This Is What We Learned When A Statistical Model Was Used To Explain The Rise Of Religions

The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Yusef Allan/Jordanian Royal Palace via Getty Images

A statistical model based on human history and psychology has been used to explain the emergence of the world’s major religions.

Researchers believe improved living standards, particularly associated with access to adequate food and shelter, triggered the emergence of moralising religions, which dictate right and wrongdoing to followers, in Eurasia.

Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity all arose around the same time in three different regions.

The scientists, reporting in the journal Current Biology, say the emergence of world religions was triggered by the rising standards of living in the great civilizations.

“One implication is that world religions and secular spiritualities probably share more than we think,” says Nicolas Baumard of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.

“Beyond very different doctrines, they probably all tap into the same reward systems (in the human brain).”

In hunter-gatherer societies and early chiefdoms, religious tradition focused on rituals, sacrificial offerings, and taboos designed to ward off misfortune and evil.

That changed between 500 BCE and 300 BCE, a time known as the Axial Age, when new doctrines appeared in in Eurasia.

“These doctrines all emphasised the value of personal transcendence,” the researchers write.

“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,), asceticism (fasting, abstinence, detachment), and compassion (helping, suffering with others).”

While many scholars have argued that large-scale societies are possible and function better because of moralising religion, Baumard and his colleagues weren’t so sure.

After all, he says, 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 the this study, the researchers found that affluence best explains what is known of religious history and not political complexity or population size.

The researchers created an Energy Capture model which shows a sharp move toward moralising religions when individuals are provided with 20,000 kilocalories a day, a level of affluence suggesting people are generally safe with roofs over their heads and plenty to eat.

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

“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 urbanisation rate in the Axial Age suggests that, for certain people, things started to get much better.”

The researchers say this transition is consistent with a shift from “fast” life strategies, focused on the immediate problems of the day, to those focused on long-term investments.

The research is published in the journal Current Biology.

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