Richard Carrier Improbable Moral

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


5. Who Would Join a Moral Order?

Every scholar of antiquity has noted the broad interest among the ancient Greeks and Romans in philosophies that promoted a strong moral order. Every great philosophy was morally demandingin fact, that is precisely why they were as popular as they were.[1] As Martha Nussbaum accurately puts it:

The Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and RomeEpicureans, Skeptics, and Stoicsall conceived of philosophy as a way of addressing the most painful problems of human life. They saw the philosopher as a compassionate physician whose arts could heal many pervasive types of human suffering. They practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual technique dedicated to the display of cleverness but as an immersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery. (p. 3)

It is very easy to see, especially examining the letters of Paul, how Christianity fit itself into this paradigm like a glove. It was following in the footsteps of the most popular philosophical traditions of its own dayand improving them, by answering the needs and desires of the lower classes (who far outnumbered the wealthy educated elite), and by abandoning the principles of doubt and freethought, replacing them with an absolute conviction and certainty that more people wanted instead (a point we shall examine further in Chapter 17).

It is therefore strange to see Holding claim that Christian ethics were so restrictive that “it is very difficult to explain why Christianity grew” while Jewish converts and sympathizers remained “a very small group.” Though Gentile converts to and supporters of Judaism were not such a small group as he must think (see Chapter 18), the relevant fact here is that Christianity was far less demanding than Judaism (as explained in Chapter 2). Thus, by Holding’s own logic, it should have been far more attractivehence far more successful in winning converts. And it was. It was a movement whose time had come. A moral vision of a just society was what most people in antiquity longed for. This was supposed to be provided by the laws and social customs, but those were failing, due to corruption at the highest levelsand a growing chaos at the lower levels, as in every region (and especially the cities) different peoples with different customs increasingly mixed and came into conflict. Indeed, by the 2nd century A.D. Roman society had actually codified two different systems of law: one for the rich and privileged and one for everyone else (an issue we shall raise again in other chapters). At the same time, the social and economic needs of “everyone else” were no longer being satisfied.

Enter Christianity. As we’ve noted, even Tacitus observed how the Jews had created for themselves their own just society of caring for each other like a family. This fact was not lost on the people of the Roman worldindeed, it was envied. And though for some, like Tacitus, that envy bred resentment, for others, like those Gentiles who supported or converted to Judaism, it brought longing. The Jewish “brotherhood” was something many people wantedand would gladly have joined, if only it wasn’t so hard to become and live as a Jew (as explained in Chapter 2).

Thus, Christianity succeeded precisely when it abandoned all those difficulties, while retaining the ideology of justice and compassion that people most wanted. By making that easier to obtain, joining the Christian brotherhood became an attractive option to a great many people who had become disappointed with the wider society. Yes, to obtain this they had to give things up, including the more liberal sexuality of the age, but this was no greater a sacrifice than the ritual and economic demands placed on them by every other religious movementin fact, for some (especially women) it was an easier demand to meet.[2] But in exchange for this, what they got was family, brotherhood, equity, justicein short, the joys of community, without the pains of the rat race, insulated from the tribulations of an uncertain and difficult world. Anyone who saw this trade as worthwhile would be inclined to join up. And those were the very people Christianity won over:

The continuing spread of Christianity, therefore, was not only due to its offer of goods which pagan “religiousness” had never centrally comprised. It was also due to faults in pagan society. In cities of growing social divisions, Christianity offered unworldly equality. It preached, and at its best it practiced, love in a world of widespread brutality. It offered certainty and won conviction where the great venture of Greek philosophy was widely perceived to have argued itself into the ground. By 250, it was still the persecuted faith of a small minority, but its progress was sufficient to reflect on a growing failure of the pagan towns.[3]

So Holding is wrong to suggest that Christianity would have been fatally unpopular because it “didn’t offer nice, drunken parties or orgies with temple prostitutes” but instead “forbade them.” In actual fact, many pagans frowned upon exactly those things. It is hard to find any elite author regarding them with approvalboth drunkenness and sexual dissipation were far more often regarded with scorn.[4] There was a more liberal sexual ethic generally, more or less depending on the community, and to a lesser extent even among the elite. But Holding exaggerates it. It wasn’t orgies and booze that most converts were giving up. Those who actually converted saw themselves as escaping the endless frustration, uncertainty and financial expense of sexual politics, which many an individual was willing to give up to better his life and save his soul. Not everyonebut enough to account for the actual scale of early Christian success (which we will discuss in Chapter 18).

Holding is also making a hasty generalization when he claims “the poor” would not care for Christian communist ideals “if they couldn’t spend that shared dough on their favorite vice.” Such a statement pretends that all human beings are reprobates. History proves otherwise: many great traditions of austerity and compassion have flourished, from Buddhism to the Cynicism of Diogenes, without needing empirical proof of any divine miracle. It is true that Christianity probably did not win over any reprobates who were happy with their cursed livesbut like Buddhism, Cynicism, Marxism, it certainly did win over those who (like Justin Martyr) expected more out of life, or who (like Augustine) were tired of the misery of their own sins. And that describes a lot of people in antiquity (as it does today).

