How did the Christian take over?
June 24, 2009 12:38 PM   Subscribe

How exactly did Christianity come to dominate the Western world to such an extent?

I've always been amazed at the extent to which Western society is dominated to the Christian faith, to the exclusion of almost all others.

I can see how it follows logically that since the Americas (and Australia) were primarily colonized by Western Europe that their religion would dominate in those areas, but how did it come to take over Western Europe so thoroughly in the first place? What is it about the religion that was so appealing that people converted? Or was it simply the advantage of having the same religion as the emperor (meaning Constantine, since he seems to be the lynchpin of popularity, from what I've read)? Were there tangible (monetary/civic) advantages to being Christian in the late Roman Empire?
posted by timepiece to Religion & Philosophy (42 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I think most of the rough edges being polished off over the early centuries of practice via doctrinal conflict & adjudgements, plus some degree of syncretism, co-opting what other ideas in competing religions were popular.

Religions do have an epidemiology aspect, and early Christianity's message of personal redemption and eternal salvation made it a rather "sticky" propagative monotheistic uber-philosophy, superior to competing, non-universal folk religions of the day.

Mindshare is a zero-sum thing, and once there's a religion in monopoly position it's impossible to displace it.
posted by @troy at 12:46 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

You're talking about a process that took a millenium and a half. At different times, it was different reasons. There's no single deep underlying property of Christianity which caused it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:50 PM on June 24, 2009

Best answer: There's a good Straight Dope column on this. Short version: Christianity had a tireless and skilled PR man in Paul of Tarsus, and was in the right place (the Roman Empire, allowing widespread diffusion within a common societal framework) at the right time (most of its competition for adherents were old, dreary mystery cults). Mainly, it offered a nice, optimistic vision of spirituality (forgiveness, eternal life, don't have to be one of the 'chosen people', etc.) in a receptive place.
posted by fatbird at 12:53 PM on June 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

There's no single deep underlying property of Christianity which caused it.

But if you had to pick a single critical moment.... The adaption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire would be a big one.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:53 PM on June 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

beyond the adoption by the empire, Christianity actively proselytized and obsessively wrote everything down. in other words, excellent marketing.

Or is Christian proselytizing more of a modern thing? I guess I'm not really positive. . .
posted by Think_Long at 1:09 PM on June 24, 2009

Best answer: Prior to Constantine legalizing and promoting Christianity, I think one of the keys to the early spread of Christianity was its unusually high regard for the poor, for slaves and for women. The fact that the letter to Philemon made its way into the New Testament says something significant about how the early church thought of slaves. (Philemon is a short letter in which Paul urges a slave owner to take back his runaway slave without punishing him, but rather to treat him well, consider him a brother, and willingly send him back to Paul to work freely as the Apostle's assistant.) It's pretty radical (in that culture) that women financially assisted Jesus (Luke 8:2) or were the first witnesses of the resurrection (John 20), and that there is explicit teaching that Jew/Gentile, slave/free and male/female are all equal in Christ (Gal 3:28). Then consider that Jesus taught people would be judged by how they treated the "least of these" (Matt 25), and James is explicit about regard for the downtrodden being the hallmark of true faith (James 1:27).

There's a lot more that could be said along these lines, but the basic point is there were excellent reasons for the social underclass (and women) to be attracted to these teachings. Conversion didn't help most people's status in society (pre-Constantine, it usually hurt your status, and maybe imperiled your health/life), but it did place them in a framework that promoted genuine brotherhood and sisterhood among people of all classes/races/sexes.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:22 PM on June 24, 2009 [14 favorites]

to the exclusion of almost all others.

Is there any place where religions have coexisted happily?
posted by smackfu at 1:26 PM on June 24, 2009

This is an incredibly complicated question and doesn't have a single simple answer. I listened to this course lately and there seem to have been many different factors at work.

Christianity synthesized different elements from different traditions. It took philosophical and theological elements from Greek philosophy, Neoplatonic philosophy in particular. It had the great bible stories and moral traditions of Judaism. But it eliminated some problematic elements, like circumcision and dietary laws in Judaism.

But the organization of the church also helped. There was a wide network, organized as a hierarchy, of literate priests and monks, which was useful to secular rulers. In the early middle ages, formerly pagan Germanic and Scandinavian rulers found it useful to adopt Christianity to provide them with a literate bureaucracy.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:30 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Depends on who you ask: if you query a Christian about it, you're likely to get the response that it was the manifest destiny for the One True Faith. From a purely historic perspective, however, it was luck and political expediency. At least, that's my reading.

