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 But when it comes to the transition from ritual religions to moralizing religions, the authors drew on outdated ideas, he says.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.