(Another essay I found in the drafts folder.)
Just saw another of those blog essays making the social media rounds that asserts that Christianity grew into a world religion because it killed its way to the top. It describes inquisitions and crusades and other bloody events. There’s no denying those. But the problem is that the author has the timeline wrong. Christianity spread without many inquisitions at all. Those came later when western civilization came close to being an afterthought in the medieval era (hammered as it was then by Islam, the Mongols, the Black Plague, poverty, endless warfare, backwardness, and low population growth). One of the reasons that Christianity spread like it did in Roman times was because the Middle East and Mediterranean world had already been leaning towards monotheism or ditheism anyway. (Ditheism here means good vs. evil, basically, a god of good and a god of evil, and Christianity with its God vs. Satan shows just how closely related “monotheistic” and “ditheistic’ religions actually are.) The Good vs. Evil god (or two gods) was pretty much a Persian invention, and when Persia ruled the western world for several centuries their one god idea took root (including influencing early Judaism). All the later western monotheisms came from it. Alexander the Great diffused it even more so by mixing Greek and Persian civilizations, giving Persian religious ideas access to areas throughout the Mediterranean world (and even into India) where they were unknown before. And then when Rome took over most of the Mediterranean, western Europe and Middle East, its own pre-Constantine religious tolerance protected monotheistic (and ditheistic) as well as polytheistic religions. In fact, monotheism/ditheism was particularly popular within the Roman military, and where there were legions, there was variations of both, especially the Persian form known as Mithraism (related to Zoroastrianism). Christianity’s primary competition in ancient Rome was Mithraism…which was Persian religion. Other competitors included Manichaeism, Gnostic religions like Bogomilism and Mandeism (which still exists), even Judaism. To this day there are tiny remnants of other ancient religions in Iran and Iraq (including Zoroastrianism, the original Persian imperial religion, and Yazidism, a syncretic blend of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian monotheism with ancient Mesopotamian polytheist traditions and Sufism and currently under threat by ISIS), all of them monotheistic or ditheistic but neither Christian nor Moslem. Each is a fragment of the incredibly rich patchwork of religions in the ancient Middle East, any of which could have been big as Christianity or Islam had history run a different course. Christianity just won out by luck. The inevitability we see in its rise to dominance now is merely the innate tendency to see the course of history as inevitable. But it never is.
Christianity also spread the way Mormonism is doing so now–it provided a welfare state within a state that Rome did not supply. It took care of its own. It also developed a solid literary tradition, more so than most of its competitors (though Manichaeism matched it in output there.) And maybe most importantly, it patterned it structure on the Roman political system itself (a Catholic mass is like a Roman imperial time capsule) so that as Roman power weakened the Church was able to take its place in an almost identical form. Clever. Indeed, one of the reasons the pagan Roman government began to crack down on Christianity was because of its alternative power structure…a state within a state is always a threat. When Rome turned officially Christian, the state church began appropriating pagan sites, facilities and rites. It was easy to do because Christianity in Roman times was already a Roman political structure. As the pagan power structure disappeared the Christian power structure replaced it seamlessly…very little change in daily life happened. Taxes were collected the same, rituals performed in the same places, attire was even the same. Christians didn’t take over by force but by assimilation. The Roman empire (a republic ruling an empire at the time) that fought Hannibal in the third century BC was the same country that fell when the Turks finally took Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantine Empire certainly saw itself as Roman, up till the very end. That’s because the split between pagans and Christians that we see now as a great dividing line was not so visible to the Romans themselves. To them it was the same place with a new religion…but still, the same place.
As for the crusades…remember that those were very bloody (and mostly very unsuccessful) attempts to reclaim lands and peoples lost to Christianity. The Moslem conquest took most of the Christian world away. All that remained were the underpopulated areas of Europe–and even some of that was lost. People don’t realize that Christianity was, until the 8th century, overwhelmingly an Asian religion. Europe represented perhaps a third of it. Then Islam spread like wildfire, in large part because it was spread by conquest and the conquered were generally given the choice of convert or die. Or at least convert or pay a nasty infidel tax. So people converted, and Christianity virtually disappeared east and south of the Mediterranean. Not entirely, and there remained large and influential minorities (such as the Copts in Egypt and Greeks in Asian Minor), and Armenia and Georgia remained Christian (as did Ethiopia) but what Islam gained in its first couple centuries at Christianity’s expense they still mostly hold today. Only Iberia, southern France, southern Italy, and Sicily were lost again to Islam. (A later expansion of Islam into the Balkan peninsula, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, under the Ottoman Turks, was almost completely reversed. Apparently the conversions didn’t have the same vigor as those made when Islam was new. Still, the Bosnian massacres in the 1990’s were a glimpse of how competing monotheisms had once routinely spread the Word.)
You will be hard pressed to find a major religion that has not been murderous, even genocidal, in its history. That even includes Buddhism, believe it or not. (Tibet in particular was a land of Buddhist warriors who raided Chinese domains mercilessly for centuries). And though I’m an atheist, always have been, it’s important to remember that atheism killed more people in sheer numbers than any religion ever did. The numbers of people killed by communist regimes in the 20th century is astonishing. Atheist revolutions–going back to Revolutionary France, have nearly always involved large scale state-ordered massacres, killings, genocide, repression, state controlled famine and murder. It’s a ghastly record. It’s hard to find anything in history more murderous than the fanatically atheist Khmer Rouge. But then communist regimes have an advantage of technology that earlier conquerors would have given their eternal souls for. It became vastly easier to kill enormous numbers of people in the twentieth century. Give medieval crusaders or Mohammed’s legions automatic weapons and they would have piled up the dead just as impressively as anything Mao or Stalin ever did. Indeed, you can think of Himmler’s demented SS quasi-pagan religion (we’ll never know what that would have developed into) as something right out of Roman times armed with state of the art 20th century weaponry and logistics. There was nothing new about the Holocaust–there had been ethnic cleansing for thousands of years–except that it was carried out with all the organizational skill that modern civilization offered. The Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century, where the French crown and the Church annihilated the dualist Cathars in a particularly brutal genocide could have been done in a fraction of the time by the Nazis.
The problem isn’t Christianity, or religion, or lack of religion, the problem is Homo sapiens. We find it very easy to kill when situations become unstable. Chimpanzees (but not bonobos) are the same. It’s not god or no god. It’s just that some of the great apes are prone to extreme violence. And Homo sapiens are one of those great apes. But we are killing each other at a much slower rate anymore–homicide is far less frequent than it was in Roman times, and is far less frequent than it was in the early 20th century, when people slaughtered each other at an astonishing rate. But it’s hard to tell if we are becoming less homicidal, or if our impulses are just in a lull, waiting.