The rise of "eastern" cults - including Christianity - had corroded the previously powerful association of the Emperor with traditional Roman gods. As a small and easily marginalized cult (what with the eating of their God's flesh), followers of Christ had provided a convenient (and sometimes literal) whipping boy for the state, but by the early 200's Christianity had moved past the apocalyptic expectations of the Savior's return and had found believers in the upper class of the Roman Empire (Constantine's mother was Christian). It was no longer seen as a Jewish splinter group, nor solely a religion of outcasts and slaves.

It's my impression that the majority of Constantine's reign was spent, at least in regards to religion, as Elizabeth I was to the prospect of marriage: trying to keep everyone off-balance and guessing, showing favor when it was poltically useful to do so. In public ceremony, Constantine borrowed equally from the traditional Roman gods, as well as popular cults like Mithras and Christianity. Notably, Constantine himself was not baptised until the moment of his death.

Constantine did several things that likely ensured Christianity's success: he decreed offficial toleration of the religion and its followers, increased the persecution of the Jews, and lead several efforts (both eucenemical and military) to crush dissent and heresy from Christian orthodoxy.

Constantine likely regarded himself as a "new man", one who required a fresh base from which to wield his power. Under his rule, the zealotry of the followers of Christ was convenient in achieving that goal. The line of emperors after him, who continued his policies (and for the most part were some form of Christian), along with the increasing viciousness of the Church against schism, sealed the deal: it created a snowball effect, in which being a Christian was socially advantageous (especially for the upwardly mobile) and less likely to get you persecuted in the Empire... and most citizens wanted the same for their children, who were baptized in the faith of the church.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 1:34 PM on June 24, 2009

There is an old tale, whether true or not, describes how Christianity subverted and overwhelmed the old religions. It goes something like this, about the origin of the Christmas Tree:

"Once the priests saw that the pagans were dancing around a tree in celebration of their festivals, they wanted to have the heathens slain. But one wise priest held them back and said; Let them be. Instead, consecrate the tree and grove to Christ. It matters not what the these people think, but in a generations time, all their children will be Christians."

As other's have said, it's all about marketing.
posted by elendil71 at 1:39 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think there's two parts to the answer to this question.

The first one has to do with what geographical attributes may have led to western civilization's expansion. You might enjoy reading Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel or watching the National Geographic special of the same name based on the book. It goes into the notion that the availability of more easily domesticated crops and animals around the fertile crescent led to the formation of agriculture which, in turn, led to larger group of people and then, inevitably, to larger political groupings. There is a lot more nuance and detail to this argument, but it doesn't need to reproduced in its entirety here. You can decide for yourself whether you want to research it on your own and find out if it's compelling to you.

The second part is, "Why did Christianity, rather than another religion, happen to be at the helm of the massive expansion of Western Civilization?" I would argue it occurred for several reasons. First, because Christianity, more than many other religions focuses on the afterlife to the detriment of the present life. Look at Norse, Roman, Greek, or Celtic mythology and you'll see that the "common man" isn't offered anything like eternal paradise just for dedicating him or herself to self sacrifice. The greatest of warriors might make it to an eternal battleground or something, but Christianity offered paradise for everyone - even poor beggars and women. That doctrinal feature makes Christians more willing to sacrifice themselves for their God. Given the stories you may have heard about the Roman pantheon, how likely is it that the average person would expect the gods to be aware of them, much less go out of their way to reward them for their selflessness? Constantine, the emperor who converted the Roman empire to Christianity, had inherited a massive and troubled empire that needed uniting. He realized that the cult his predecessors had been trying so hard to quash was only growing in size and he further realized that if he could link himself and his empire to the God and doctrine that encouraged such devotion then he would be able to unite the Romans and cement his place at their head. The Roman empire collapsed a few hundred years later, but the doctine and the Catholic church maintained their hold on the political systems of Europe until Henry VIII. Even he didn't try to leave the power that Christianity offered however. He basically did the same thing Constantine did - put himself and his state in charge of the tool.

