Comments on Part I tended to take a rather negative view of the argument advanced by Baumard et al. Thus, Gene Anderson questioned whether Confucianism is even a religion. It was certainly a moralistic teaching, but how important a role did supernatural agents play in it is very much in question. Furthermore, Confucianism, as far as I know, does not advocate asceticism. Moderation, yes. But extreme forms of asceticism? I don’t think so.
Scott Atran asks, did moralizing religions, which encouraged material sacrifice for spiritual rewards, gradually evolve over millennia? Or did they emerge rather suddenly over a short period of time – during the Axial Age?
These and other comments make it very clear that treating Axial ideologies (whether we want to call them religions or philosophies) as binary, all-or-nothing developments is a very unhelpful form of simplification. It artificially converts what might have been a gradualistic process into a threshold one, for example.
Moreover, there are just too many dimensions here. In addition to such aspects as morally concerned supernatural beings, monotheism, concern for equity, indictments of selfish and despotic elites (the “renouncers”), which I mentioned in the previous blog, there are others. Just to name a few: concern with cooperation, punishment of free riders, long-term goals over immediate needs, and so on.
Some of these appeared quite early in some regions, others came later. To answer Scott Atran’s question, we need to score different Axial ideologies along all these different dimensions, taking care to determine when different elements appeared in the evolution of each society (religions, after all, don’t spring forth fully formed and fully armed, like Athena from Zeus’s brain – as Scott Atran noted in his comment).
My suspicion is that when we do so, we will find that while many of the elements I listed above appear well before 800 BCE, the evolution of religion greatly accelerated during the Axial Age.
So we need much more detailed and nuanced data. But equally important is how we analyze these data. I know that most people’s eyes glaze over when one starts talking about statistics. But it is crucial to use the correct statistical approach, especially when you are analyzing observational, rather than experimental data. Unfortunately, the paper by Baumard et al. makes a rather elementary statistical mistake, which throws much of their conclusions into doubt.
The statistics that the authors used assume that each of the eight regions in the analysis (Greece, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asia, Mesoamerica, and Andes) developed independently of each other. In fact, they did not. For example, the Achaemenid empire, which arose in 550 BC, just prior to the narrow definition of the Axial Age they use (500-300 BC), incorporated at various times Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and more fleetingly/partially Greece and northern India.
The Achaemenid Empire (source)
The authors are aware of the problem, but steps they took to deal with it are wholly inadequate. Thus, they decided to drop Israel, because it was too culturally dependent on the neighbors.Then they analyzed the remaining regions as statistically independent of each other.
But dropping data is not how you deal with the problem of interdependence. You include all the data and explicitly estimate the autocorrelations. This is the approach that we used in our PNAS paper last year, for example.
In fact, I would argue that none of the Axial Age developments were independent of each other. They all were due to the rise of mounted archers in Central Asia, who then affected a broad swath of Eurasia, from Anatolia to North China. For details, see my article Religion and Empire in the Axial Age.
In this paper and several others (for example, here) I have argued for the following sequence of events. We start with technological improvements: Central Asians learning to ride horses in combat. This was combined with a previously known technology for making recurved bows, which were very powerful, but small enough to be shot from the horseback, and recently invented iron (among other things, for making deadly arrowheads). The combination of these military innovations created a true weapon of mass destruction. See these blogs for more detail:
The Iranic horse archers spread from the Great Eurasian Steppe into the swath of Eurasia extending from Anatolia to northern China. Their arrival intensified selection pressure on farming societies. Some went under, other survived by significantly increasing their scale, in the process becoming the Axial empires. In order to function reasonably efficiently without splitting up, these empires needed new integrative ideologies – the Axial religions. So the Axial religions arose as a result of invasions from the steppe (incidentally, Karl Jaspers, who came up with the idea of the Axial Age, also thought that it had to do with steppe archers.
So the causal chain was as follows:
mounted archers → intensified interstate competition → rise of megaempires → Axial religions for integrating new megaempires → empires pacify huge areas and create wealth → long-distance trades become possible due to pacification of terrain and to cater to new imperial elites.
Thus, I think that the explanation of Baumard et al confuses causes and effects. Affluence did not cause Axial religions; they both were effects of a third factor.
In fact, their whole premise seems unlikely to me. Wealth doesn’t create morality. If anything, morality creates wealth.
But we can argue about the theoretical merits of our rival theories until we are blue in the face and never make any progress. Fortunately, we can use data to resolve this argument. What we need to do is to resolve the temporal sequence of developments during the pre-Axial and Axial periods. And I hope we will have the data in about a year from now. Stay tuned.