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Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


6. Who Would Join an Intolerant Cult?

James Holding quotes DeSilva's comment that "the message about this Christ was incompatible with the most deeply rooted religious ideology of the Gentile world, as well as the more recent message propagated in Roman imperial ideology." He concludes, therefore, that Christianity would have been "doomed" without something "to overcome Roman and even Jewish intolerance," and even more, to overcome a popular distaste for the "arrogance and exclusivity" of the Christian's monotheistic, uncompromising soteriology. Hyperbole aside, all this is basically correct--and we will see later what it actually took to convince people to abandon the most popular ideological assumptions of their day and radicalize themselves (as desperate peoples tend to do) into extreme intolerance (the example of Islam comes to mind).

Holding's conclusion does need some tempering, however. First, in terms of number, we already know a large number of Gentiles had long been attracted to the "intolerant" monotheism of the Jews, and we have demonstrated that Christianity offered all the same goods at considerably less expense (see Chapter 2). Therefore, even with the "stigma" of monotheism, we know for a fact Christianity would have been significantly more successful than Judaism already was in winning Gentiles over. Likewise, Christianity's largest gains in its first hundred years came from Jews and their sympathizers, hence the stigma of monotheism had already been overcome within their largest target audience before the Christians even came along. Thus, that stigma was not in fact a large difficulty for early Christianity (we shall discuss the nature and number of converts during the first century in Chapter 18), while other stigmas could be overcome among Jewish audiences with scriptural and moral arguments (we already discussed how Christianity sought to attract Jews in Chapter 1.4, Chapter 2.6, and Chapter 3.3, as well as Note 2.19, and we will revisit this issue again in several later chapters).

Second, as we've already discussed, outside those groups already embracing monotheism, it was precisely because Christianity subverted "Roman imperial ideology" that it won as many converts as it did. That was a large part of its appeal to the oppressed and disillusioned. Thus, its intolerance in that regard became an asset, not a burden. In the same fashion, it was the increasing failure of popular ideology to meet the needs of Roman communities that Christianity most exploited. And Christian monotheism is the premiere example of the brilliance of this marketing strategy. Pagan ideology was an inevitable failure, as a consequence of statistics as well as human corruption, and Christian monotheism was the perfect "answer" as to why.

First: Statistics. Paganism was largely built on the backbone of "votive cult" and equivalent practices: the gods were supposed to help people in the here and now, by bringing justice, peace, health, prosperity, and fertile fields, and (conversely) warding off evil, war, illness, misfortune, and famine. To ensure this, pagan cult involved extensive prayers, rituals, sacrifices, and "vows" ("if you heal my cow, Lord, then I will donate a gold idol to your temple").[1] Since there are no gods, the actual outcome of these efforts is random: your efforts would fail as often as succeed, and divine rewards would "appear" to fall to villain and saint alike, without regard to merit, which was obviously perceived as capricious and unfair.

The pagan system did produce explanations for this. Of course, philosophers like the Epicureans used it as proof the gods don't care at all. But sorcerers claimed to have "spells" that would get the gods in line--for a sizable fee--while holy men blamed these apparently unfair outcomes on all manner of convenient causes, from boons and curses inherited from past lives or ancestors, to some obscure failure of ritual propriety that offended the gods, and so on, which could sometimes be corrected with further rituals.[2] Most people were sufficiently convinced the Epicureans were wrong--since the gods had answered enough prayers to "prove" they were real and responsive--and the "solutions" of sorcerers and holy men were statistically guaranteed to work more often than not, due to the law of regression to the mean. The gods would become responsive, and when they failed again, a new explanation would be offered, and so on it went. This is a trap of superstitious thinking that has been scientifically demonstrated to ensnare even the rational and well-educated today.[3]

Nevertheless, it is easy to see how many would become frustrated by this system. So long as it was the best explanation they had of what was going on, they would stick with it and try to work the system as best they could. But Christians had an alternative explanation: the gods are capricious and fickle because they are evil. They are demonic entities out to exploit you through deception and allurements. They are just teasing you, using you.[4] Instead, if you join "our" community, who worships the one true god, your benefits will be more tangible, fairly distributed, and consistent, thus "proving" that ours is the true and only just deity.

This was an effective argument, for the evidence bore it out: since the Christian system had actual human mechanisms for effecting and distributing benefits fairly, its rate of success was obviously going to be better than chance, and therefore better than all the pagan gods combined. The Christians had a powerful argument on their side. Though we now know this reasoning is fallacious, back then it would have made a lot of sense to a lot of people. Frustrated by the pagan gods, many would find appealing the notion that those gods are perverse. And by offering one supreme deity who is not, the Christians not only explained the pagan's problem, but immediately provided a solution that really appeared to work (especially considering the role miracles played in winning converts, an issue we will discuss in Chapter 13).