Islam has similar features and, along with Christianity, is the most influential religion in modern history. It has about a billion adherents. Christianity got a 500 year headstart. When Islam was uniting nomadic tribes, Christianity was 200 years into leading the biggest empire in the world. Beyond that, the Christian nations were the first to make it in great numbers to the New World, which gave them a massive infusion of resources.

Anyway, those are my 2 cents.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 1:46 PM on June 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

Don't forget the Third Century Crisis (Wikipedia) as an instigating factor for the conversion of a large number of Roman citizens (and non-citizens) to Christianity.

I'd like to quickly point out (maybe you already know) that the Christianity of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD was very, very different than today's, particularly with regard to holidays. What we know as Christmas was originally a winter solstice celebration; Easter incorporates a lot of pagan spring rites. This was intentional: people already celebrated around this time, so the late antique/medieval Church came up with ways to insert Christian beliefs into the festivities.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:46 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh-- forgot to mention the importance of the proselytizing nature of Christianity. Unlike Judaism and the dozens of mystery cults extant around the time of the early Christians, Christianity is built to actively seek out and welcome new members.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:55 PM on June 24, 2009

Best answer: A couple of people have mentioned marketing, so maybe I should expand a bit

St Paul's main method was to start a business in a new town (possibly leather goods) and use that as a point of contact to meet people. He would also make contact with any existing church in a town, and try to make arouse interest in the local Jewish synagogue before getting thrown out.

Early Christianity seems to have spread pretty gradually from person to person. Neither Paul nor anyone else seems to have held big open-air evangelical meetings like American tent revivals.

From the notes to the course I mentioned:
A. The statistics are hard to come by, because we lack adequate sources for firm numbers.
B. Clearly, Christianity started off simply as a small band of lower-class peasants in Jerusalem, possibly 20 to 100 people, who had been followers of Jesus during his life and continued to believe in him after his death.
C. It is difficult to know how many people this small band of followers converted in the early years, but we do know that small Christian communities were started throughout the entire Mediterranean over the decades that followed.
D. Over the course of 300 years, the religion had grown to be about five percent of the population of the empire, or some three million adherents.
E. That rate of growth does not require massive conversions but simply a steady stream of converts. It represents a growth of about 40 percent every 10 years...
F. This growth was not achieved by massive evangelistic campaigns but by social networking, as one person who converted would then convert his spouse and (some of his) children, neighbors, and friends; over time, each of the converts would do the same.
G. The enormous change came with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century. Then, the church took off by leaps and bounds so that by the end of the century, fully half of the empire called itself Christian.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:57 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, had this same question over 1500 years ago. He answered it as best he could in City of God.
posted by resurrexit at 2:03 PM on June 24, 2009

nthing elendil71. During the Enlightenment and Age of Exploration, Christian doctrine, surprisngly, showed a great deal of flexibility when proselytizing (even though at the same time Europe was being faced with the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation). elendil71 cited the (earlier) instance of the origin of the Christmas tree. There are numerous similar examples of assimilation througout the Christian church's history of expansion throughout the world. This assimilation wasn't anything new. The early church's devotion to hagiography (study of the saints) has many parallels to various pagan deities, and indeed, the hagiography is full of instances where saints have close to a one-to-one correspondence to various pagan deities.

For instance, in what is now the US southwest, Native American devotional practices centered around the Corn Mother were readily converted by missionaries into devotions to Mary (the mother of Christ). In China, the Jesuits readily drew parallels between Confucian ideals of devotion to one's ancestors with the notion of souls in purgatory and the intercessory power of the saints.

So the 20th century practicse of "Christianity" are very, very foreign to the Christianity of the Roman Empire (both pre- and post- Constantine), along with the Christianity of the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment. Think also about how different the Catholic church is today compared with the pre-Vatican II Church.

(Sorry if this diverges slightly from the original scope of the question, which dealt with Rome.)
posted by QuantumMeruit at 2:11 PM on June 24, 2009

Response by poster: No, no, it's all very interesting. My question wasn't meant to be limited to Rome, but the Roman Empire does seem to be the key to the spread of Christianity in the West, from my perspective.
posted by timepiece at 2:18 PM on June 24, 2009

The First Urban Christians is a decent book on the subject.
posted by jquinby at 2:29 PM on June 24, 2009

The early church's devotion to hagiography (study of the saints) has many parallels to various pagan deities, and indeed, the hagiography is full of instances where saints have close to a one-to-one correspondence to various pagan deities.

