New Historian

Economic Development Led to Major World Religions

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<![CDATA[A recent research study, published in the journal Current Biology, has posited that the development of major world religions in the so-called “Axial Age” of 500-350 BCE cannot be traced to the rise of complex political institutions or to growth in population. Instead, the rise of religions such as Judaism (and its eventual offshoots of Christianity and Islam), Buddhism, Daoism, Brahmanism, and Jainism resulted from increases in economic development and better standards of living, according to the authors of the study. A research team from the École Normale Supérieure, led by research scientist Nicolas Baumard, delved into the study of the formation of world religions during the Axial Age in order to make a determination as to what led to the proliferation of such religions concurrently yet in such disparate geographical locations around the globe. The Axial Age was characterized by new beliefs supplanting the older ones commonly held by hunter-gatherer societies. Nomadic cultures from before the advent of agricultural pursuits tended to have spiritual beliefs that focused more along tribal lines and were primarily concerned with warding off misfortune, enforcing taboos, and ritual offerings and sacrifices. In comparison, the researchers point out that once the economic status of civilizations improved – partly thanks to adopting agriculture and focusing less on itinerant lifestyles – abundance for these civilizations increased, leading individuals to begin to have the ability to focus on things besides subsistence. The rapid advancement in living standards which occurred in the Axial Age could have been the catalyst for spiritual development that delved beyond the nomadic campfire ring, the research suggests, although the most rapid and dramatic advances in living conditions were likely reserved for the richer and more powerful members of these societies. According to Baumard and his colleagues, it was at this point that these new religions began to develop and focus more on “personal transcendence” instead of taking ritualized steps to ensure the survival of the group. The study points out that these later religions focused on the “purpose” of human existence independent of survival, “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).” However, Baumard and his team remain unconvinced that morality alone is responsible for successful civilizations. In an interview with Scientific American, the researcher remarked that “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.” More likely is the idea that morality exists independently from religion or spirituality, and it was only the increased economic security and affluence of these Axial Age civilizations that gave enough breathing room for morality to exist without having to be subsumed by the vicissitudes of tribal survival, a sentiment echoed by other researchers not associated with the new study. For more information: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Gunnar Bach Pedersen]]>

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