Second: Systemic Failure. Besides the obvious statistical anomaly the Christian message exploited, there was the more pervasive fact of systemic injustice. A large element of pagan religion was communal and served the explicit aim of supporting the power structure. To participate in cult was often to engage your devoted effort toward winning the gods' favor for those in power. The idea was that as long as the gods granted good fortune to your leaders, your community would benefit, enjoying peace, justice, and prosperity. Already by the 1st century, and even more in the 2nd, and far more in the 3rd (as we shall see in Chapter 18), this just wasn't cutting it: the powers-that-be were certainly seeing lots of good fortune showered upon them (and their cronies and collaborators) by the gods, but the more this happened, the worse things got for everyone else. The more the masses won the gods' favor for the community, the more oppressed, impoverished, and exploited they became, and the more unjust, corrupt, and insolent their leaders became. No doubt this bred widespread discontent.

Christianity exploited this fact by explaining it: the powers-that-be were unknowingly enjoying the benefits of demonic forces, and the common people were only helping them and thus making things worse. Instead, if the leaders would only turn to the one true god, then they would, like us, bring true justice and equity to all. This, too, was a very potent argument: the early Christians were notably more just and egalitarian in the way they organized their own "society," and it was an easy step of reason to say that, if those in power acted like these Christians, we would be a lot better off. Since the moral order embraced by the Christians was sold, and would often be perceived, as being a result of the blessing of their god (that was, after all, the pagan expectation: the blessing of the gods was supposed to be evident in a blessed leadership, which only the Christians appeared to have), pagans would find their argument rather compelling--the opposite of what Holding assumes.

Finally, contrary to Holding's declaration that "Jews and Christians held themselves aloof from public life, and engendered thereby the indignation of their neighbors," Christians actively engaged the public and were conspicuous in being open to all comers, much more than the Jews. Paul, for example, had no problem dining with Gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:20-23, 10:27-32, Galatians 2:11-14), and it is clear that mixed marriages, between pagans and converts, were not unknown in the early Christian communities (1 Corinthians 7:12-16) while Christians were told not to shun those outside the church, even if they are sinners (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). Though the Christians occasionally engaged a certain degree of necessary secrecy (as many cults did), it cannot be said they were ever "aloof" or not open to every neighbor, nor can it even be said (as it was sometimes said against the Jews) that Christians only practiced love and charity among each other. Far from breeding the indignation of their neighbors, Christians struggled in every way they could to win over their neighbors, and even failing that, were nevertheless kind and open to them (see relevant discussion in Chapter 10).

As usual, Holding's point--that monotheism was perceived as intolerant and contrary to popular ideology--does explain why Christianity wasn't more successful than it was, especially within its first hundred years. But, also as usual, this factor was not universally strong enough to prevent the scale of success Christianity actually enjoyed. To the contrary, the disadvantage that Holding describes was quite skillfully turned into an advantage, and actually contributed to that success. Though social strife did create friction against this, e.g. "Jewish families would feel social pressure to cut off converts and avoid the shame of their conversion" (in those cases where the family did not follow in a convert's footsteps, that is--which is why Christians recruited heads of household: see Chapter 18), Christianity appealed most to those who found the Christian family a better deal, and thus were willing to give up the family that frustrated, disappointed, or didn't satisfy them, and replace it instead with the ideal family the Christian Church tried so hard to create in its first century of development.[5] This trade-off was even easier for those who had no strong family connections anymore, such as the great number of widows who flocked to Christianity, as well as slaves, and migrants (such as those who were evidently willing to abandon their home towns to travel with Paul)--three groups that could comprise a major portion of Christianity's early success. Add to them the inevitable many who were discontented with their lives--including their family lives--and early Christianity had quite a sizable base to recruit from.[6]


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[1] That this was the staple idea of pagan religious life is thoroughly documented in: Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (1981); Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987), pp. 27-264; and Mary Beard, et al., Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History & Religions of Rome: Volume 2, A Sourcebook (1998).

[2] On the Epicurean use of this fact to argue against divine responsiveness, see: Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.1090-1104; 5.195-234, 1194-1240; 6.387-95; etc. On the responses of sorcerers to the failed expectations of pagans, see Plutarch, On Superstition and Robert Turcan, "Occultism and Theosophy," The Cults of the Roman Empire (2nd ed., 1992; tr. Antonia Nevill, 1996): pp. 266-90. On the responses of holy men, see E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) and Graham Anderson, Sage, Saint, and Sophist: Holy Men and Their Associates in the Early Roman Empire (1994), pp. 106-08.

