"For I say unto you, that unto every one who hath more shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away. But those mine enemies, which would not have me reign over them, bring them hither, and slay them before me."
Some readers have noted hostility to religion, and in particular organized religious institutions such as Christianity, in my comments here and there on my other blog. I've been asked about it, and it's a reasonable question: what's it to me? Why would I have a problem with ideas and philosophies different from my own.
The answer to the latter question is: I don't have a problem with ideas and philosophies I disagree with. The fact that someone believes in a god does not make me think less of them. It's a part of their life I'll never fully understand -as someone who is at this point largely immune to religious experience- but I can understand that what appears ridiculous to me doesn't appear thus to others and I'm not going to tell someone off for the sheer thoughts they may entertain about the nature of the universe. Though I probably won't hide the fact that I find it amusing or weird, (and often the justifications used to prop up those beliefs will strike me as flat-out stupid. As if spirituality needed to be based on sense.)
I feel for all faiths the warm sympathy of one who has come to learn that even the trust in reason is a precarious faith, and that we are all fragments of darkness groping for the sun.What I have a major problem with is people who do have a problem with this kind of heterodoxy and can't deal with disagreement, or who use religion (or something like religion) to justify doing harm to other humans. This is a phenomenon which I call "assholiness".
My personal guideline is: "Think someone's ideas are silly, and tell them so in no uncertain terms if you like, but don't go burning heretics or electrocuting priests or stealing the the communion chalice to use as a beer mug. That's just dirty pool." As for the former question of why I bother caring, it's a complex answer that would require a book to thoroughly set forth.
But there's a more limited version of the question I get more often, and that is: "what's your problem with Christianity?" (I suspect that it's because a sizable percentage of the world's fully fluent English-speaking internet users, and certainly the overwhelming majority of native speakers, if not Christian per se, live in historically Christian societies.) That question too is a complex one, partly involving biographical details which I don't want to go into on this site, and partly philosophical in the same way as the more general question mentioned earlier.
But partly it's because the legacy of Christianity in the modern world (especially the culturally Western/Westernized world I live in currently) so often gives me cause for sorrow and mourning, and so rarely a reason for joy. Christianity was the first institutionalized religion to just refuse to leave people be. For every person who has found happiness and meaning through Christ, there are victims throughout history to spare, and an even greater number of people denied the possibility of leading a more satisfying life due to intellectual, sexual or genderal repression either directly due to Christianity or due to a belief system Christianity was (in part) the inspiration or impetus for. Not to mention the catastrophe of the arts which I'll get to later. And no, Christianity is not alone among religions in having its gruesome chapters. But it is my position that the Christian notion that a single god-image, and a single addressee of worship, and even manner of worship, must sweep the whole world has had especially disastrous consequences for free thought, and here's why:
Any religion that claims without proof that all other belief systems are by nature false or heretical cannot foster an honest acceptance or tolerance of religious diversity.
Yes, I know not all Christianities are like that either in spirit or in practice. And it's not the Christian relationship to divinity that is the target of my ire, but Christian proselytism and the Christian tendency to exercise one's own morality on others. I don't hate Christianity. I hate what happened because of it.
I think examining the classical world will help make my point. First, some background on Ancient Roman religion:
Part I: What Made Christianity Different?
This is Ben-Zed, god of food! And…Li, goddess of passion! And Mo-goth, god of the underworld, and protector of front doors. Gods by the bushel! Gods by the pound! Gods for all occasions!-Londo MollariWhile the second quotation above has been rightly criticized for being too charitable toward Roman society, it is far less off the mark than many seem to admit.
The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful -Edward Gibbon
The social function of Roman religious practice developed as a way of relating to the state, to one's ethnos (and religious allegiance to the emperor-cult came to be part of being a Roman citizen). Roman military culture was religious in the extreme, (the gods would not look kindly on an army that dishonored them), and it had its founding-myths and a belief in a divinely appointed destiny, to be sure. But there wasn't any kind of dogma or fundamental creed to speak of. The state-mandated aspects of religion did not really push into private devotion too much. What mattered was that one give Rome its due by sacrificing to gods in a way that Rome approved of. For Romans under Augustus, this meant making ritual sacrifice in acknowledgment of the Emperor's rightful place not as a god per se (as some later Christian historians would later claim) but rather as the head of the Imperial Cult, as the embodiment of what they stood for. For a Roman, under the late republic as under the empire, the concept we would refer to as "religion" was indistinguishable from what we think of as "civic duty."
Roman society really didn't care much about what kind of afterlife -if any- anybody believed in, what their belief was about the ultimate nature of the cosmos, whom they prayed to when sick or whether they gave thanks for a good harvest year to the Roman Ceres, the Greek Demeter, the Semitic Dagon, the Slavic Veles, the Gaulish Sukellos or the Etruscan Fufluns. What gods a denizen of the Empire worshiped on their own time was strictly between them and those gods as long as they didn't challenge the civic religion, and were willing to make sacrifices etc. for it. To not do so would have been less "blasphemous" as we understand it than "treasonous."
For one did not need to believe in Roman gods in order to participate in Roman religion. If you were a Celt worshiping Gaulish gods under Caesar or Augustus, and said to a Roman friend while visiting him "I don't believe in your Roman gods, so I can't participate in a municipal sacrifice to Neptune as your hometown's patron god" you would have come across as truly weird, and being a prick for no reason. Rather as if an Englishman today were to say to an American "In my opinion the Americans were wrong to rebel against British rule in 17775, so I refuse to go watch the 4th of July fireworks with you." To both of which the answer would be "quidnam malum ad te attinet, cacator?" or "what the hell do you care, asshole?" One could, if one wished, be openly doubtful and still make the sacrifices in honor of the Emperor. During the late Republic, for example, no less an intellectual than Cicero was on safe ground questioning religion as irrational, as long as they didn't get in the way of its practice- which which he viewed as vital for social stability. During the late empire, a kind of proto-monotheism or henotheism was especially prevalent among the roman upper class (due to the influence of stoicism.) Nobody who held such beliefs took too much trouble to hide them- they didn't need to as long as they went through the motions to give Roman civil religion its due. What or why you worshiped wasn't as important as how.
