Though religious leaders prefer narratives that describe their faith traditions as coming about through divine revelation, most humanists see religion as an ever-evolving social construct that changes based on the needs of a particular culture in a particular time period. Now, research published in Current Biology supports the humanist perspective on religion, as it demonstrates that economic changes within society led to the growth of today’s major world religions. The study also makes the bold suggestion that as our societies become wealthier, we may see the disappearance of religion entirely.
According to researchers, between 500 BCE and 300 BCE, new religious traditions began to emerge that focused on individual morality and promoted self-discipline and selflessness. These traditions eventually grew into the world religions that we are familiar with today: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among others. The roots of these religious traditions came about within a similar era, even though they originated in vastly different parts of the world, and researchers have been puzzled as to why these religions developed within the same timeframe. Literacy, urbanization, and population growth have all been factors that researchers have examined as part of the growth of these religions, but the latest research suggestions that affluence—that is, wealth—contributed as well.
Unlike previous eras, when societies focused on acquiring as many resources as possible in order to survive, the rise of affluence in the economies where these religious traditions took root meant that people could reflect on their lives beyond their immediate, material needs. As such, these religious traditions focused on self-denial and self-transcendence. Those who had access to enough food, shelter, and clothing could afford to detach themselves from the material world. The study also suggests that in order to control the less affluent members of society, who were likely still primarily concerned with acquiring enough food to survive, the wealthier elites of society promoted their religious views throughout the rest of society.
But what does the origin of today’s world religions mean for us right now? An article examining the study in the Independent speculates that, as more and more people around the globe become affluent, the need to use religion to control those less well-off could decrease, meaning an overall decline in religiosity entirely.
While this conclusion may seem hopeful to humanists, others could caution that we shouldn’t expect the end of religion just yet. Globally, the wealth gap is startling large, with Oxfam reporting that the 85 richest individuals in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion people. The poor, especially in the United States, are more likely to be religious, and the Institute for Policy Studies reports that wealth disparity in the United States is twice that, or more, of wealth gaps in the rest of the industrialized world. Given these indications that people in the United States are becoming less wealthy, not more, we seem unlikely to see the end of religion in the United States or in the poorer parts of the globe. Economic insecurity and inequality seem to be the breeding grounds for religious extremism, fueling the persecution of atheists and humanists that we see in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh, among other countries. The Independent article might optimistically predict that the world as a whole will get wealthier, leading to a reduction of religious piety. But the reality seems to be that a small percentage of the global population is getting richer, and perhaps more secular, while a much larger portion of the world becomes poorer and thus not only more religious but violently so.
Humanism, with its morality stemming from compassion and empathy based on our shared humanity, is deeply concerned with ensuring that everyone has a good quality of life, which should include access to food, clean drinking water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and other necessities. And while humanists often criticize the violence and irrationality of extremist religious movements, we would do well to remember that combatting the terror these movements cause must go beyond mere criticism. Ensuring that people have more equitable access to resources and allocating the wealth of our society so that all people can share in its benefits is the surest way to quashing religious extremism, as well as creating a better society generally. As the study in Current Biology suggests, more wealth might eventually lead to the end of religion, but wealth is heavily concentrated among a small few while the vast majority go without, then we will see an increase—not a decrease—in religious extremism and the violence it engenders.