I just read this column and recalled something I learned in World History class in college. The professor stated that one of the main reasons why Christianity became so popular was because it was, well, easy to join.
Many religions required years of instruction and dietary changes, but all you had to do to become a Christian was to say you were a Christian.
I think they’re going to move this thread on you, but I’ll give it a few shots.
First, your professor was all wet. There were many pagan gods that did not requite years of instruction, etc. I think the key is to remember that Christianity was a minor religion until Constantine converted.
Prior to Constantine Christians were not allowed to stage all of the elaborate rituals that made for good PR. They could not hold high posts. In fact, since Christians wouldn’t swear that the emperor was a god, it was pretty dangerous to be a Christian.
Constantine changed all that. Suddenly, to have a high post you had to be Christian. (The Muslims adopted this concept when the conquered the MidEast. They also taxed you differently and wouldn’t let you wield a weapon. Kind of amazing it took several hundred years for most of the population to convert to Islam.) Part and parcel was the ancient belief that if you won your battles, your god was best. And Constantine won his most important battle when fighting for the Christian god. (There is no evidence he understood anything about Christianity for years afterwards.) Frankly, it all just smacks of a miracle.
Patrick’s conversion of Ireland, which was never part of the Roman empire, shows there was more to Christianity’s popularity than just that, though. The ability a former slave to convert a substantial portion of Ireland is indicative of Christianity’s appeal, as is the conversion of Germans east of the Rhine and the nordic regions. (Eastern Europe converted with the support of the powerful Byzantine empire, so you could argue that they were going with what seemed to be working there.)
I think there must be more reasons. Christianity does not involve human or animal sacrifice. Ireland, for example, practiced human sacrifice to gods, and Christianity taught that God sacrificed himself for people.
One guy, whose name I can’t recall, believes it spread well because it was simply a better social model. It took care of widows, the infirmed, orphans, and while, from a strictly selfish point of view, they’re a pain to take care of, you also know that if you are incapacitated, or your kids become orphans, they’re taken care of.
“Be nice to each other just for its own sake” was the thing that made Christianity, according to this guy, appealing to many people, not just because it promised heaven, but because it made time here on Earth actually better.
Actually, in the early centuries, Christianity did require a catechumenate (apprenticeship, kinda-sorta). It largely faded away after Christianity became the default religion, but the various separations of baptism, confirmation, and first communion all testify to it.
One important reason for the triumph of Christianity was that classical paganism was something of an embarrassment to intellectuals. Plato’s well known dislike for “poets” is based on the notion that it was all their fault that the Greek religion was so stupid, and if only they hadn’t come along, things would be ever so much more spiritual. But even Homer hints at a kind of monotheism, and Aeschylus’s Zeus in The Eumenides looks forward in some ways to Christ.
Another factor is that, while there were various philosophers coming up with new, improved versions of paganism, they were generally versions that only philosophers could understand – no damn use to a peasant or a soldier. Christianity has both brains and balls, and that’s rare.
I can’t accept that classical paganism was an embarrassment to intellectuals. Christianity did not have “brains” until after it became popular. Origen (ca 300 AD) and Augustine (ca 450 AD) were the first two first rate minds. Early Christians often preached an anti-intellectual message. I’m sure we can all find quotes within the New Testament about the value of the wisdom of men. The intellectual elite, or at least the aristocracy, were the last to convert.
It is worthwhile to recognize why the pagan intellectual heritage was so unappealing. According to Plato, only a moral elite could learn virtue. Eugenics is seriously considered by Plato. Contrast that with the Christian message of the universal brotherhood of Man, and a loving father figure God. Search as you will, but you won’t find Aristotle considering charity as a virtue, either.
Then I can’t imagine that you’ve ever actually read Plato, who tap-dances around it like a man possessed. Or consider the Mystery religions, which grew up in an attempt to fill the void.
And you’re way off on your dates. Origin is about 182 to 251, and Augustine of Hippo 354 to 430. Moreover, they weren’t exactly the first Christian intellectuals: the Ante-Nicene library comes to ten double-column quarto volumes. And if such as Justin Martyr (approximately 100-165) and Irenaeus of Lyons (approximately 130-200) aren’t exactly on the level of Thomas Aquinas, they’re no dummies, either.
At any rate, to acknowledge the limitations of the intellect is not to be anti-intellectual, and a Christian is commanded to love God with all his mind, among other things.
Christianity offers 2 things - simplicity and hope. It allowed the no hoper a chance of hope previously reserved for the “elite” in society. Society was structured along competitive lines and if you weren’t in the race, you had no chance of getting anywhere. Your kids were locked into the same crap as you. It also allowed acceptance of the status quo (read “dignity” if you will.)
We have the same situation today except we call it “higher education.” The Englsih have a quaint expression about minding one’s own station - in other words, be aware of who you are in relation to the status quo and don’t buck the system.
Sad to say, a lot of the popularity was through coercion.
The biggest example was the burning of all the Aztec and Mayan literature to put those religions out of business. All of South American Christians have roots in that power play.
The conversion of Constantine certainly pushed a lot of people toward Christianity, but how many people in the Empire wanted to hold state positions as compared to the huge numbers of the general populace? Even during the persecutions, Christianity spread.
And even in countries without conquistadors forcing conversion, there were mass conversions.
So, while Constatine and conquistadors and inquisitions and colonialism helped, these alone can not account for all of Christianity’s popularity.
One thing to note is that Christianity, unlike the trunk of Judaism it shot off from, is a proselytizing religion. Even without coercion, its members try to make converts and are somewhat successful at it.
And if you join Christianity now, you get these set of knives blessed by the Pope!
Constantine had more choices than just Mithraism. There is no real evidence that the rest of the pagan cults within the Roman Empire were fading. In fact, one reason that Christians were persecuted was the fact that they were screwing up the relationship between the local populace and the local population.
Eastern Europe converted following Byzantine sponsored missions, and at least one Russian ruler converted after a trip to Constantinople and seeing the splendor of that Roman “remnant”. (I don’t feel any of that would have happened without Constantine, but that is my own historical interpretation.)
Ireland converted after the Roman army had left what is now England, and can hardly be considered as due to force. The rulers of German tribes converted after entering Roman territory. That is usually interpreted as due to politics, but that is again, an interpretation. What we now think of as German lands were converted by Irish and English missionaries.
North America was, of course, overrun by Europeans. South America is harder. Yes, the Spanish (and Porteguese) brutally subjagated most of it. But did the people convert at gun point, or to emulate their conquerors, or because of the kindness of a few? Beats me.
But indeed, the real problem was that Christians refused to make even a token admission that the Emperor was a god. Jews were excused, because they were an officially recognized ethnic group, but Christians didn’t have that loophole. Otherwise, Rome had no objection to new religions – in fact, it chased them as enthusiastically as bored millionaires’ wives did in the 1920’s.
Reader’s Digest version: The Christian message itself brought a new conception of humanity “to a world saturated with cruelty.” Other factors include paganism’s weakness and the early church’s social structure, which helped draw so many to the new faith.
Explain the conversion of Ireland. The Christians didn’t have armies backing them up. Likewise, explain the popularity of Christianity in the Roman empire before it became legalized. Why did people keep converting to Christianity when it would get them killed? Who coerced them? How were they coerced?