This is partly because Roman religion wasn't antagonistic in the way many modern religions can be today- not in the sense of "My god can beat your god" or "you just worship devils" or "only my gods are the real ones." While Romans had a habit of ascribing great events and catastrophes to the gods, people probably didn't go about claiming that the Carthaginiains lost the Punic wars because their gods were weak or non-existent (though the Carthaginian practice of child sacrifice was abhorrent to many.) And when Titus Flavius Vespasianus put down the first Jewish rebellion, he could go no farther than to conclude that their god must have foresaken them for some reason. One would be hard pressed to find a counterpart in the pre-Christian empire to modern Muslims, Christians and Jews all fighting over whether Muhammad, Jesus, or Moses had the biggest dick. Roman history doesn't have a parallel to the Biblical King Josiah ordering the destruction of anything built for any god other than Yahweh.
Moreover, pre-christian Rome was not in any meaningful sense a theocracy as some irresponsible textbooks claim. The res divina, the religious offices of roman governance, was not a blending of church and state. Those two concepts didn't exist as such. Public policy was not dictated by religion- though not all Romans saw it that way. But functionally, religion changed and evolved to fit the exigences of a changing and evolving political reality. Since the beginning of the Empire, whatever be the various ethnic groups' beliefs and practices regarding the divine, they were also (ideally) to be members of a single national supercult of the emperor that united them. One can see the logic behind such ideology/religion (not that there was necessarily a difference between the two in the Empire.) For in a time of slow communication, with distances being a much greater issue than modern humans can usually imagine, the Empire would only hold together if a common identity could emerge, if Gauls, Thracians, Britons, Africans etc could look at each other and say "yeah, these are my peeps."
But this need for unity and convergence was not normally visited upon the provincial populations in the form of culture to be adopted at swordpoint. Rather, Rome's general foreign policy was this: conquer populations by force and brutally suppress any resistance with extreme cruelty and severity (and yes, I know it was CRUEL AND SEVERE), but instead of forcibly Romanizing them, just make Romanization as easy and attractive as possible (e.g. sharing Roman engineering technology and expertise, offering Latin language-training for any and all who wanted it, give army recruits from the provinces the similar generous benefits to native Roman recruits etc.) After all, the gods were thought to have given the Romans a manifest destiny to bring their civilization and greatness to more parts of the world. And it made sense to demonstrate that greatness positively so that the new subjects might see that it was in their own best interest to Romanize (assuming they were deemed civilized enough to be Romanized. Many Germanic peoples were deemed too savage to be worth bothering.) The fact that Roman provinces of Dacia, Gallia, Hispania, Callaecia etc. gave birth to Romance-languages is a testament to how effective this was.
This policy of encouragement rather than duress was also evident in Roman religious attitudes. When Rome-as-state annexed new regions and peoples, the gods who reigned there no less than the people they presided over were encouraged to become part of the Rome-as-church, and the manner in which the new Roman subjects related to their now-Roman gods was granted official sanction as a religio licita ( "legal religion", or to paraphrase it more faithfully "permissible divinity-society-person dynamic").
For this reason, the Romans, leaving the local religious belief systems in the empire largely intact, preferred where possible to promote interpretatio Romana, the characterization of these new Celtic/Thracian/Dacian/Germanic/Iranic gods as simply a different, but not necessarily inferior, regional understanding of their own Roman ones (a practice which was borrowed from the Greeks who had earlier employed it in their view of the Roman Gods, ultimately leading the pantheons to converge closely.) Thus the writer Tacitus, for example, could acknowledge Germanic tribes' worship of Thor and Odin by understanding those gods as as the Germanic versions of Hercules and Mercury (even if some of their practices were distasteful to him personally.) Ditto for the Egyptian Ammon as Jupiter, Etruscan Tarun as Venus etc. Where equivalences were harder to rationalize, Rome had no ethno-religious qualms about simply adopting the foreign god into the Roman pantheon, like the cult of Isis- a goddess borrowed from Egypt, or Cybele borrowed from the Phrygians. It was so pervasive that sometimes it's hard today to tell whether a god was indigenous to Rome/Greece or an import. For example, the jury's still out on whether the cult of Mithras was a local Roman development or an import from Persia mediated through the Balkans. And the categories weren't fully fixed (e.g. Isis is her own entity at times, and at others she's equated with Venus/Aphrodite.) Nor were the Greeks and Romans the only ones to do this. There's some evidence of Germanic tribes doing the same with e.g. Thor and Jupiter. And it seems to have been a common practice in the Near East as well. Mesoamerican religions have done likewise. In otherwords Rome was not unusual in this respect. It was also Rome's main strengths- by not having a clearly delimited theology, and assuming that there were gods who ruled everywhere on earth, it was possible to continue broadening the scope of divinity as the Empire expanded.
There are few instances where this syncretic adoptive religious fraternity, which I might call "the heterotheon", broke down in Roman history. Aside from Judeo-Christians, the most significant act of religious persecution by Rome (for which we have reasonable attestation) was against the Gaulish Druids. Note that it wasn't belief in Gaulish/Celtic gods like Taranis, Belenos, Toutatis etc. that was a problem. Rather it was the Druids' social function (or at least what was perceived to be such) as a potential alternative and threat to Roman power. (There was also the matter of Druidic human sacrifice, which Romans of the time in question seem to have found just as horrific as most people would today, but the main problem was political.)