For instance, in what is now the US southwest, Native American devotional practices centered around the Corn Mother were readily converted by missionaries into devotions to Mary (the mother of Christ). In China, the Jesuits readily drew parallels between Confucian ideals of devotion to one's ancestors with the notion of souls in purgatory and the intercessory power of the saints.

As long as you're not arguing that those Christian beliefs/devotional practices were just made up on the spot over the centuries as a useful tool to convert some 'pagans,' I'd say you're not far off base in arguing that Christian doctrine is quite "flexible."

A good teacher can often make a convincing connection between the Christian teaching and the non-Christian practice, and many times over the course of centuries, the teachers could and did sanction (think of the word's root) the pagan practice when it wasn't incompatible with Christ (e.g., pagan devotion to trees becomes 'Well, Christ was killed on a tree, so refocus your devotion to the cruciform 'tree' or crucifix, since we "preach Christ and him crucified"'; or, yeah, the Corn Mother (what??) gives us life-giving corn becomes, 'Well, you can eat all the corn you want but you'll still die, but Mary gives us Christ, and if we eat his flesh and blood we will have eternal life').

I think this creative proselytism can account for much of the allure of Christ over the centuries: what he taught, because it is true, can be made to appeal to just about everyone (because Christians believe all men have the 'truth written on their hearts') if you have a good enough teacher.
posted by resurrexit at 2:36 PM on June 24, 2009

Is there any place where religions have coexisted happily?

For a while, they seem to have done at least tolerably well in Ireland. There are a couple stories from a couple different Celtic myth cycles that have both pre-Christian and Christian elements -- the one that comes most to mind is "The Colloquy Of The Old Men," a story towards the end of the Fenian Cycle of Irish myth. In it, a couple of warriors, Oisin and Cailte, from the hero Finn's band -- both of them now old -- are still living in Ireland, and St. Patrick meets them. First St. Patrick baptises them, then asks them about the land, the history of Finn and their warriors, and their lives. The bulk of "Colloquy" is just about Oisin and Cailte talking with St. Patrick for several days. At some point, while they're all taking a sleep break, St. Patrick has a crisis of conscience -- should he be listening to these two heathens? And a pair of angels appear to him and say sure, absolutely, there's no problem. In fact, St. Patrick may want to go ahead and actually write down some of these stories, because people can read them for fun in years to come. Patrick is appeased, and happily goes back to listening to Oisin and Cailte the next morning.

There's another myth I've only heard about in passing -- some big battle scene is going on, and suddenly the sky goes dark and everyone stops. The hero wonders what's going on, and the druid who's been following the warrior band has a vision that the sky has gone dark because in a far-off land, there is a man who is the Son of God who is being killed. The hero says, well, then, when they're done with this battle, then they should all go to this foreign land and avenge the Son of God's death. His companions agree, and they all go back to the battle.

It seems that, for a while, both early Christian missionaries to Ireland and early Celts were pretty comfortable with Christianity and Celtic spiritualism coexisting. To the point that by the 9th Century, when another set of Christian missionaries came by to check up on the Celtic Church, it had become something so unfamiliar to them that they panicked and felt they had to re-convert Ireland for a second time.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:21 PM on June 24, 2009

Best answer: All of the above is true.

Personally, though, if I had to pick just one reason of "why Christianity?" it would be this facet: the embrace of the downtrodden. It appeals to the poor and the teeming masses. Jesus was born in a manger. He was not wealthy or worldly. He hung out with folks who were not so great. Rather than triumph and rock out in a palace, he came to a horrible end. People can relate to that. Poverty becomes a spiritual thing, as does misery, to a lesser extent.

At the same time, the rewards of Christianity are deferred. One cannot demand, much less expect, enormous benefits from adoption of this religion in this life; you will have your Heavenly reward. Endure. If you have horrible things befall you, consider Job. This has a fantastic appeal to the ruling class, who would like nothing more than for the poor and teeming masses to continue on as they are, without a fuss. And so the ruling class is the Caesar unto whom the goodies are rendered.

It's a "win-win," from that aspect. The cynic in me suspects that the success of this mode of Christianity is the foundation of our culture of victimhood.
posted by adipocere at 3:43 PM on June 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Is there any place where religions have coexisted happily?

