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Palmyra’s Earlier Attackers

From The Spectator, a review of a new book, The Darkening Age, on Christianity’s early centuries.  I haven’t read the book itself (it’s not out in this country until next year), but judging by the review  it looks interesting, no least for the light it throws on the Christian cult of suffering, something still all too evident today in the widespread opposition—across denominations—to assisted suicide.

In the late years of [the Roman] Empire, and early days of Christianity, there were monks who didn’t wash for fear of being overcome by lust at the sight of their own bodies. Some concealed their nakedness in outfits woven from palm fronds. One designed a leather suit that also covered his head. There were holes for his mouth and nose, but not, apparently, his eyes.

There was a monk who spent three years with a stone in his mouth to remind him not to speak. Another wept so hard, his tears dug a hollow in his chest. There were those who went about on all fours. St Anthony, one of the founders of monasticism, chose to make his home in a pigsty. St Simeon Stylites stood on a pillar for 37 years until his feet burst open.

In the reviewer’s  opinion  this shows that “Christianity is a fundamentally masochistic religion”. Despite the cult of suffering (which is real enough) and the behavior of more recent grotesques such as Jean Vianney, that’s too simplistic, but this caught my eye:

[Christianity’s] self-punishing characteristics are a particular product of time and place: not only a reaction against Roman decadence but also, as Catherine Nixey points out in her clever, compelling book The Darkening Age, a response to the end of imperial persecution. The theory goes that, after the Empire adopted Christianity, some felt nostalgic for the enlivening fear of martyrdom, and compensated by metaphorically martyring themselves. This, then, is the essence of asceticism. It was a syndrome that St Jerome dubbed ‘white martyrdom’, to distinguish it from the red kind, which got you killed in front of a baying, paying crowd.

And then there was this (my emphasis added):

Nixey’s book presents the progress of Christianity as a triumph only in the military sense of a victory parade. Culturally, it was genocide: a kind of anti-Enlightenment, a darkening, during which, while annihilating the old religions, the rampaging evangelists carried out ‘the largest destruction of art that human history had ever seen’. This certainly isn’t the history we were taught in Sunday school. Readers raised in the milky Anglican tradition will be surprised to learn of the savagery of the early saints and their sledgehammer-swinging followers.

Here are some darkening dates: 312, the Emperor Constantine converts, after Christianity helps him defeat his enemies; 330, Christians begin desecrating pagan temples; 385, Christians sack the temple of Athena at Palmyra, decapitating the goddess’s statue; 392, Bishop Theophilus destroys the temple of Serapis in Alexandria; 415, the Greek mathematician Hypatia is murdered by Christians; 529, the Emperor Justinian bans non-Christians from teaching; 529, the Academy in Athens closes its doors, concluding a 900-year philosophical tradition…

It’s important not to be tempted into facile point-scoring comparisons between the Christians of the 4th Century and ISIS in the 21st. Nevertheless else, that ancient Christian attack on the temple of Athena is (yet) another reminder that the God of the Middle Eastern monotheisms is a jealous god, and thus someone who could not be added with any ease into the (fairly) relaxed polytheism of the Classical era.

Gibbon  (From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

The refusal to play according to the rules  of that system goes, I imagine, a long way to explaining the persecution of the  early Church.

It’s also something of a mild corrective to the praise for the (not undeserved) praise for those monks who “saved civilization”. Their coreligionists destroyed quite a  bit of it too.

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Monotheism & Religious Tolerance

In the course of Razib/Mr. Hume’s fine post on the history of the emirate of Cordoba, he had this to say:

We know as an empirical fact that the partisans of the Abrahamic faiths are not very tolerant of dissent from their religious monopolies when they are in a position of power.

Subject to the caveat (which Razib included) that such partisans took a more pragmatic approach when, although in power, they were not in a position to enforce a religious monopoly, there is certainly a lot to that, which raises the question why. If we look at the history of other empires, the Roman, say, or even (an unlikely paragon to be sure) that of Genghis Khan (Genghis was an animist), little attempt was made to enforce strict religious orthodoxy.

Does the reason for this difference of approach, I wonder, stem from the very idea of monotheism itself? While I’m certainly no fan of paganism (a lot of what is today being written about pagan societies is nonsense, motivated by ignorance, sentimentality and the childish desire to embrace a ‘non-western’ Other), could it be that the idea of all those, fractious, often competing, gods and spirits made it almost impossible to enforce a religious monopoly. If the gods could not agree, how could man? Monotheism, by contrast, must, by definition, ultimately mean that there is only one truth, and from that it is not too much of a stretch (particularly in those eras when ‘toleration’ had not become a positive ideology) to insist that all should subscribe to it.

Ovoo (animist shrine), Mongolia, May 2005


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