting overview. Thanks again!

          I’m getting the impression that Bellah is going to argue for an adaptive theory, but it’s still early yet. He’s focusing a lot on ritual, which actually fits with some other stuff I’ve read lately and been meaning to do a post on.

          On taking shots, I agree and find them distracting. Even though I’m not offended by them, and even think some of them are accurate, I think taking them is unwise, since it pointlessly alienates portions of the readership. But it seems to often be what scholars do.

          Liked by 1 person

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