Buddhism is famous for doing this. For instance, Buddhism coexisted with Shinto in Japan for centuries, and still does.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:55 PM on June 24, 2009

To the point that by the 9th Century, when another set of Christian missionaries came by to check up on the Celtic Church, it had become something so unfamiliar to them that they panicked and felt they had to re-convert Ireland for a second time.

I'd be interested to find out more about this if anyone has anything. What, specifically, was different or unfamiliar?
posted by resurrexit at 4:05 PM on June 24, 2009

Think of a good franchise operation. A great product, good timing, central leadership, fanatical employees, and (most importantly) uniformity within it's franchise branches. Written memos, copied to all the outlying church leaders ensured that message and standards were met and maintained.
Yeah. Kind of like Coca Cola. Or, maybe Hickory Farms.
posted by Pennyblack at 4:26 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Christianity was 200 years into leading the biggest empire in the world.
If you don't count the Han (where various religious practices coexisted reasonably cheerfully bar the occasional local conflagrations).
The Chinese experience also provides a counter-point to some of the more Mickey Mouse determinism; I think Pater Alethias presents the key issues - a religion that appealed to the mass of common people in the new type of social formation.
posted by Abiezer at 6:18 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd be interested to find out more about this if anyone has anything. What, specifically, was different or unfamiliar?

There's an interesting story around the Irish Church sending people to Rome (somewhere about the 6th century, I think) to explain that the Continentals had messed up the calculation of Easter, and to ask if they wouldn't mind getting it right (can't find a handy link just now, though this is implied at this WP article).

Apart from the computus, this question touches on my SO's thesis topic, so you can have my poxy summary, which is: "because the Irish were not conquered by Romans, and had not adopted Roman social systems, upon which much of the European Christian tradition was based".
posted by pompomtom at 7:01 PM on June 24, 2009

True believers (myself included) would point to supernatural reasons for the spread of Christianity - that it is God-ordained.

In addition, paradoxically, the Church has spread, through the ages, through persecution and suffering.

This is so despite the fact that during antiquity as well as during modern times, many of those armies and rulers have waged war against Jesus and His followers. In fact, the 2,000-year history of Christianity is replete with attempts by tyrannical governments, often fanning the fears of mobs, to extinguish it. Yet despite the purges and persecutions, Christianity has not only survived, it has outlived empires that once attempted to destroy it and has grown to the point where two billion people today call themselves Christian...It is of course true that an observer today looking at lands where Christianity is persecuted could conclude that the persecutions are diminishing if not destroying Christianity because of the small numbers of Christians in many of those lands. But history teaches us otherwise. As already mentioned, an observer of the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire during the third century A.D. would likely have concluded that Christianity would have been stamped out. Yet a few years later a Roman emperor converted to Christianity. Throughout 20 centuries, the faith of Christians has proven to be unconquerable....
posted by caroljean63 at 7:01 PM on June 24, 2009

The spread of Christianity into Russia was facilitated in large part by a deal between the Byzantine emperor Basil and Prince Vladimir. Vlad sent troops to support Basil in a major power struggle, got Basil's sister as a wife in return, which solidified his own prestigious position, but had to convert to Christianity. From Sailing From Byzantium:

Back in Kiev, Vladimir instituted Christian worship with the same zeal he had earlier shown for the pagan gods, which he now publicly spurned...He ordered the Kievans to undergo baptism...Vladimir also took steps to spread the new faith throughout Kiev's growing empire. "He began to found churches and to assign priests throughout the cities, and to invite the people to accept baptism in all the towns and cities."

You could argue that in many cases the "invitation" was not optional; for one example, Vladimir only allowed central markets in towns where there was a church. Amazing what that will do to spread those churches. :)
posted by mediareport at 7:13 PM on June 24, 2009

IANAT (I am not a theologian), but I suspect if you dig a bit you'll find that many of the elements of what ultimately became "Christianity" were borrowed from earlier religions. Don't discount the element of chance in your worldview.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:22 PM on June 24, 2009

I sometimes wonder how much Sergius Paulus had to do with it in terms of possible patronage.

Saul preaches to Sergius Paulus in Cyprus. Coincidentally, from that point Paul uses the name Paul.

Traditional supposition is that this was in honor of his conversion of Sergius Paulus, although there are other possibilities, but I wonder if they were related in some way, or whether Sergius Paulus became a sponsor or mentor of sorts...