Rome's quandary with Jews was similar to this. Romans, Greeks and other Mediterraneans were quite willing to acknowledge the Jewish Yahweh as real or worthy of worship. And this they did- under various guises at various times equating Him with Jupiter, with Sabazius, with Dionysus etc. In fact, in a sizable swathe of Asia Minor, a hybrid of Yahweh-worship and Sabazius-worship (no doubt catalyzed by the significant Jewish population that had accrued there) seems to have resulted in a monotheistic cult of the god Hypsistos, "the highest of the high" (the only god, creator of all, never-begotten etc.) whose adherents, unusually for Asia Minor, abstained from eating pork.
Rather, once again, it was the political exclusivity of the Yahweh-only movement which had come to call itself "Judaism" which posed a problem. With Judaism the record is clearer than with the Druids. The Yahweh of Judaism was not just a god dear to a specific people, but one which deemed them His only chosen ones and helped them win wars against rival beliefs to prove that point and often wouldn't even acknowledge any other possible god as a deity worthy of the name. This, more than anything else, was what Romans must have been worried by: a rival to the Roman social order, Roman identity and the Roman civic religion.
Even so, although Romans found obstinate Jewish monotheism weird and a little disturbing, it wasn't despicable to them at first. Cicero did denounce it as a superstitio (a pejorative which might be paraphrased roughly as "religious sentiment gone dangerously mad" or maybe "theomania" if I'm going to go coining words), but from the start Caesar was generally inclined to let them be. And later on there were even times when Jews were exempt from official sacrifice if it was really necessary (in context this meant Rome was sometimes really bending over backwards to be benevolent.) It was only under the poor management of later whackjobs, when local tension between Jews and Greeks erupted into actual violence (it's impossible to know who threw the first spear, nor does it much matter), that Rome lost its patience and the shit finally hit the Judeo-Roman fan.
The Romans could deal with the Jews to a degree, whose religious practices they found bizarre but were just on the knife-edge of tolerable (though that knife would eventually start stabbing), but the Christians were an even bigger problem. The Christian god wasn't just an annoying issue of "my God can beat your god like no other." but rather a seriously problematic issue of "my God can be your god and no other". This God wasn't just a god worshipped by some people, but one that could make people die rather than obey the Emperor's orders to make a token ritual sacrifice. And one that was gaining support at what must have seemed terrifying speed. This is the kind of god who could piss Emperors off. A god who was no longer a version of the divine some people preferred to be feal to, but, as with the Druids, a competitor to earthly potentates and powers. And so early Christian friction with Roman government could only end with extinction of Christianity, or the Christianization of the Roman government. The latter ended up being the case. Romans were right to see Christianity as a threat to their society, values and social order.
Mind you, I am NOT so damn stupid as to think that this justified burning Christians (or anyone else, for that matter) by the chariot-load! Nor do I think that Diocletian was right when he had Christians arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved to death. I'm simply trying to explain why such a thing came to be seen as necessary to so many legislators and prefects of an empire that normally had a very good track-record of religious tolerance and pluralism.
Εἴπατε τῷ βασιλῆι· χαμαὶ πέσε δαίδαλος αὐλά·
οὐκέτι Φοῖβος ἔχει καλύβαν, ὀυ μάντιδα δάφνην,
οὐ παγὰν λαλέουσαν· ἀπέσβετο καὶ λάλον ὕδωρ.
Go break the news to the Emperor: the splendid court has been felled
There's no dwelling left for Apollo, no prophecy left in his dear Laurel
No heathenly prattle of fountains ; the talkative water has been dumbed dry.
-The final prophecy of the Delphic Oracle (my translation)
Early Christians seemed downright insane to Romans, and it's easy to see why. One can discern in early Christianity the kind of behavior we associate with cults and fanaticism today: preying on credulity and insecurity, telling people what thoughts they can and cannot have, telling adherents that "the end of the world is near, so be prepared" (e.g. Tertullian) indoctrination of adherents so completely that they'd rather die than go through the motions of a sacrifice, and callous cruelty to people over issues of belief. It's the kind of thing that lead St. Jerome to go out of his way to make it known to Aconia Fabia Paulina, the grieving widow of the recently dead pagan senator Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, that the husband she was mourning was in Hell and would never have peace. (Jerome's sainthood still baffles me. How can you canonize an assholy prick like that!? Did God so love the world that he liked it when you talk trash to a grieving widow about her husband!? I dearly wish there was a hell for that little bastard to go to). Long story short: there is no definition of "fanatic" or "cult" which cannot be applied to early Christianity:
And God said "Let there be Night!" and there was Night.
In the cruel reigns of Decius and Dioclesian, Christianity had been proscribed, as a revolt from the ancient and hereditary religion of the empire; and the unjust suspicions which were entertained of a dark and dangerous faction, were, in some measure, countenanced by the inseparable union and rapid conquests of the church. But the same excuses of fear and ignorance cannot be applied to the Christian emperors who violated the precepts of humanity and of the Gospel.
As Christianity spread, the pluralistic cross-pollination of pre-Christian Euro-Mediteranean religious figures was much ridiculed by early Christians (including the Church Fathers, such as the assholier-than-thou Tertullian.) as a sign of impurity, as well as inconsistency and illogic (the presumption that spirituality is -or should be- somehow consistent or logical would make some of the smartest most spiritual people I know shake their heads and snicker.) Things like this, for example, were now mere signs of falsity and foolishness.
Christianity claimed jurisdiction not only over piety of public behavior (performing the right rituals in the right ways) as the Romans did, but also the purity of private behavior, philosophy and thought- and to the majority of Church Fathers' there was only one source of such purity:
"Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. "
He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroadHowever much later post-enlightenment Christians tried to de-fang the above words by insisting that it doesn't mean what it appears to, god was now holding the mind in binary thrall. That a gospel containing passages like this managed to make its way into the canon in the 4th century speaks volumes of an obsession with the punctilios of dogma, and at best a disregard for the tendency of people to take a sound bite and run with it. If Christ (or whoever put these words in his mouth) wanted brotherly behavior among humanity, he had a piss-poor understanding of the human condition, or an even more piss-poor editor.
