Opinion

How wealth gave birth to modern religion

| Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on December 31, 2014

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So God followed the money trail?

More like, today’s major religions were born after humans figured out how to provide for their own long-term needs, according to new research published in this month’s issue of Current Biology.

What’s the study about?

The study’s four researchers were trying to figure out why the world’s major religious traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all rose roughly at the same time (from 500-300 BCE) in different parts of the world. Besides, all of these religions factored in the value of morality and “personal transcendence”, the notion that human existence has a purpose that is over and above that of material success.

And this was different from what ancient religions said?

Yes. In much of ancient mythology, take Greek for instance, the biggest gods weren’t exactly known for their scruples. (Think of the all-powerful philanderer Zeus.) And the Greeks weren’t alone. The gods of some of the most powerful empires – the Egyptians, Romans, Aztecs and Mayans — did not prescribe the straight and narrow.

Then our ancestors didn’t do charity or give up their favourite foods?

Moderation, abstinence and compassion, according to these researchers, are inventions of the modern spiritual style. To prove this, they gathered historical and archaeological data from the societies that birthed today’s major religions. Using this, they created a statistical model to predict what kind of societies suited the birth of a modern-day religion — should they be rich or poor, primitive or politically advanced. Their results showed that what societies needed was a factor called ‘energy capture’.

Spiritual energy, you mean? Harnesssing chi?

No, food. Today’s moralising religions began in societies whose members had access to at least 20,000 kilocalories of food each day. This implies that other basic needs — a roof over their heads, provisions for a rainy day — were also taken care of.

You mean, it would be pointless preaching abstinence to empty stomachs?

Exactly. People of the ancient world were prey to frequent famine and disease. But towards 500 BCE, things started to get better. Civilisations began to urbanise as the first cities were built and life in general became more systematic, with the promise of a reasonably secure tomorrow. People could now start worrying about how to help themselves in their afterlives.

So did the beginning of affluence alter religion?

A Science Daily analysis says what affluence did was change people’s psychology, which in turn, changed the nature of their religious worship. The more likely people were to have a surplus – of food, or wealth or any other resource — the easier they could be convinced that they needed less of it. Today’s ‘moralising religions’ focus on compassion and selflessness, but these virtues became possible only when the devotee’s focus shifted from finding his next meal.

In that case, all of the world’s religions are more or less the same?

They have common origins, according to the study’s results. Some critics say that religion has more to do with the size and complexity of a society.

Isn’t this slightly obvious?

Not really. For long, researchers believed that religion built, defined and held together civilisations. But this study proves that religion might have, in fact, ridden the coat tails of a civilisation’s own success.

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Published on December 31, 2014
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