...Sergius Paulus was connected with Antioch (of Pisidia).

...after Cyprus, where does Paul go? Off to Antioch (of Pisidia). Initially, Paul seems to have been very well received, and only subsequently gets chased out of town.

After leaving Antioch, Paul goes on to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, and then back again, before leaving the area by sea to end his first missionary journey.

If Sergius Paulus did send Paul to Antioch, he presumably sent him to some well connected people, and to a town that is a strategic crossroads. Sergius Paulus himself ends up in Rome in a position of honor as curator of the banks of the Tiber, and it provides another conduit for Christian ideas to flow to Rome at an elevated level of society.

As a subtext, one wonders how much of the animosity against Paul in Antioch might have been because of apparent or actual Roman patronage, and not just his message.

A little patronage goes a long way...
posted by blue_wardrobe at 9:22 PM on June 24, 2009

Best answer: nthing the idea that it was xtianity's emphasis on the poor, persecuted, etc. -- and especially its treatment of women -- that helped it spread. xtianity, and islam as well, owe a lot to their early female followers. as in xtianity, islam gave women power, respect and rights that the traditional (pagan) culture had not. mohammad was well known for the respect he had for women, and his first wife (who died before he married any others) was the greatest confidant of his life. many women were drawn to islam because of his accepting attitude toward them. in fact, part of the reason (if i'm remembering correctly) that mohammad came around to muslims having multiple wives was because there were so many more female followers than male. i really recommend karen armstrong's biography of mohammad, if anyone is interested in learning more about him. i am an atheist, but i truly believe that he was a remarkable man (that most people in the west know nothing about).

buddhism also appealed to the poor, who in hinduism were "stuck" at the bottom of the caste system with no hope of a better life. buddhism told them that they had as much of a right to enlightenment as the members of the upper castes. buddhism did not "import" the caste system, even though it did import reincarnation (though the two religion's theories on reincarnation are very different).

another factor shared by these three religions -- which, when i think about it, are probably the three greatest "man-made" religions, as in associated with a single founder during a relatively specific time frame -- is that these religions were "open". judaism and hinduism are associated with specific ethnic groups, and though one can join these religions, it's a fairly rigorous process and many orthodox followers might not see converts as being full-fledged members. buddhism and xtianity were taught as being true and accessible for everyone. it didn't matter what your social status or ethnic background was. islam is a little different, but indirectly the same -- mohammad saw himself as bringing the religion of "the book" ("people of the book" being jews and xtians) to the arab people, who had not had their own prophets. so even though islam was, in some ways, "designed" for the arab people, it had no inherent need to be exclusive to them.
posted by imalaowai at 9:45 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

judaism and hinduism are associated with specific ethnic groups, and though one can join these religions, it's a fairly rigorous process and many orthodox followers might not see converts as being full-fledged members

yeah, that's kinda the difference between a church and a temple, one is open to new practitioners, one is not. Temples have a hard time competing with churches over time! This can be seen in Japan, both with the rise of popular millenial buddhism of the and more modern SGI church-ey missionary work.
posted by @troy at 10:57 PM on June 24, 2009

What you're missing is the fact that Christianity was fundamentally different from every religion that came before. Before Christianity, every religion in the western hemisphere was deeply rooted in the familial altar and the familial heroes: they were hero-worshiping cults based on the veneration of long-lost relatives that had done great deeds and family gods that stood above every action. People remained in their homes their whole lives; in ancient Greece and for most of the Roman empire's existence, it was illegal to sell property because the family land was held to be sacred in an essential way: it was the residence of the family gods. The growth of the Roman empire changed this, but only insofar as it expanded the sources of the family cult; the family cult's roots were still the same, even when a family took (as many did) some foreign god which the father, a soldier, had met with abroad, or some other family's god when the father, an emperor, chose to marry someone whose family gods were particularly zealous.

Christianity cleared all this away. It was the first truly cosmopolitan religion. As difficult as it may be for people to see this today, Christianity represented a radical departure from the provincial, parochial, small-minded gods who demanded small and often arbitrary things; it offered a forgiving, an intellectual, and most of all a universal god to the many whose family gods had previously given them nothing to share, nothing in common. This is why the Christ said that he came to turn father against son, and the true significance of that statement, which was vastly more powerful and offensive at the time than it can be today: the ancient peoples of southern europe held to a faith that more than anything else demanded the veneration of the son by the father; finally, in Christianity, these people were offered a religion which did not at all even relate the standing of truth to the father-son relationship except in order to make that relationship seem equal in all essential ways—that is, in the trinity.