Doctrines like this, to a Roman of Caesar's time, would have seemed like the very essence of superstitio: divinity ruling every aspect of a person's outer and inner life, spirituality gone out of control. Cicero himself put it thusly:
Nam cum omnibus in rebus temeritas in adsentiendo errorque turpis est, tum in eo loco maxime, in quo iudicandum est quantum auspiciis rebusque divinis religionique tribuamus; est enim periculum, ne aut neglectis iis impia fraude aut susceptis anili superstitione obligemur.
As in any discussion, it is ill-advised to rashly accept the unqualified propositions of others, or to assert such ourselves. The most important issue at hand for our purposes is this: how much weight do we give omen-readers, divine ceremonies, and manners of observance? On the one hand, if we neglect them, we run the risk of a high crime against sanctity. On the other, if we embrace them we risk losing all perspective in an intoxication with the sacred, like an old woman. (my translation)
The effects of this bizarre but influential need to regulate and legislate the mind were many and monstrous. Once the Church(es) got themselves organized and in fighting form, they bought into a notion of Christians as comrades-in-arms (συστρατιώτῃ, in St. Paul's terms). Heterodoxy in most of Christendom -even in Byzantium, often enough- was like practicing yoga in a prison shower: an invitation to get wildly screwed. Even the most assimilated Jews could to varying degrees be stigmatized and victimized throughout Christian history- not even for worshiping a different god-figure, but merely for not worshiping Him in the precise way Christianity prescribed.
The Christians who wasted so much ink cataloging the religious excesses of pagan Rome in martyrologies never once stopped to realize that Jews endured far more grief under Western Christendom (and much of Eastern Byzantium) than they ever had under any pagan emperor before the insane Nero. The modern sense of perpetual potential victimhood that is often associated with Jewish culture (and which, combined with the "my God beats yours" sentiment, continues to fuel grotesque Jewish fundamentalism and harassment of Arab farmers in the West Bank) is largely the heir of that Christian absolutism, whose festering antisemitism provided a convenient cultural tool for the Nazis to exploit later.
Whereas Caesar jumped through legal loopholes to keep Synagogues from being illegal under Roman law, Jews in Western Christendom during the Middle Ages were the victims of all kinds of assholy harassment in the form of massacres, ostracizations and forced conversions galore- punctuated by the occasional reprieve when someone like Charlemagne or a local potentate happened get enough fiber in his diet to be in a good mood that day, with Pope after Pope doing little more than issue worthless pieces of parchment saying "you know, you should really be nicer to the Jews, guys!" to almost no effect, and with scant enforcement.
I should mention that things were initially, all in all, better for Jews in Byzantium where harassment of Jews was milder, involving mere limitations on the kinds of occupations they were allowed to have, prohibitions against the construction of new synagogues, limitations on the use of Hebrew, prohibition of celebrations of passover when it happened to come before Easter and, of course, routine public proclamations of contempt for Jews and symbolic condemnations for deicide (even when expanding Jewish rights!) So at first they were only humiliated instead of brutalized. I guess, since being demeaned as an inferior is preferable to being slaughtered as a heretic, this would be a step up. But there were forced conversions under e.g. Heraclius, and sporadic periods of scapegoating persecution of Jews. And soon enough Jews fell victim to passing Crusaders who would often ravage them for sport, and cause many Jews to commit mass suicide rather than submit to the forced conversion the crusaders foisted upon them- a practice which the Byzantines saw fit not to prevent and even to facilitate sometimes since, I guess, their tolerance of Judaism was only skin-deep (and they could always blame it on those Half-Goth Latin savages if ever they needed to reconcile themselves with the Jewish populace later.) And eventually all Byzantine tolerance for Jews was shot to hell, with local harassment of Jews outright encouraged, Jewish property getting confiscated every time the Empire had a cashflow problem, and Jewish populations finally being forced into ghettos. (Ah, Byzantine Christianity- So elevated!)
*** Non Habebis Deos Alienos! ***
It may seem like a self-evident proposition that life would be better if everyone knew the truth about e.g. the workings of the cosmos and agreed upon it. Would not humans be better off if they weren't murdering one another over ideologies and belief systems?
Well, possibly not. One could, and I would, make the case that in fact humans are better off being widely divergent in their opinions and beliefs, even if those beliefs sometimes lead to bloodshed, because they put certainty in its place, force us to confront counterarguments and make the examination of alternative perspectives harder to avoid.
This is why, even if I had the magical ability to make everyone in the world subscribe to my particular brand of atheism, I would never exercise such a power. If I had the chance and the power to convince the last believing family on earth that god doesn't exist, I would refuse to do so. I would rather live in a world where some people are wrong than do such an injury to humanity's impetus for self-examination.
The notion that the world would indubitably be a better place if more people had a correct understanding of its workings is a hellenistic parochialism based upon Aristotelian logic which was then kidnapped by the Church Fathers who made it a religious issue when they interpreted the sayings of Jesus within this framework, thereby gifting the world with religious absolutism in the form we know today. This cretinous dogmatism, for which Christian thought bears much historical responsibility, has been employed to unimaginably harmful effect on the way members of human civilization tend to view themselves and each other.
For example, the Islamic expansions of the second half of the first millennium owed much to the idea, not merely that the heavens had granted one people a manifest destiny to subjugate others (as had been the case with the Romans,) but that God had selected an empire of the faithful to put right a world gone wrong. That much of the Qur'an is a reaction to previous monotheisms, and that at least two of said monotheisms were instrumental in shaping/informing Islam, is so far beyond reasonable doubt that it's hardly worth pointing out. Much is often made by apologists of the Qur'anic injunction that there is "no compulsion as to religion" (لا إكْرَاهَ فِي الّدِينِ) and (sometimes even today) of the notion that it was really only those dirty pagans/mushrikūn that needed to be put out of the world's misery (in contrast to the protection-cum-subordination generously awarded to the Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and later Hindus and Buddhists who happened to be living in the territories colonized by Caliphal Islamdom). The former is seriously open to question on historical grounds, since even Islamic sources do mention people who, sometimes even in the prophet's own lifetime, were killed or threatened with such for refusing to accept Islam (as well as those who seem to have converted simply to avoid being killed.) The latter notion implies as a foregone conclusion that people deserve to be treated as lesser beings because of the number of divine beings in which they believe.
