May 21, 2015

Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions

Baumard N, Hyafil A, Morris I, Boyer P (2015)

Between roughly 500 BCE and 300 BCE three distinct regions, the Yangtze and Yellow River Valleys, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Ganges Valley, saw the emergence of highly similar religious traditions with an unprecedented emphasis on self-discipline and asceticism, and “other-worldly”, often moralizing, doctrines, including Buddhism, Jainism, Brahmanism, Daoism, Second Temple Judaism, and Stoicism, with later offshoots such as Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam. This cultural convergence, often called the “Axial Age”, presents a puzzle: Why this emergence at the same time of distinct moralizing religions with highly similar features in different civilizations? Quantitative history evidence demonstrates an exceptional uptake in energy capture (a proxy for general prosperity) just before the “Axial Age” in these three regions. Statistical modeling confirms that economic development, not political complexity or population size, accounts for the timing of the Axial Age. PDF