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October 2017

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Why Did Christianity Replace Pagan Beliefs in Classical Rome?

The question of why Christianity succeeded in replacing pagan beliefs in Classical Rome is one I have been poking at, off and on, for years. The Christian answer is that Christianity is the One True faith. As a pagan and a sociologist I find that explanation unsatisfactory, to say the least.

After I made my last post, About Religion, Again, I continued to think about how religion meets efficacy needs and provides meaning for experiences.

Cultural Materialism states that belief follows experience (or "infrastructure"). I have read Marvin Harris' theory of how the cult of Jesus grew in popularity, after the fall of the Second Temple, in response to the experiential challenge to traditional Jewish belief in their privileged status with their God.

When examining the rise of the Christian Cult in Rome I have been trying to find what direct economic or social benefits Romans derived from joining this new religious movement. But I just realized that I have been overlooking the ontological needs that Christianity filled for them.

The Roman Empire was built around their belief in their gods. The Cult of the State declared that the glory of Rome was a blessing bestowed by their gods in exchange for piety. That is why failure to express piety was the equivalent of treason, it undermined the basis of the state (i.e. the blessing of the gods).

What I suddenly realized is that belief in Christianity grew as the glory of Rome fell during and after the Crisis of the Third Century
With the onset of the Crisis of the Third Century, however, this vast internal trade network broke down. The widespread civil unrest made it no longer safe for merchants to travel as they once had, and the financial crisis that struck made exchange very difficult with the debased currency. This produced profound changes that, in many ways, would foreshadow the very decentralized economic character of the coming Middle Ages.

Large landowners, no longer able to successfully export their crops over long distances, began producing food for subsistence and local barter. Rather than import manufactured goods from the empire's great urban areas, they began to manufacture many goods locally, often on their own estates, thus beginning the self-sufficient "house economy" that would become commonplace in later centuries, reaching its final form in the Middle Ages' manorialism. The common free people of the Roman cities, meanwhile, began to move out into the countryside in search of food and better protection.

Made desperate by economic necessity, many of these former city dwellers, as well as many small farmers, were forced to give up hard-earned basic civil rights in order to receive protection from large land-holders. In doing so, they became a half-free class of Roman citizen known as coloni. They were tied to the land, and in later Imperial law their status was made hereditary. This provided an early model for serfdom, the origins of medieval feudal society and of the medieval peasantry.

Even the Roman cities themselves began to change in character. The large, open cities of classical antiquity slowly gave way to the smaller, walled cities that were common in the Middle Ages. These changes were not restricted to the third century, but took place slowly over a long period, and were punctuated with many temporary reversals. However, in spite of extensive reforms by later emperors, the Roman trade network was never able to fully recover to what it had been during the Pax Romana (27 BC – AD 180) of the first century AD. This economic decline was far more noticeable and important in the western part of the empire, which was also invaded several times during the century. Hence, the balance of power clearly shifted eastward during this period, as evidenced by the choice of Diocletian to rule from Nicomedia in Asia minor, putting his second in command Maximian in Milan. This would have considerable impact on the later development of the empire with a richer, more stable eastern empire surviving the end of Roman rule in the west.

While Imperial revenues fell, Imperial expenses rose sharply. More soldiers, greater proportions of cavalry, and the ruinous expense of walling in cities all added to the toll. Goods and services previously paid for by the government were now demanded in addition to monetary taxes. The steady exodus of both rich and poor from the cities and now-unremunerative professions forced Diocletian to use compulsion; most trades were made hereditary, and workers could not legally leave their jobs or travel elsewhere to seek better-paying ones.

Being a member of a Christian cult group did not offer any more or fewer economic or social benefits, but it did have ontological benefits. The failure of Rome's economy caused a crisis of faith for the Roman citizens, the Roman gods had withdrawn their blessings despite the piety of the people. The ontology of Christianity, having been created by the similar crisis of Jewish faith in the years after 70CE, was perfectly situated to fill the ontological needs of disillusioned Romans. As the Roman government became less and less effective at meeting the needs of it's citizens, the Roman Catholic (Universal) Christian Church took up those duties thus reinforcing the efficacy of their belief system. The Catholic Church's success at providing for basic political order and social unity was the infrastructure experience that persuaded individuals, (and political leaders) to join this new cult.

Then The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages happened.
A series of famines and plagues, beginning with the Great Famine of 1315-1317 and especially the Black Death of 1348, reduced the population perhaps by half or more as the Medieval Warm Period came to a close and the first century of the Little Ice Age began. Along with depopulation came social unrest and endemic warfare. Soil exhaustion, overpopulation, wars, and epidemic diseases helped cause hundreds of famines in Europe during the Middle Ages, including 95 in Britain and 75 in France. In France, the Hundred Years' War, crop failures and epidemics reduced the population by two-thirds.

Popular revolts in late medieval Europe and civil wars between nobles within countries such as the Wars of the Roses were common - with France fighting internally nine times - and there were international conflicts between kings such as France and England in the Hundred Years' War. The unity of the Roman Catholic Church was shattered by the Western Schism. The Holy Roman Empire was also in decline, in the aftermath of the Great Interregnum (1247-1273), the Empire lost cohesion and politically the separate dynasties of the various German states became more important than their common empire.
This combined environmental, economic, and political crisis caused people to lose faith in the efficacy of the Roman Catholic Church, as they had in the pagan religion of Rome. But the Bible still had a good ontology for explaining this suffering as it had during the previous crisis. Which is why the Protestant Reformation was successful. It explained the crisis as a failure of the Catholic Church not of the Bible. And the efficacy of the Protestant faith was "proved" by the economic success of the Protestant colonial states.

There has been some discussion about the rise in Atheism, especially among wealthy educated people with comfortable incomes. It has long been known that people who believe that they are in control of their future prospects for success are less likely to believe in supernatural forces. ("The trouble with self made men is that they tend to worship their creator.") It is only when you encounter barriers, that you are not able to overcome through your own efforts, that you start to believe in powers outside of yourself. I have long argued that there is a Religion of Science. Most people who identify as Atheists believe that science provides all the answers to their ontological questions and provides all the efficacy they need to survive and prosper. Atheism could be the religion of the future but only if Atheism is able to support it's ontological and efficacy claims by giving people access to economic and reproductive success. Countries where atheism is most popular are those countries where the government and non-religious organizations guarantee that people have their basic economic needs met, so they don't have to resort to petitioning the supernatural for assistance.

The rising popularity of Neo-Paganism in the US could be seen as a response to the decline in the American economy over the past forty years.

It seems that we are currently entering another period of environmental and economic crisis. It may be that Christianity responds with a new revival to meet this new crisis. As it has before. Or maybe some other system will be more successful at meeting people's needs to make meaning out of that experience.

New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought” by Wouter J. Hanegraaff.
“All New Age religion is characterized by a criticism of dualistic and reductionistic tendencies in (modern) western culture, as exemplified by (what is emically perceived as) dogmatic Christianity, on the one hand, and rationalistic/scientistic ideologies, on the other. It believes that there is a “third option” which rejects neither religion and spirituality nor science and rationality, but combines them in a higher synthesis. It claims that the two trends which have hitherto dominated western culture (dogmatic Christianity and an equally dogmatic rational/scientistic ideology) have been responsible for the current world crisis, and that the latter will only be resolved if and when this third option becomes dominant in society."

I believe that Wicca is admirably suited to to meet the ontological needs of people equally disillusioned with the failure of rationalistic ideologies and dogmatic faith to bring about a new utopian future.

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