Even laying all that aside, the entire framework of discussion always takes for granted (as it always has since that dude died on the cross) the idea that it is normal for religions to compete with one another through active proselytism, normal for people to argue over how an individual may or may not pray and over the precise characteristics that may or may not be attributed to the addressee of that prayer, normal for adherents of one religion to claim that all other religions are at best mere bastard deviations from the pure truth. In other words, the basic concepts and axioms which Christianity inserted into the cultural and intellectual fabric of the Near East and western Eurasia (and, through them, modern "civilization") go unrecognized as such, and therefore unquestioned. (Pre-christian Roman religious officials were never crazy enough to try and legislate what was in somebody's head. Even the Chinese empire usually didn't, and often wouldn't have been able to suppress religions unless, and only to the extend that they posed an actual political challenge.) Present as ever are the originally Christian assumptions of the narrow path to salvation, the lamentable nature of heterodoxy, the one-and-only God that wants the world conquered through the saving of souls.
All this is to say nothing of the fact that none of the Islamic imperial conquests or Islam itself would have come to exist as we know them without being informed by imperial Christianity. So in a way I have Emperor Constantine to thank for the sack of Ammorium. (As if murdering his own son Crispus and his own wife Fausta wasn't bad enough. He must have run out of cheeks to turn or something. An assholy man if ever there was one. I confess that his being deemed a Christian Saint is profoundly offensive to me, as someone who despises the veneration of cruelty.)
The extreme reaction to Christian(ized) Monotheism(s) was to foster not moderation but rather the opposite kind of fundamentalism in the Soviet Union which developed a religion of a ruling class that not only hid by denying its own existence but also inherited the same zealous mania and intolerance of the pogrom-pushing 19th century Christianity they professed to be so different from. But the technology and bureaucratic scale of 20th century Russia meant an even greater bodycount. The Stalinist cult which was responsible for a deathtoll equivalent to about 7 holocausts combined was no less a product of the human religious impulse, and no less an heir of Christian presumptions, than the belief in the divine which it attempted to exterminate. The absolutist notion that "our thoughts on society are right and all other thoughts are evil, and so are the people who think them, and the whole frickin' world must be converted to our conviction" was in many ways a continuation and mutation, filtered through Marx and 19th century sociology, of the notion that "our God is the true one and all others are devils." The wolf of Christian-inspired religious absolutism had shorn itself of Christ and God and taken on the sheep's clothing of economics and sociology, but its my-way-or-the-highway essence remained as strong as ever. But I'd allow that, while Christianized absolutism was a major factor, it certainly wasn't the only one. Christianized absolutism just took a bad situation and made it much, much worse.
I've already touched on how Christianity provided the Nazis with the bedrock of antisemitism which Hitler capitalized. If there is any doubt in the reader's mind as to the Christian connections of Nazism, I would urge him/her to read Mein Kampf (which most people have heard of but never bother reading) wherein Hitler says in the first chapter that he’s doing God’s work and implementing God’s will by destroying the Jewish people. Then, I suggest that the reader consider how, when the Vatican was shown the book (and keep in mind that in those days they'd ban any book at the drop of a hat) they didn't ban it, and in fact gave it their approval. While we're on the subject, let's note that the Nazi dictatorship's first treaty ever was with the Vatican, exchanging political control of Germany for Catholic dominion over German education. (Oh and to put the cherry on top of the Christian shame-filled sunday, the Catholic Church celebrated Hitler's birthday every year, during which prayers were said for him on the orders of the Vatican, right up until the National Christianized Cult of Nazism was put an end to.)
One can go even further and note that after Hitler signed his treaty with the Vatican in 1933, he later adressed the German nation with the following words (translation mine):
So wird es die nationale Regierung als ihre oberste und erste Aufgabe ansehen, die geistige und willensmäßige Einheit unseres Volkes wieder herzustellen. Sie wird die Fundamente wahren und verteidigen, auf denen die Kraft unserer Nation beruht. Sie wird das Christentum als Basis unserer gesamten Moral, die Familie als Keimzelle unseres Volks- und Staatskörpers in ihren festen Schutz nehmen.
The National Government will take as its first and foremost duty the revival of our nation's spirit of cooperative unity. It will preserve and defend those fundamental principles upon which the might of our country rests. It will give steadfast protection to Christianity as the basis of our entire morality and the family as the nucleus of both state and nation.Nazism was nothing short of a political party which absorbed the German Christian right. The Church was so abysmally supportive of the matter that I can hardly blame the Jewish poet Uri Greenberg for saying that "I spit my blood upon the Cross."
One might further ponder the words that every officer of the Nazi army had to say, employing God's sanctity as collateral in an oath to defend the Führer:
Ich schwöre bei Gott diesen heiligen Eid, daß ich dem Führer des Deutschen Reiches und Volkes Adolf Hitler, dem Oberbefehlshaber der Wehrmacht, unbedingten Gehorsam leisten und als tapferer Soldat bereit sein will, jederzeit für diesen Eid mein Leben einzusetzen.
I swear by almighty God this sacred oath: I will render unconditional obedience to the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht, and, as a brave soldier, I will be ready at any time to stake my life for this oath.And how how on the belt buckle of every Nazi soldier, it said ‘Gott mit uns’: ‘God on our side’.
Just to add insult to well-deserved injury, I'll mention that Paul Johnson, the Catholic historian, has estimated that as many as 50% of the SS were confessing Catholics. Yet did the Church repudiate them or call them to repentance? Nope. In fact, Joseph Goebbels was the only high-ranking member of the Nazi party to be excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Why? Not for his heinous crimes. No, his excommunicable sin was that he married a Protestant woman! The heretic!
