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What Today’s Christians Can Learn From Antiquity About Living In A Pagan World


Mollie Hemingway had a very nice article in The Federalist the other day in which she suggests that our society’s sexual obsession is a new religion. She writes,

This new religion has fervent adherents and strict dogma, but it’s also true that the doctrines are still being formed. Now that marriage has been redefined away from sexual complementarity, the project to redefine the sexes themselves is moving forward. The doctrines governing biological reality, monogamy, polygamy, beastiality, pedophilia, and other issues will continue to be debated in councils and forums.

She overlooks the holy sacrament of abortion in her list of dogmas: it is the one practice that is beyond debate in this new paganism. Despite the political rhetoric of “pro-choice,” this religion’s expectation is that pregnant women should get abortions and celebrate doing so on Twitter and YouTube. It doesn’t matter much if the expectant mother has been coerced by boyfriends or family members as long as the Temple of Planned Parenthood is fed new sacrifices.

Yet many facets of this “new religion” are actually depressingly familiar. Current conditions are strikingly similar to the paganism practiced in Ancient Rome around the time Christianity came along, as Rodney Stark describes in his 1996 classic “The Rise of Christianity.” Perhaps we can learn how to deal with the New Paganism by considering how Christians replaced the Old Paganism in a very short time (at least by historical standards).

Now, before atheist Federalist readers fire up their snarky comments about spaghetti monsters in the sky, relax. Stark’s book is a sociological treatise, completely avoiding any mention of divine intervention, or even much about Jesus. He even uses the secular designation of “Common Era” (C.E.) in his dates, rather than the A.D. (anno domini, or “Year of our Lord”).

What Rome Teaches Us About New Paganism

Stark examines the early Christian movement strictly on the basis of social practices, and considers how the values of the Jesus movement provided cohesion in a pagan empire that was already falling apart in the first century.

The empire’s primary problem was low fertility. It wasn’t producing enough children to replace the population. This is something we are familiar with today: Europe, Russia, and Japan all have declining populations. Roman leaders knew this was a problem and tried to encourage greater fertility. Stark writes, “In 59 B.C.E. Julius Caesar secured legislation that awarded land to fathers of three or more children (and) in the year 9 the emperor Augustus promulgated laws giving political preference to men who fathered three or more children and imposing political and financial sanctions upon childless couples.” But none of it worked. There were “serious population shortages” by the second century.

The reasons for this are many, and Stark studies them all. Rome was extremely male-dominated. Roman men didn’t have much use for women, due in part to widespread homosexuality and prostitution. Stark quotes Baryl Rawson (author of “The Family in Ancient Rome”) as writing, “one theme that recurs in Latin literature is that wives are difficult and therefore men did not care much for marriage.”

Even when Roman men did marry, it was often to prepubescent girls of age 12 or less.  Abortion and infanticide (especially of female babies) were commonplace, “justified by law and advocated by philosophers”—including Seneca, Plato, and Aristotle. Plato advocated that abortion be mandatory for women over age 40. Of course, abortion was dangerous and often resulted in the death or infertility of the woman.

As a result of these practices, there was an extreme shortage of women in the Roman Empire. Stark reports that there were “131 males per 100 females in the city of Rome and 140 males to 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa.” It was very rare for even large families to have more than one daughter: “A study of inscriptions at Delphi made it possible to reconstruct six hundred families. Of these, only six had raised more than one daughter.”

How Christians Took Over Rome

But when Christians came on the scene, they changed all of this. They absolutely prohibited abortion and infanticide within their own ranks. They also prohibited homosexuality, applied the same standards of chastity and fidelity within marriage to both men and women, and gave women much higher social status than the Romans allowed.

Given these advantages, women were more likely to convert to Christianity than were men. The Christian community soon enjoyed a higher female to male ratio and actually had a surplus of marriageable women. Many of these women took pagan husbands and ended up converting them, resulting in a far higher fertility rate and a growing presence within the empire. Stark calculates that Christianity grew at a rate of 40 percent per decade in the years 40 to 350, from perhaps 1,000 believers in 40 A.D. to nearly 34 million by 350 A.D.

