Will affluence replace Christianity?

Map of the distribution of Christians of the world
Map of the distribution of Christians of the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The current edition of the New Scientist contains a fascinating, if I think ultimately flawed, article on the rise – and putative fall – of moralising religions such as Christianity.

Nicolas Baumard, an evolutionary psychologist at the École Normale Supérieure begins by asking how did Jesus go from dying on the cross with a few dozen followers to, inside four centuries, being celebrated as the central figure in the official religion of the Roman Empire – and reasons that this is because the moralising religion of Christianity suited the evolutionary/ideological needs of the Empire’s elite at a moment of profound societal transition.

Christianity, reasons Baumard, was very different from the religions it replaced because it emphasised rewards in the afterlife for morally correct behaviour, as opposed to the material focus on the here and now of the sacrificial approach of ancients. This, he argues, reflects a process seen in evolutionary psychology: when resources are scarce organisms pursue a “fast” psychology, seeking immediate rewards, both sexual and material and eschewing longer-term approaches even if they might bring bigger rewards: if you risk dying young, you sow your wild oats quickly.

In environments where resources are more plentiful then a “slow” psychology dominates – Baumard gives the example of falling birth rates and older parents in affluent societies: babies get more care and attention in wealthier homes.

The key here, he argues, is that around 2500 years ago humans in the Eastern Mediterranean began to enjoy better, more affluent, lifestyles – as measures by the proxy of energy use the per capita usage rose from around 15,000 kcal per day to something over 20,000.

Such affluence was not evenly spread, of course, and those who could afford to practise a “slow” lifestyle were threatened materially and sexually by the continuing “fast” livers – so it suited rulers to promote an ideology and religion that encouraged “slow” living.

Christianity, argues Baumard, was not the only sign of this – the Augustan turn towards morality was another symptom.

So what do I think are the flaws of this? Well, firstly, it does not really explain the first 350 years of Christian growth. Christianity is estimated to have grown by 40% a decade in its first two centuries. There seems to be good evidence that the new religion had a wide appeal across all social strata, not simply for the well off. (I am discounting the idea that the religion grew because of divine providence – after all Islam could make exactly the same, inherently unfalsifiable, claim.)

As Baumard makes clear, exhortations of morality were nothing new – and Augustus’s claim to found a new golden age of morality and honour, strongly supported by his propagandist poets, are the most obvious example. But this ideology seems to be about suppression of revolutionary agitation after a long period of civil war and upheaval – Rome’s need for stability around the turn of the millennium was much more immediate than because of a change in long-term economics.

Then we have the present day – Baumard suggests that as affluence spreads then the need to condemn the remaining “fast” livers will decline and moralising religion will fade too. Yet the world’s most prosperous country, the United States, is significantly more religious than almost anywhere in Europe.

To borrow a term from the Marxists, the argument seems to ignore the relative autonomy of ideology: in other words this religion spread because people liked what it said as much as because it reflected a material change in circumstances.



The second law of thermodynamics and the history of the universe

Oxford Physicist Roger Penrose to Speak at Bro...
Image via Wikipedia

I had to go on quite a long plane journey yesterday and I bought a book to read – Roger Penrose‘s work on cosmology: Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe

I bought it on spec – it was on the popular science shelves: somewhere I usually avoid at least for the physical sciences, as I know enough about them to make hand waving more annoying than illuminating, but it seemed to have some maths in it so I thought it might be worthwhile.

I have only managed the first 100 pages of it so far, so have not actually reached his new cosmology, but already feel it was worth every penny.

Sometimes you are aware of a concept for many years but never really understand it, until some book smashes down the door for you. “Cycles of Time” is just such a book when it comes to the second law of thermodynamics. At ‘A’ level and as an undergraduate we were just presented with Boltzmann’s constant and told it was about randomness. If anybody talked about configuration space or phase space in any meaningful sense it passed me by.

Penrose gives both a brilliant exposition of what entropy is all about in both intuitive and mathematical form but also squares the circle by saying that, at heart, there is an imprecision in the law. And his explanation of why the universe moves from low entropy to high entropy is also brilliantly simple but also (to me at least) mathematically sound: as the universe started with such a low entropy in the big bang a random walk process would see it move to higher entropy states (volumes of phase space).

There are some frustrating things about the book – but overall it seems great. I am sure I will be writing more about it here, if only to help clarify my own thoughts.

In the meantime I would seriously recommend it to any undergraduate left wondering what on earth entropy really is. In doing so I am also filled with regret at how I wasted so much time as an undergrad: university really is wasted on the young!

(On breakthrough books: A few years ago I had this experience with Diarmaid MacCulluch’s Reformation and protestantism. People may think that the conflict in the North of Ireland is about religion – but in reality neither ‘side’ really knows much about the religious views of ‘themuns’. That book ought to be compulsory reading in all Ireland’s schools – North and South. Though perhaps the Catholic hierarchy would have some issues with that!)