The Notorious B.I.G. was famed for claiming, “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” but a new article from Yale psychology graduate student Konika Banerjee GRD ’16 and psychology professor Paul Bloom argues that the reality is different.
In an article entitled “Religion: More Money, More Morals” published in Current Biology on Jan. 5, Banerjee and Bloom build off of a recent study by Nicolas Baumard of the University of Pennsylvania. That earlier study claims that between the sixth and fourth century B.C., the dramatic growth of wealth in societies worldwide increased religions’ emphasis on morality. The Banerjee and Bloom article expands upon Baumard’s and argues that past a certain point of wealth, moralizing religions became less prominent in society.
“Religions around the world have not always espoused the sorts of moral doctrines and spiritual ideals that many people naturally associate with religion today,” said Banerjee, a doctoral candidate in psychology. “Rather, this association seems to have emerged fairly recently in human history.”
In the first study, Baumard looked at a wide variety of faiths and philosophies, including Judaism, Buddhism, Daoism and Jainism, and identified common trends in the faiths, including a greater emphasis on gods as virtuous beings and a transcendence of temporal and material matters. Being faithful began to include relinquishing worldly possessions in favor of charitable acts and ascetic worship, wrote Baumard, a change that he described as the movement into the Axial Age, a period of broad growth in religions worldwide.
“This higher purpose is reflected in the higher purpose of the universe itself (e.g. karma or logos),” Baumard wrote in the study. “Beyond this material world lies another reality in which human existence acquires a new purpose.”
In Roman societies, for example, the time period featured the growth of stoicism, a broad philosophy that warned against coveting external goods, favoring instead complete control of one’s desires and inclinations. Epictetus, a first century Roman stoic philosopher, wrote that “the essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.”
This approach to life, Baumard argued, is the product of a wealthier society less concerned with base sustenance and more able to pursue other forms of well-being.
This growth in wealth across the eight societies surveyed was measured primarily by looking at the growth in energy captured by the society. Essentially, how many calories of consumable energy produced per capita per day determined the degree that the average person had to be concerned with sustenance, and thus how much surplus could go towards the production of societal goods other than grains, like ships and buildings. A society less concerned with immediate survival is then able to think about long-term well being and deeper questions.
When the societies passed the threshold of 20,000 nutritional calories per person per day, there was a higher likelihood of the growth of these Axial religions over a few centuries, the study found — the huge surplus of calories that were not being consumed by the humans could then be used for other purposes, like feeding animals. That supported the concept that well-being led to a transition in the emphasis of religion. The study argued that gods without many moral lessons became moral forces because of this surplus of calories and affluence. That, in turn, led to greater societal cohesion.
The Banerjee and Bloom article differed from Baumard’s study in its interest with the modern implications of the notion that wealth corresponds with growth of religious morality.
“Today, the most affluent countries are actually the least religious, while less affluent countries tend to be far more religious,” Banerjee said. “There may in fact be a sort of inverted U-shaped relationship between societal wealth and moralizing religions. Some threshold of affluence has to be passed for moralizing religions to emerge, but further affluence may in fact promote secularization, at least in the modern world.”
While the populations of economically strong countries like the United States and Germany are less religious than in the past, nations with widespread poverty often strongly embrace faith.
Banerjee reconciles that observation with the study’s claims by recognizing that even the poorest modern country has more wealth than a state in the ancient world. She speculated that there may be some sort of peak point — where religion most strongly guides ethical thought — between pre-Axial poverty and modern affluent consumerism.
“Some threshold of affluence has to be passed for moralizing religions to emerge, but further affluence may in fact promote secularization, at least in the modern world,” Banerjee said.
According to the Gallup poll, between 1960 and 2010, the percentage of Americans who do not follow a religion increased sevenfold from two percent to 14 percent.
Correction: Jan. 21
A previous version of this article misstated the class year of Konika Banerjee GRD ’16.