Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Rise of ascetic, moralizing religions result of affluence not politics

A new research, published this month in Current Biology, devised a statistical model that could explain how absolute affluence impacted human motivation and reward systems and in turn affected ascetic wisdoms and religions’ austere moralizing systems – across Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity.

The researchers, through looking at life history theory, human psychology, development of literacy and urban life, confirmed that economic development, not political complexity or population size, accounts for the timing of the Axial Age – a time of “cultural convergence” when many world religions originated.

During the time, new doctrines appeared in three places in Eurasia, including the Eastern Mediterranean; the Levant, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. These doctrines put unprecedented emphasis on self-discipline and asceticism, and the “otherworldly.”

“These doctrines all emphasized the value of ‘personal transcendence,” reads the research. “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 study put forward the idea that an exceptional uptake of affluence, marked by higher standards of living, has nudged people away from short-term strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and promoted long-term strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions).

“One implication is that world religions and secular spiritualties probably share more than we think,” lead author Nicolas Baumard of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris is quoted in Science Daily as saying. “Beyond very different doctrines, they probably all tap into the same reward systems [in the human brain].”

It seems almost self-evident today that religion is on the side of spiritual and moral concerns, but that was not always so, reports the online science hub citing Baumard. “In hunter-gatherer societies and early chiefdoms, for instance, religious tradition focused on rituals, sacrificial offerings, and taboos designed to ward off misfortune and evil.”

Baumard and his colleagues say they aren’t so sure societies functioned better because of moralizing religions. “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.”

In their study, the researchers combined statistical modeling on very long-term quantitative series with psychological theories based on experimental approaches. Their model showed that “there was a sharp transition toward moralizing religions when individuals were provided with 20,000 kcal/day, a level of affluence suggesting that people were generally safe, with roofs over their heads and plenty of food to eat, both in the present time and into the foreseeable future.”

“This seems very basic to us today, but this peace of mind was totally new at the time,” Baumard tells 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.”


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