[3] For a full discussion of how humans are naturally constructed to develop superstitious thinking like this as a consequence of inevitable statistical laws (including regression to the mean), see Stuart Vyse, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition (1997).
        For example, since the rate of success and failure from nonexistent gods is random, after some failures a success is bound to appear simply by chance, so a sorcerer will tell the disappointed believer that their string of failures was due to a single cause and get them working on a "solution." As a result, when he finally gets the inevitable success, it will appear as if the sorcerer was right. In contrast, though Christian prayers for the recovery of a sick Christian will also fail from time to time, they will appear to succeed more often than non-Christian prayers for recovery because the Christian community provides greater help, care, love, and comfort to the sick than poor people (for example) would normally receive otherwise, and these factors increase the rate of recovery among the sick. That we know this difference in recovery rate has natural causes is of course why we don't believe God was responsible, but the ancients, especially the poor, were less cognizant of such a fact.
       In a different respect, psychosomatic "faith healing" (a known natural effect) could have aided the Christian mission by skewing perceptions of the rate of success as being even greater than it really was. For instance, many people think school violence is out of control because they see several mass school shootings like that at Columbine, yet these people ignore the actual statistics, which show that school violence has been and remains in steady decline. In other words, focus on the sensational gives the false appearance that the general reality aligns with the sensational cases, even when it doesn't. If Christians made a special public show of their faith-healing efforts (as Acts seems to imply they often did, as in Acts 3), they may have simply done a better job than pagan holy men of generating the appearance of sensational success. For instance, pagan holy men did not have a unified affiliation, thus it would appear the Christian affiliation had a special power since it was deliberately advertised as operating successfully in many people (as exemplified in Acts 8). At the same time, the most traditional sources of faith healing were not openly sensational but private, as in the Asclepean temples where healing "miracles" took place outside public view, and thus could not compete with Christian sensationalism.

[4] For instance, see the arguments to this effect advanced by the Christians: Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, esp. 26-27 (vs. 32-34); Tatian, Address to the Greeks, esp. 8-10, 16-20; and Justin, Apology 1.5, 1.9-10, 1.14, 1.54-56, 1.62, 2.1, 2.5-7, 2.12. Also see the relevant material in Chapter 19 and Richard Horsley, Paul & Empire: Religion & Power in Roman Imperial Society (1997), esp. pp. 142-43, 176-181.

[5] We see already that Christians exploited statements by Jesus that lent comfort and rationale to converts who had to give up their family to be saved: Matthew 10:32-39, 12:47-50, 19:29--cf. also Mark 10:29-30 and Luke 12:53 w. 14:26. Notably, the Gospel that most clearly and frequently articulates this argument (Matthew) is the Gospel thought most directed at a Jewish audience. Therefore, the Christians were appealing to people in this very predicament with plausible arguments that some would buy--enough to account for Christianity's actual scale of success among Jews in its first hundred years. Those who would find themselves "in this predicament" were those persuaded by the "evidence" the Christians actually had (as discussed in Chapter 7, Chapter 13, and Chapter 17) and those who wanted something better, or those for whom the system was failing, but who saw family and social connections as the last thing holding them back. Even so, this was not the usual tactic. According to Acts, most Jewish conversions were of entire families, beginning with the head of household, thus largely bypassing the problem of family strife; and by creating their own social networks, Christians somewhat eased the difficulties of social strife.

[6] Holding also says that "Jews and Christians alike were accused of atheism," but I am not aware of any evidence of that, despite having searched hard to find some. The only sources that ever mention such an accusation against Christians are Christian sources. As far as I know, without exception all the actual documents from pagans against Christianity attack it for being a superstitio, a vulgar superstition (an excessive "fear" of God and an obsession with the supernatural), not atheism (the distinction between the two charges is carefully drawn by Plutarch in On Superstition). Since, as far as I know, those Christians who responded to the accusation of "atheism" never mention or respond to the accusation of superstitio, and yet the latter is the only accusation we ever find in pagan sources, never atheism, it seems the most credible explanation for this incongruity is that the Christians were consistently mistaking what their pagan critics were actually arguing. So it seems no one in antiquity believed the Christians were atheists. Many did believe they held false beliefs about the gods, but that is not the same thing. Likewise, persecution sometimes stemmed from a fear that Christian disrespect of the gods would or did bring ill fortune upon the community, but that is again not the same thing as believing they were atheists.
       However, I have not confirmed these observations, so if anyone is aware of any primary evidence contrary to my experience I would greatly appreciate hearing of it. The closest thing to an exception I am aware of is the report by Dio that Domitian trumped up a charge of "atheism" as an excuse to punish some family members and their friends who converted (or were accused of converting) to Judaism (Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14), but the context (in Dio--and in Suetonius, Domitian 10, who does not mention atheism, but says the charges were "trivial") is a list of the unjust deeds of Domitian, and therefore this reflects an aberration, not a custom--and at any rate, Christians are not mentioned. Though very late tradition claimed these Jews were Christians, there is no reliable evidence supporting this legend, and both Suetonius and Dio knew who Christians were, so they would not have confused them with Jews.

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.

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