This is really the major fact in the rise of Christianity: that it offered to the many peoples of the world, who were all coping with their new interdependence and interconnectedness in the face of their many apparently irreconcileable differences. 700 years before the birth of the Christ, before Alexander of Macedon's expeditions and before the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, an order had developed which made intuitive sense to the average southern european; there were the family gods, first and foremost, and the altar upon which their sacrifices were laid: this center of religion was the most important point in the rites of the veneration of family heroes gone by. Moving outward, there were the gods of the city; these gods were less important but still necessary as they represented the worship which encapsulated the bond the whole city had, and their veneration took place in the city square. Gradually, there had grown up around this system more gods as cities found it necessary to bind themselves to each other more and more deeply; but these extraneous gods, worshipped only when cities met with each other and found it necessary to commemorate their relationship.

The Persian war, more so the Peloponnesian war, and conclusively Alexander of Macedon changed all of this. These conquests and conflicts represented the fact that self-contained cities could not always stand as the center of political life; when a single city or even a single man took charge of many cities and made of them a nation, other, distant gods suddenly took precedence over the family gods, or else the family risked the appearance of treason. A new order was needed.

(This was already apparent to some; and if Plato's Seventh Letter is genuine, as I'm confident it is, then it appears that Plato himself attempted to form this new, universal religion through the tyrant Dionysius, only to be forced to flee for his life when Dionysius unfortunately did not prove to be amenable. Even so, a sort of “populist Platonism,” a faith gleaned from a cursory or limited reading of Plato's writings which might venerate a single, universal God, forgiveness of sins, even trinitarianism, can be discerned in Christianity, which in turn seems indeed to be the fruit of a centuries-long attempt by the wise or philosophic of the western world to found a universal faith that could be the common thread of empire. This is why, at the end of Beyond Good And Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche refers to Christianity as “Platonism for the masses.”)

Again, people need to recall that when people turned to Christianity in astonishing numbers reaching all the way up to the Emperor of Rome, their alternatives weren't Hinduism (if such a thing exists), Buddhism, Islam, or Taoism; their alternatives were generally familial cults which only in a disjointed way meant any connection to others and which bound them to their families in ways that people were fast discovering were somewhat inconvenient in cosmopolitan society. Christianity was a universal faith, a faith that expressed truths about all humankind; as such, it meant something very comfortingly new to all pagans of the first few centuries of the Christian era.

It should be noted, finally, that, while Christianity took hold popularly for relatively simple and inconsequential reasons, this has absolutely nothing to do with the truth of essential Christianity. I say this as a Christian who believes that the rise of Christianity amongst the foolish, the vain, the prideful, the lazy, the cruel and unjust, has been even so a blessing which was intended by the Holy Spirit.
posted by koeselitz at 11:25 PM on June 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

…and may I say that that Straight Dope article is about as useful and reliable as I've come to expect from the Straight Dope; which is to say, not at all. The Straight Dope has published five or six articles now that are clearly not written from the perspective of someone who knows the material, and I don't really trust them one bit. (The Leo Strauss article they wrote was inane and vapid, to say the least.)

In this case, it makes very little sense to claim that St Paul was a 'PR man' or that he was instrumental in the rise of early Christianity. Other church fathers were generally a hell of a lot more important in forming doctrine.
posted by koeselitz at 11:28 PM on June 24, 2009

Bora Horza Gobuchul: Depends on who you ask: if you query a Christian about it, you're likely to get the response that it was the manifest destiny for the One True Faith. From a purely historic perspective, however, it was luck and political expediency.

A true Christian values the truth over all else, because somewhere in the truth the will of God is discernible to those with eyes to see it.

The fact that Christianity as a popular movement spread rapidly and decisively is certainly an instance of the action of God, just like every other fact, but it isn't necessarily particularly remarkable.

