Religion may gradually disappear as we all get richer, says a group of evolutionary scientists from the United States and France. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other major religions are likely to decline as rapidly as people’s standards of living improve, they believe – especially moralising religions.
In fact, if you look at Christianity, the Catholic church for example, is finding it progressively harder today to recruit new priests, in Western Europe more and more churches are having to go import them from poorer nations.
Dr. Nicolas Baumard, who works both at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France, and the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and colleagues, wrote about their study and findings in the academic journal Current Biology (citation below).
Moralising religions will gradually decline as most of the world’s population gets richer, until it vanishes altogether, the authors believe.
Religions emerge in response to the wealth divide
Dr. Baumard; Alexandre Hyafil, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris; Ian Morris, Stanford University; and Pascal Boyer, Washington University, Saint Louis, suggest that our major religions emerged as an evolutionary response to the differences between the lifestyles of wealthy elites and other, poorer communities further down the socioeconomic ladder.
Dr. Baumard, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Behavioral Ethics Lab, says that affluence and wealth slowed down humans’ lifestyles. In other words, 2,500 years ago, he believes that the wealthy elite were less aggressive, significantly less sexually active, and generally led more laid-back and sedentary lives.
The authors wrote that absolute affluence has some predictable effects on the human motivation and reward system. The individual moves away from fast-life strategies – resource acquisition & coercive interactions – and tends towards slow-life strategies – cooperative interactions and self-control techniques.
In Western Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia, there was a huge difference in the standard of living of a typical working class family in the 1800s compared to one today. When the rest of the world catches up, which may not take as long as people think, moralising religious will be on the way out, the authors concluded.
The slow life undermines survival status
The elite, because they lived the slow life, found themselves at an evolutionary disadvantage, because they had fewer offspring, had children later in life, and had less to eat, since they were considerably less aggressive about getting food.
In order to make up for this disadvantage, the authors believe that the affluent elite introduced religions, especially moral-based ones, as a way to get poorer people to adopt slow life strategies.
When poor people became religious, they were less motivated by greed, acquisition and procreation – this offset the evolutionary disadvantage that the wealthy elite had been in.
The authors said their study found that religious practice itself existed well before a clear wealth divide emerged – however, it lacked the focus on fulfillment and morality that exists in most current religions.
Modern religions focus on spiritual rather than material-physical fulfillment, Dr. Baumard points out.
Most people across the world, regardless of their beliefs (or non-beliefs), agree that religion today favours the spiritual rather than the material world, and that it encourages selflessness and self-discipline rather than greed.
The authors said that the notion that true salvation could only be found in moral behaviour, rather than in having the most sex or food, may have served as a distraction to poorer people, steering them towards slow life strategies.
Widespread affluence destroying moralising religions
However, as everybody across the globe becomes more affluent, moralizing religions may decline considerably.
A growing proportion of the world’s population is living a slow lifestyle. We are motivated to cooperate with one another and pursue fulfillment in non-physical things. This means there is less need for moralizing religions to control how a large number of poor people behave.
Dr. Baumard made the following comment in the New Scientist:
“As more and more people become affluent and adopt a slow strategy, the need to morally condemn fast strategies decreases, and with it the benefit of holding religious beliefs that justify doing so.”
“If this is true, and our environment continues to improve, then like the Greco-Roman religions before them, Christianity and other moralising religions could eventually vanish.”
In an Abstract in the journal, the authors wrote:
“We discussed several possible causal pathways, including the development of literacy and urban life, and put forward the idea, inspired by life history theory, that absolute affluence would have impacted human motivation and reward systems, nudging people away from short-term strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and promoting long-term strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions).”
Some Christians disagree
Some people disagree with the conclusions of this latest study, especially religious people. Writing in Christian Today, Mark Woods points out that there are several modern examples that counter the argument that religions die out as people get richer. In South Korea and China, for example, the reverse is true.
“Because the truth is that religion is not just one thing. Yes, for some people it’s an insurance policy against death, so if they expect to live a long time they don’t bother going to church. And perhaps it’s also a way of bringing order and spiritual harmony into society, controlling the violence and unpredictability that results from inequality. We can believe Christianity is true while at the same time acknowledging it fulfils social functions.”
Religion is rooted deep in human nature, and consequently adapts, changes and survives, Wood added.
Many people today may dispute the association of materialism, greed, the consumption of more food, and sexual activity being linked more to poor people than the rich.
Citation: “Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions,” Nicolas Baumard, Alexandre Hyafil, Ian Morris and Pascal Boyer. Current Biology, Volume 25, Issue 1, p10–15. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.10.063.