Mind you, protestantism was also subsumed as an essential ingredient of the Nazi Cult's Political Christianity. But the stupidity of the idea that Nazism had nothing to do with Christianity is not worth the time it would take to lay that out as well.
Anyway, the rest needs no explanation: the slaughterfests of conquistadors, the pogroms, the spanish inquisition. Pick your favorite European religious atrocity of intolerance and praise the Lord! (The one exception is China, and I'll get to that in a later post)
But wait, Christian history has more joys to offer the classicist. This time, literary ones.
Part III: Classical Literature under Christendom
...dum Capitolium scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex...
One of the greatest tragedies of Classical Greco-Roman History is not to be found in Euripides or Seneca, but in Christianity.
It's no secret that something which, in varying ways and to varying degrees in various regions, resembled the modern understanding of homosexual love/lust was not only tolerated but taken for granted in much of pre-Christian antiquity. And it's not surprising that this cultural phenomenon, in its various Greek and Roman incarnations, would find its way into Classical literature. Here are a few examples:
Eupolis, a contemporary of Aristophanes, devoted two comedies to the theme of older men being manipulated by the seductions of gold-digging young boys. Another of his plays entitled "Dippers" features a song where young boys are urged to lift their legs high and shimmy their butts artfully.
The play "Boy-lovers" by Diphilus has a character who can't stop going on about the lovely features of a boy he's seen.
Aeschylus, in his play "Mirmydons" depicts Achilles as moved to take up arms against the Trojans by the death of his lover Petroclus (whereas the Homeric depiction of the Achilles-Petroclus duo leaves open the question of romantic attachment, Aeschylus leaves no doubt about them being very much into each other- in every sense of the preposition.)
Sophocles in "The Women of Colchis" mentions the pretty thighs of Ganymede lighting Zeus' fire.
In Euripides' celebrated tragedy "Chrysippus" the climactic tragic moment is the Theban King Laius' rape of the Elean boy Chrysippus.
Some of you might be wondering "Euripides' celebrated tragedy? How celebrated exactly? I've never heard of it." No shock there. Odds are, unless you're a Classics Geek, you haven't heard of any of these works, even if the names Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are familiar to most literary afficionados in the west, and even if some of them were held in great esteem by many cultured Greeks and later Romans (e.g. Cicero, the man I love to hate lovingly, in his "Tusculan Disputations" mentions Euripides' play as a demonstration of how passionately men can love men, and what this passion can lead to if indulged without moderation.) There's a reason for that: they're all gone. No copy has survived (though pieces of Aeschylus "Mirmydons" have recently been recovered from bits of papyrus used to mummify a body.) And this is only the tip of a very, very long, thick....iceberg. These all but vanished in the first 1300 years or so of Christianity.
The main problem is not that such works were destroyed or banned. Although book-destruction did happen, it wasn't libricidal gay-bashing, contrary to the position of the mythomaniacs, some with Classics degrees, who still insist that Christians e.g. burned Sappho's books. The key issue is copying-practices. With the knowledge of writing in the Latin West concentrated in monasteries, and the Christian Byzantine Empire in the Greek West (where any germinations of an educated secular middle class were ripped out at the root) so mired in piety, purity and pedantry that it stifled literary eroticism even of a heterosexual nature among its upper classes, certain books were simply less widely copied.
What little remains of the literary expression of classical homoerotic, heteroerotic, and generally raunchy social phenomena survives little thanks to Christian copyists, and very often in spite of them. For example, the main modern manuscript source of Plautus' comedies is a 4th century compilation which had been scrubbed blank by a monk and then overwritten with St. Augustine's commentary on the Psalms- useful for historians of orthography and for the devout perhaps, but containing no insight whatsoever that I couldn't get from any old dime-a-dozen Sunday-school teacher. It's taken quite some doing to read most of it. This is because the need for writing-quality vellum (more durable than paper or papyrus) was great and vellum was hard to come by. Therefore the practice of scrubbing manuscripts for new material was a common one. But when a synodal proclamation in the late 7th century prohibited the overwriting of any manuscript containing Scripture or the writings of the church fathers, this meant that non-Christian literature (especially texts using unusual or difficult language like poetry, and more especially those containing historical stages of the language different enough from its literary medieval version to pose comprehension problems to some guy in a scriptorium) was the first thing to be wiped out. This means furthermore that copyists wouldn't just go about refusing to write something deemed indecent, but they were probably actually looking for reasons to scrub a manuscript for e.g. a new decree to be prepared in writing, a freshly-canonized saint's life to be fabulated and written down, or yet another ornately illuminated Gospel. Moreover, it meant that a secular text was less likely to be recopied than a Godly one. Some classical authors were nonetheless copied because they were deemed indispensable for some reason, often because they were seen as worthy models of "Good Latin" (like Horace or Virgil- despite the obvious admiration for young boys' bodies espoused by the former.), or they were promising targets for ideological and theological kidnappings, such as Martial whose habit of decrying various forms of overindulgence might have appealed to certain monks, or Seneca whose Hellenistic Stoicism was approved of by the Church Fathers as an inspiration for piety and moderation. (So much so that a popular legend developed that Seneca had been converted to Christianity by St. Paul before he committed suicide in a hot bath, the latter portrayed rather hilariously as some kind of weird clandestine baptism. Eventually this resulted in a series of forged correspondences between St. Paul and Seneca, and St Jerome even made an enthusiastic case for Seneca's sainthood. Nor can I overlook the irony of the fact that the ever-so-pious author of the ever-so-pious Latin Bible translation wanted to canonize a suicide-victim- having no idea that in a few centuries the idea of a suicide saint would be unthinkable.)