Of course, this may even concede too much. It is an obvious fact that most devoted Christians don’t really follow the moral restrictions of their faith. There is as much adultery and sin within the Christian community today as within any other group. And from what evidence we have, of ancient Christianity as well as human nature generally, we have no reason to believe it was any different back then.[5] Many people probably did think they could join Christianity and gain its benefits without paying their moral “membership fee,” and no doubt then, as now, many got away with thateven despite the best efforts of preachers like Paul to restrain the flock. In other words, Holding’s argument assumes people could become Christian only by becoming morally austere, which is not true today, and probably wasn’t then.

In the same fashion, especially by the end of the 2nd century onward, the rich could (and many did) enter the Christian movement for the worldly advantages of power and prestige. There were fewer and fewer opportunities in pagan society for “big men” to lord it over others or enjoy the adoration of crowds, so the opportunity to enter such positions within a well-organized church hierarchy was probably sometimes seized for just that purpose. So, too, for the control of church wealth, much in the same way that corruption has seeped into the power structure of every other communist statewhere there are no “rich people,” where in fact that very idea is openly scorned, yet those in positions of authority nevertheless command a vast pool of wealth, and history proves they often behave little differently than if it were their own. Power not only tends to corrupt, but it lures. And once the Church had any real power to offer, its allure would attract sinister men as easily as the Church today attracts pedophilesand for similar reasons. I do not wish to imply that this influx of the morally insincere, from among the rich and the poor, was the norm, only that it was certainly an inevitable factor in the rise of Christianity that any discussion of its “success” must take into account.

But I shall restrict my consideration now only to morally sincere conversion. Even in that context, Holding is wrong to claim Christianity wouldn’t have succeeded because “it didn’t encourage wealth” but “sharing,” since that was actually what made the movement popular, especially among those groups it most successfully recruited from. Both the Christians and the Essenes were riding a wave of communist utopian longing that had deep roots in Greco-Roman society, especially among those outside the power structure.[6] The communist Essene communities were attractive for the very same reasons as Christianity: they exchanged uncertainty for security, loneliness for community, and traded the empty rewards of money and power for the more satisfying rewards of respect and compassion. The latter was even more true by the 2nd century, when wealth increasingly became a burden, as municipalities compelled the rich to engage monstrous financial outlays in support of the community, to the point of causing some wealthy families to flee or go bankrupt.[7] In such an atmosphere, the prospect of instead giving up that wealth in exchange for the security of a religious brotherhood became increasingly attractive, especially when you would enjoy the fruits of that benefaction yourself as a member, and escape the backstabbing world of politics for the comfort of a worldwide friendship.

After all, for many people, especially in troubled times, it becomes clear that their needs are far more important than any luxuries, and such needs include the comfort of friendship and community, and equity and justice, besides the obvious health and sustenance. So again Holding is guilty of hasty generalization. He says Christianity “would not appeal to the rich” because they “would be directed to share their wealth,” but this is too broad an assertion: even if most of the wealthy would balk (and no doubt they did), there were still some who would actually find this attractive, especially considering the rewards being offered, in this life and the next, and the troubled times they found themselves in. And this became more true in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, precisely when Christianity began to win more hearts among the wealthy elite.

Which brings us finally to Holding’s strange suggestion that Christianity would be hampered by the fact that “it didn’t appeal to the senses” but “promised ‘pie in the sky’.” It should not need arguing that this was actually an asset, not a disadvantage. By literally promising the world, indeed everything anyone ever wantedimmortality, power (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:3), freedom from disease and want, security from every injury and injustice, and most of all the comfort of a profoundly loving societyChristianity had put a very alluring product on the market. Of course, any movement that could actually provide all those things here and now would win everyone’s allegiance, and in short order. But no such movement existed. So pie in the sky was the only thing anyone had to sell. Thus, it is true that a potential convert needed to be convinced Christianity really had this product in stock, but the real question is: What actually convinced those converts? We will discuss that in Chapter 13. For now it is enough to note that this same promise was made by many other popular religions at the time, from the cults of Isis or Mithra to the Eleusinian or Bacchic mysteries, and people flocked to them in drovesin fact, a great many more people than came to Christianity in its first three centurieswithout needing decisive empirical proof that they really had the goods. So it clearly didn’t take much to convince people of that.

In the end, the fact is that most people in the ancient world were miserable. Even at the top there was some discontent, and there was much more within the middle class, and most of all lower down the ladder. And apart from violent revolution (which, for example, the Zealots attempted, but that most wisely saw would always fail), human beings have always had, throughout history, only two strategies for coping with a life of misery and uncertainty: they can seek endless pleasure to dull the pain, or they can seek peace from their miseries by devoting themselves to a moral life of philosophy or religion.[8] We see both strategies applied in the ancient world, across all social groups, as in every other age and culture. Christianity would have appealed to those most interested in the latter strategy. And that segment of society was certainly large enough to account for the entirety of Christianity’s success within its first century, and the bulk of its success within its first two or three centuries (just look at the writings of Tatian or Justinmoral discontent was the very thing that led them to Christianity).

