A new study has come out predicting the death of religion.This time it’s because we’re all getting richer. Not long ago it was because we’re all living longer: young people who expect to live a long time put off worrying about what will happen to them after they die so they don’t start thinking about God until they’re older and closer to death.
Now, according to Dr Nicolas Baumard in Current Biology, it’s money. In a study with several other academics, Baumard argues that several religions with an emphasis on self-discipline and morality arose during the ‘Axial Age’ (500-300 BCE) and that this was because this was because people got richer.
According to Baumard et al, affluence put rich people at an evolutionary disadvantage because they lived a “slow life” – they had fewer children, had less to eat since they were less aggressive about acquiring food and may have reproduced later in life. So, he thinks, the wealthy introduced moralising religions as a way offsetting these disadvantages by controlling the poor, who were more motivated by the “fast strategies” of acquisition, greed and procreation.
Writing in the New Scientist, Baumard said: “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.”
On the face of it, this doesn’t sound terribly plausible. Of course there’s a link between economics and religion, and there’s certainly something that needs explaining about the religious movements of the Axial Age. Perhaps the scholars have got that right, though they’re going against the flow in arguing it’s a disadvantage to be rich.
But where they are certainly wrong – and arguably unscholarly – is in imagining that they’ve identified a future trajectory for religion based on their analysis of what happened in 500 BC.
On their particular point – that religion will die out as people get richer – there are plenty of modern examples to counter it. It might be true in Europe, but in other countries – China and South Korea, for example – the reverse is true.