I add that it's not just historical witnesses to sexual diversity that fell victim to this Dark Age Under Our Lord and Censor. The texts that were erased through this kind of negligence are uncountable. Literally uncountable, because we can only count the ones whose title some grammarian or other happened to mention. Texts which would be of extreme interest to every kind of historian have been ejected from existence by this indirect Christian censorship in unholy conjunction with the devourings of time. (To take one example: of delight to historical linguists would be the book by Suetonius, entirely dedicated to the description of contemporary Greek profanity and the peculiarities which distinguished it from its Latin counterpart. Now, if only medieval monks weren't scared so fucking shitless by words for shit and fuck!)
So far this may seem mainly like a practical issue with unfortunate consequences for secular literature. "After all, it's not their fault they needed the vellum" one might think. No it's not. But the fact that there were attempts to set up special libraries to store secular literature in both the Eastern and Western empires is a testament to the fact that the problem was recognized as such- and so the excuse that "they had no idea these books would become hard to get" doesn't hold much water with me. Moreover, which books were worthy of storage, and which were too "dangerous" to be widely circulated was always a game of political and theological baseball, and the need to control thought by proxy through book selections. Heated disagreements and sticking points like the iconoclastic controversy in the 8th century resulted in particularly large amounts of Christian libricide. It's easier to burn a book than to write one, and with access to literacy firmly in the choke-hold of a Christian Church that was often worried about sniffing out heretics, and of a small affluent class with a vested interest in protecting their position it's not hard to do the math. (Compare this with the periods and places under the Islamic empires where non-clerical middle class literacy was not hard to come by, and it's not hard to figure out why much Greek philosophy only survived the first millennium in Arabic translation.)
Another example to lead to my next point: one single manuscript containing the poems of Catullus' (about all kinds of love, homosexual, heterosexual, hetairosexual etc.) managed to survive the first millennium. This manuscript is first mentioned by Bishop Rather of Verona in the 10th century who discovered it and subsequently reproached himself for enjoying such indecorous poetry so much. That original manuscript is now lost- what we have are various copies of that manuscript, and copies of copies, in all kinds of poor condition, and it is thanks to the humanists of the Renaissance that Catullus escaped oblivion at all.
Renaissance Humanists were, of course Christian (one was even a Pope!) and much of their work was motivated by a belief that they were supplementing and complementing, not supplanting or contradicting, Christianity. But nothing endemic to Christianity (or religion) per se seems to have been the conditioning factor. More than anything it was a willingness to examine the world and the ideas and arts of pre-Christianity, a belief that something of value (whatever the definition of "value" one might have) was to be gained from the arts of people whose feelings about the cosmos may have been alien or even apparently execrable. Dante exemplifies the beginnings of this trend when, in the Inferno he puts the literary figures of antiquity in a special place on the outer fringes of hell for the "virtuous unbaptized" where they are afforded a much-diminished but restful and pleasant version of heaven.
In a nutshell what made the Humanists so industrious and so different from their predecessors was open-mindedness. This, for the West, was a beginning of the breakdown in the West's notion that the mind somehow needs to be protected from learning. From then on, when someone asked the question "why not?" it wasn't always (even if it still often could be) a simple matter to shut it down with "because I/we/they said so."
But even the Humanists had had the classics sanitized and desatanized for them by a thousand years of passive censorship. Who could say what Humanism would have brought about had the Greek-scholars of the Renaissance been able to read, for example, Aeschylus' dramatization of how Petroclus and Achilles felt about each other? If alternate notions of sexuality had been more available in the venerated classical tradition during the Renaissance, would the homophobic attitude of the modern Catholic Church still be around to make me embarrassed to be human?
In addition to the well-known forms of grotesquery such as the Christian Crusades and the Islamic conquests, the institutionalization and enthronement of the monotheistic religious impulse, whether enslaving one's thought processes to a cosmic figure (as in many versions of Islamo-Judeo-Christianity), or making a religion out of Humankind or a subset of it (as with Stalinism, Nazism or the Jucheism of North Korea), has resulted in several kinds of intellectual, literary and artistic impoverishment- and I see no reason not to see institutionalized Christianity as one of the truly worst offenders, if not the worst.
Of course, it could be argued from a certain perspective that it was the ambient intellectual and spiritual climate of Rome and Judea that made this possible and inevitable, that if it wasn't Christianity, it would've been something else just as annoying. This argument presumes that whatever rose in Christianity's place would have been as destructive to antiquity, would not have subsumed Roman paganism instead of destroying it, and wouldn't have been better at any number of things. Moreover, even if true, the argument is at best an excuse- not a justification.
Freethinking has had to assert itself in an uphill battle against such things over and over again. The vast literary artistry of antiquity, now decimated to such a paucity that the original texts of the entire published corpus of classical literature can fit on one wall of a university book store, is a casualty, in part, of such a battle.
It is a casualty that I am reminded of every time I return to the Greek and Latin poets and playwrights and think just how deep the Christian nail has been driven into the hands of European classical heritage, how much inventive literature has, for the sake of unoriginal cosmology, been bled dry to all but the last drop. At such times I cannot help but think to myself "That blood be upon Christendom, and on its children."
A Bible in every hotel room in North America, and Classical scholarship now has to resort to archeological dumpster-diving, literally rummaging through ancient trashpiles for a few lines of precious half-readable text by Sappho or Menander. Does it piss me off? Yeah, you could say that.
3. Q & A anticipating the comments
Q: So do I resent religion?
A: Yeah, sometimes, in some ways. But it's not belief in the divine that I resent at all, so much as the consequences those beliefs can have.
Q: Does Christianity annoy me more than some other religions?
A: Yeah. Though this may also have something to do with the fact that as a westerner, I'm most acutely aware of Christianity's crimes against human sanity. Then again, I don't think many forms of religious zealotry have done quite as much damage, or had nearly as much influence on other belief systems, as the Christian kind. Buddhist fundamentalism, and the painfully authoritarian articulations of Confucianism, have their share of the gruesome and tragic. But they weren't spread over multiple continents by conquerers, used to rally forces for trans-continental crusades, or an inspiration to so many other successful belief systems to try the same ugly thing.