The only moment, the only instance that matters to Christianity is the birth, life, and death of the eternal and unlimited absolute within the finite limits of human life. All else is unimportant. No matter how many prattling fools choose to say otherwise, all the fathers of the church and all of the saints say the same thing: not even the name of the Christ is what matters, but only the instance.
posted by koeselitz at 11:38 PM on June 24, 2009

What pater said. You may want to check out Rodney Stark's "The Rise of Christianity." From it:

At the height of the second great epidemic, around 260[AD], in the Easter letter already quoted above, Dionysius wrote a lengthy tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of local Christians, many of whom lost their lives while caring for others.

"Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.... The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom."

posted by allkindsoftime at 12:12 AM on June 25, 2009

Catholic is an adjective derived from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning "universal" -- from wikipedia

Furthering koeselitz above, it's not terribly adventurist to assert that there was going to be a Christ-centered (Christ in the Greek meaning of the Annointed, not specifically the quasi-historical teacher) religion to find root in the Roman Empire, as the Romans were the first civilization to really bring the nations of the Mediterranean together, bash them together, tie them into a common civil, military and mercantile network, and let things stew for decades and decades. While the Persian Empire came close in this area, the mystery cults of Zoroastrianism and Ahura Mazda just weren't up to this level of popular adoption and co-option apparently.
posted by @troy at 12:18 AM on June 25, 2009

Really? An "Anointed-centered" religion was bound to happen in the Roman Empire? Seems a bit too deterministic for my taste. That it *did* happen doesn't mean that it *had* to happen.
posted by mediareport at 6:35 AM on June 25, 2009

Is there any place where religions have coexisted happily?

The Indo-Greeks (who lived in/near the Kashmir valley for a couple of centuries after Alexander the Great's 3rd century BC expansion) fused Greek religion (particularly the cult of Dionysus, incidentally another source for Christian ritual) with Buddhism. They eventually assimilated into surrounding cultures, but they made some really neat art, replete with Dionysus and Buddhist monks.

But then, neither Buddhists nor Bacchantes denied the validity of other religions.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:23 PM on June 25, 2009

oinopaponton: …neither Buddhists nor Bacchantes denied the validity of other religions.

Is this really true?

As I recall, around that time the Buddhists were busy denying the centrality of the Upanishads to enlightenment, thus upsetting many of the elder faiths in India. Confucianism and Taoism later mixed deeply with Buddhism, but they disagree on fundamental points with it; I hardly think that Buddhism can be said to make no claims whatsoever, which is what it would have to do to avoid all disagreement.

And the Dionysian Rites have been whitewashed by a century of Romanticism that still surrounds them with the glow of sexual freedom and delight, but it shouldn't be ignored that historically they were known as a brutal and uncontrollably violent sect, and were often portrayed as traditionally giving themselves over to Dionysius to the extent that they tore to pieces the bodies of living goats, livestock, and even human beings in their frenzy. All this is aside from the fact that, as I said above, the old Greco-Roman religious sects were actually much more narrow and intolerant than the Christianity which supplanted them—again, we're the victims of a Romanticist tradition that would have us believe that pagans were all a happy, forest-dwelling, fun-loving bunch rather than actual human beings—and the familial cults of the ancient Grecian peninsula often led to bitter, intractible, and frequently very bloody disputes, as the chronicles of Thucydides and Xenophon attest.

But the Indo-Greek fusion of Buddhism and Greek familial traditions is indeed fascinating. I would add to that example the fact that there were in the middle eastern world of the early years of the last millenium and later numerous Sufis of all religious stripes: Indian Sufis who venerated the Sufi saints alongside Indra and Vishnu; Christian Sufis who wandered the east and flowed freely between the Mosques and the Syraic Christian Churches; and, yes, Jewish Sufis who were often more associated with the Rabbis than those same Rabbis would have liked to admit. In fact, the greatest of the Rabbis—Maimonides—had a grandson, Obadyah Maimonides, who was a Sufi and published Sufi texts.
posted by koeselitz at 2:28 AM on June 26, 2009

historically they were known as a brutal and uncontrollably violent sect, and were often portrayed as traditionally giving themselves over to Dionysius to the extent that they tore to pieces the bodies of living goats, livestock, and even human beings in their frenzy.

I'm pretty sure that's more of a literary trope than a verified historical practice.

The metaphorical cannibalism, especially the wine/blood connection, though, is exactly what I meant when I said that Christianity borrowed things from the Dionysian cult.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:25 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in reading about this at length, I believe that Peter Brown's "The Rise of Western Christendom" is pretty well regarded.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:46 AM on July 6, 2009

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