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Religion could die out as world's population gets richer, evolutionary scientists claim

'If our environment continues to improve, Christianity and other moralising religions could eventually vanish,' says Dr Nicolas Baumard

Elsa Vulliamy
Monday 09 May 2016 19:06
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Scientists suggest that organised religions like Buddhism may die out
Scientists suggest that organised religions like Buddhism may die out

A wealthier population could mean the end of religion, according to evolutionary scientists.

The group of academics suggest the world’s major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, emerged as an evolutionary response to the differences in lifestyle between wealthy elites and other, poorer, communities.

Evolutionary psychologist Dr Nicolas Baumard said affluence and wealth caused humans to have a "slower" lifestyle, suggesting the wealthy elite 2,500 years ago would have been less sexually active, less aggressive and overall lead more laid-back lives.

“Absolute affluence has predictable effects on human motivation and reward systems,” Dr Baumard et al wrote in a study, “moving individuals away from ‘fast life’ strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and toward ‘slow life’ strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions.”

The study says living a ‘slow life’ put the elite at an evolutionary disadvantage, as they may have had fewer children, had less to eat (since they were less aggressive about acquiring food) and have reproduced later in life.

In order to offset this disadvantage, Dr Baumard believes the wealthy introduced moralising religions to the poor as a way to introduce them to ‘slow-life’ strategies, therefore offsetting the evolutionary disadvantages the elite faced in being less motivated by acquisition, greed and procreation.

The study said religious practice itself had been around since before a clear divide in wealth emerged, but that it lacked the focus on morality and fulfilment that is found within world’s major religions today.

Religion is based on spiritual fulfilment, not material or physical fulfilment, according to Dr Baumard et al.

They wrote: “To most people, believers and non-believers alike, it seems obvious that religion is on the side of the spiritual rather than the material world and that it fosters self-discipline and selflessness rather than license and gree."

The study said idea that true salvation could only be found in moral behaviour, not in having the most food or the most sex, may have served as a distraction to the non-elite, leading them towards ‘slow life’ strategies.

But Dr Baumard said that, as affluence becomes more widespread, moralising religion could be on its way out.

He said living a ‘slow’ lifestyle was becoming more common among the general population, with pepople motivated to cooperate with each other and focus on fulfilment in areas of life that are not just physical - which means there is less need for moralising religions to control the behaviour of a large poor population.

Writing in the New Scientist, Dr 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.”

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