Q: But don't you realize that this isn't real Christianity? This kind of thing wasn't what Christ wanted for humanity!
A: I get this response often, and it is so ridiculous to me as to be offensive. I truly don't give a crap. Christ's teachings (and the sanitized, edited version of them which was given canonical form in the Gospel a few centuries later) ultimately resulted, directly and indirectly, in millions upon millions of people acting like brutal, cruel, assholy maniacs in His name or God's on an unprecedented scale, from the jungles of South America to the crusader-massacres of Asia Minor and the Levant, to even (albeit often to a much milder extent) the empires of the Near East and Central Eurasia under a somewhat different religion. Hair-splitting over whether some carpenter named Joshua may have meant one thing or another would be small comfort to the Jewish woman in Kishinev who had her unborn child gouged out of her gut by a bayonet in the hands of a man screaming "In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit." (Yes, that's an actual incident described in a surviving Yiddish diary.) Christ wouldn't have liked it? Well then I dearly wish He had done the world a favor and shut His trap, instead of ultimately defacing human intellect by introducing the notion that there's only One "true" religion, (and subsequently given indirect rise to ideologies of there being One acceptable way of doing things in general e.g. the militant versions of socialism of Eastern Europe and Asia) for the whole damn world. It is thanks to His influence that European (and later, to a lesser extent, Near Eastern) empires for most of the past 2000 years have almost without exception been manically afraid of cultural, philosophical and even linguistic heterogeneity. (On the last point consider that the ancient Roman, Greek and Persian empires never tried to wipe out regional languages or dialects, as long as at least some of the locals were willing to learn the dominant international language -or some version of it- for sheer practical reasons. Now compare this with the British in India or the Spanish in South America where the initial tolerance and even promotion of the local languages in administration was halted under the influence of missionaries and the church- because unchristian languages are the devil's tools.) Apologizing to a corpse and saying "sorry I didn't mean to slaughter you" does nothing but insult and demean the memory of the dead.
Q: But what about the positive ways in which Christianity has affected the world? The end of slavery, gender equality, compassion, charity etc.
A: Christianity can't take credit for such things.
The institutionalization of Christianity didn't free Roman slaves. All it did was allow slaves to participate in the liturgy, and result in the occasional proclamation that masters shouldn't be too mean to their slaves for no reason. There were those such as St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Patrick who were outright opposed to slavery, but they had scant effect. Even someone like John Chrysostom, while saying that slavery wasn't very Godly, nonetheless urged slaves not to be too disobedient. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and countless others offered justifications for slavery. In the Middle Ages, slaves who ran away from their masters were condemned by the Church (in both East and West) and barred from communion. Oh and there was that Byzantine prohibition against Jews owning Christian slaves (lest their Christ-killing masters convert them away from the One True Faith.) Once slavery finally started to fall into controversy, of course, people attempted to recharacterize and reinterpret New Testament expressions like "slave/serf of God" (Greek δοῦλος θεοῦ, Latin Servus dei) as "servant of God". The American abolitionists may have been Christian, and justified their beliefs in outspokenly Christian terms, but that was because there was no other acceptable moral framework available in America. If your culture insists that Christianity is the only true faith, how are you going to justify your philosophy to yourself or, failing that, to the world at large other than in terms of that faith? If you were an abolitionist and an atheist at heart, who truly believed that slavery was wrong for purely secular reasons, you could be shunned and scorned for simply admitting their atheism- but if you pretended piety and attempted to use Christian concepts to push your point, you might stand a chance. That's what hegemony is: power and control so total that nobody even notices it.
As for sexism: women in antiquity, though hardly given equal footing with men, were not deemed the origin of sin the way they were by many early Church Fathers and people like St. Jerome (indeed some Roman Stoic writers like Seneca, though they very much believed in gender roles, rejected the notion that there was anything wrong or shameful about being a woman in and of itself.) And even in the mainly patriarchal world of Ancient Greece (where it is usually held that women could never be citizens under any circumstances) there was at least one city-state, Sparta, where women were citizens, could kick some serious ass in battle if there was a shortage of men, could have certain positions of power over men, could own and inherit land, and where a woman married to an elderly man was allowed and even encouraged to have sex
with a younger man on the premise that a child should have the most fit parentage possible in order to spawn the strongest Spartans possible. On the other hand, the notion that prostitution is unholy and ipso facto evil and destructive has few instances that cannot be traced back to Judeo-Christian morality (consider the pre-Christian religious prostitution once common in many parts of Eurasia.)
Q: But is this absolutism really unique to Christianity originally?
A: I wouldn't go so far as to call it unique. But it is certainly in many ways an oddity and deviation from what seems to have been typical throughout much of human history. There are few parallels to be found (one thing that comes rather close is Egyptian Atenism, whose progenitor was eventually seen for the crackpot he no doubt was.) Empires predating or uninfluenced by Christianity or Christianized Eurasia have almost always been much more flexible about local belief systems. For example not just the Romans, but also Alexander the Great's Indo-Greek empire, the Aztec empire, the Mayans, Incas, Maurya, Kushan, Akkadians etc. were all quite tolerant of local beliefs and rituals (though practices deemed outright immoral- such as human sacrifice in Roman-occupied Gaul and Carthage- were usually not okay.) It's hard for me to judge all empires including those for which not enough evidence is available (or about which I haven't read enough) on the incidence of religious persecution, such as Achaemenid Persia- where it's hard to figure out how Zoroastrianism spread precisely- though at least some rulers, such as its founder Cyrus, were at least not pricks about it and quite tolerant. And it's clear that the later Sassanids, Parthians etc. were all more or less okay with religious heterogeneity, though some religions which threatened the power dynamic were less okay than others that didn't.