Rodney Stark provides an excellent summary of my entire argument in this chapter. Stark explains how the moral demands of Christianity ensured that Christians would enjoy the company of morally sincere members, which made membership attractive to those who wanted to avoid the morally suspect. It also made the movement more effective in the beginning, by warding off leeches and parasites and other corrupting influencesthus making Christianity appear more blessed, and able to distribute emotional and material resources more fairly than most other social institutions of the day. Among Christians, you could feel safe, and enjoy the emotional and material benefits of trust. Stark concludes that early Christian churches

must have yielded an immense, shared emotional satisfaction. Moreover, the fruits of this faith were not limited to the realm of the spirit. Christianity offered much to the flesh, as well. It was not simply the promise of salvation that motivated Christians, but the fact that they were greatly rewarded here and now for belonging. Thus, while membership was expensive, it was, in fact, a bargain. That is, because the church asked much of its members, it was thereby possessed of the resources to give much. For example, because Christians were expected to aid the less fortunate, many of them received such aid, and all could feel greater security against bad times. Because they were asked to nurse the sick and dying, many of them received such nursing. Because they were asked to love others, they in turn were loved. And if Christians were required to observe a far more restrictive moral code than that observed by pagans, Christiansespecially womenenjoyed a far more secure family life.[9]

And so it was. Christianity’s moral demands were actually an asset, not a hindrance. They made the movement more attractive, more effective, and more successfulfor those who actually joined.


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[1] This is thoroughly demonstrated by Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994) and Joseph Bryant, Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece: A Sociology of Greek Ethics from Homer to the Epicureans and Stoics (1996).

[2] Most pagan cults required the same or similar sexual purity for limited times, in order to join rituals that procured salvation in this world or the next. In a sense, Christianity merely increased the efficiency of this system: whereas in some pagan cults such rituals might have to be repeated on a regular basis to ensure protection, Christianity simply required a constant state of holiness, thus guaranteeing a constant state of security. For many people this was less demanding economically and socially (it was free and required no time-consuming ceremonies or pilgrimages), and for others it was seen as a better guarantee against a horrible fate in this life or the next. See Robin Lane Fox, “Living Like Angels,” Pagans and Christians (1987): pp. 336-74.

[3] Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987), p. 335. He catalogues this discontent and Christianity’s appeal to it in pp. 321-24 & 334 (and in pp. 325-31 he catalogues attractions of Christianity that support my general case throughout all the chapters of this critique). A more thorough case for exactly my point is made by Bruce Malina in The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective (2000). The general idea that the rich are necessarily immoral greedy liars who are not to be trusted is explained by Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh in “Rich, Poor, and Limited Good,” Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (2003): pp. 400-401.

[4] This is exemplified by the fact that the pagans regarded the Roman sage Musonius Rufus to be the greatest wise man in history, second only to Socrates, and yet Rufus preached exactly the same ethics as the Christians. See Richard Carrier, “On Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay” (1999). Incidentally, Holding’s reference to temple prostitutes as a component of pagan religion has recently been refuted: there was never any such thing. See Stephanie Lynn Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (2008).

[5] For example, see 1 Corinthians 5 and Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987), p. 374. It is worth noting that the Christians did not expect perfection (Paul himself admitted to being a sinner in Romans 7:14-8:1), but allowed ample room for forgiveness and repentance before anyone was expelled for immorality (2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Galatians 6:1; James 5:15; 1 John 1:9, 2:12; Romans 4:6-8; John 20:22-23; Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 18:21-22, 18:35, 12:31, 6:12-15; Mark 3:28, 11:25).

[6] On the Greek longing for socialist utopias, see Peter Green, “The Individual and Society: Slavery, Revolution, Utopias,” Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (1990): pp. 382-95. On Essene communism and respect for it even among some elites, see: “Essenes” in Encyclopedia Judaica (1971): 6:899-902; Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (1997): 562; Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2000): 1.262-69; and for ancient witnesses: Philo, Hypothetica 11.1-18 & Every Good Man Is Free 75-88; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.73 (or 5.15 or 5.17 in some modern editions); Synesius, Dio 3.2; Josephus, Jewish War 2.119-61, Jewish Antiquities 15.371-79 (the sect was honored by none other than Herod himself), 18.18-22; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 9.18.3-9.28.2.

[7] See Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, 3rd ed., vol. 2 (1990), § 66 & 77.

[8] For discussion of this psychology in the context of modern American spirituality, see David Myers, “Faith, Hope, and Joy,” The Pursuit of Happiness (1992): pp. 177-204.

[9] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (1996), pp. 188-89. This summarizes what he demonstrates throughout the rest of his book. See also Jack Sanders, Charisma, Converts, Competitors: Societal and Sociological Factors in the Success of Early Christianity (2000). As an added example, Christian forgiveness of moral failure (see references in Note 5) was itself a very attractive feature of the movement, especially when set against the harsh and unforgiving response one might receive elsewhere.

Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.