But another phenomenon also helped boost Christian growth: the sudden onset of two epidemics, one in 165 A.D. and the other in 251 A.D. The first was likely smallpox and the second measles. In each case, they produced devastating mortality, killing as much as 30 percent of the population each time.

The pagan response was to flee as far from infected people as possible. Even the famous physician Galen fled to his country estate in Asia Minor to wait until the danger was past. Neither pagan scientists, priests, nor philosophers had an explanation for the calamity—it was just the whim of the gods and nothing could be done about it.

But the Christian explanation was radically different. They believed God was testing and judging humans. Even though some of the faithful might die, they would also be rewarded in the afterlife for their response to the crisis. And what did God expect their response should be? He wrote it all down in Scripture: love your neighbor as yourself, care for the sick and the lame, act as the Good Samaritan acted. That is exactly what Christians did: they cared for one another even in the face of death.

The consequence of this caring could easily be seen as miraculous. As Stark writes, “Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more” (emphasis in original). This nursing could be as simple as providing hydration and nourishment until the patient recovered. As patients recovered, they would be immune from the disease and could care for the newly sick without fear.

So while pagans were abandoned and left to die in droves, Christians fearlessly cared for their own (and later for their pagan neighbors) and recovered in large numbers. What religion could be more appealing?

After all this, Rome did not decline because of invasion by “barbarian hordes” (as many of us were taught in school), but through depopulation. The barbarians were invited in to take over abandoned farms and serve in Roman armies, while Christianity grew to become a majority religion in just a few generations.

What Does This Mean For Christians Today?

Christians must get used to being a minority in a pagan world. We have to drop the nostalgia for the 1950s and ’60s, which were an anomaly for church attendance. For most of our country’s history fewer than 50 percent of the population attended church. Many attended church in the post-World War II period for social or business reasons, without any real understanding of the faith. Because of this, the church did indeed include many “Christians” who were bigoted and mean-spirited, and this alienated substantial numbers of people who were looking for true faith.

In today’s climate, Christians have to restore Christ’s message of love and joy—not just talking about it, but living it every day. That does not mean accommodating ourselves to the pagan world, but witnessing for Jesus within that world. We don’t win over pagans by diluting our faith, but by living it out.

To do that, we have to identify our world for what it is: pagan, not some wishy-washy term like “secular.” Today’s pagans have their own gods just as surely as the Romans and Babylonians had theirs. These include the gods of sex, political power, and celebrity, and they are every bit as futile as the Roman and Babylonian gods were. They fail to bring meaning or contentment to their devotees—instead, they bring emptiness and dissatisfaction. Worshiping such gods is sad and pathetic, and we should feel compassion for those lost in paganism, welcoming them when they arrive at our door looking for meaning.

Next, while social conditions today are not identical to those of Roman times, the similarities are striking. A society that invests itself in homosexuality and abortion will terminate itself in a generation. We may not practice infanticide today, but we have replaced it with sexually transmitted disease.

This latter is rarely discussed in pagan circles because it might deter some of the activities they treasure, but STDs have become a serious crisis in the United States. As this chart shows, the incident rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia in the United States far surpasses that of Europe, by a factor of 10 for gonorrhea and a factor of well over 50 for chlamydia, almost entirely among young people of ages 20 to 24. Further, these diseases are evolving into “super bugs” that are resistant to antibiotics. There is currently only one form of antibiotic that is effective against gonorrhea.
Chlamydia is especially insidious. It is often asymptomatic, but can result in permanent infertility if left untreated. Yet in 2014, there were 1.4 million cases reported. That is one hell of a lot of young women who may discover a few years later that they are unable to bear children. The “hookup culture” will prove to have a bitter legacy when even the CDC is recommending monogamy as the best way to prevent the disease. Suddenly, Christian standards of behavior may look pretty appealing.

While pagan practices lead to infertility, evangelical Christians are having babies. One estimate from an atheist website is that “Mormons and Christian evangelicals have nearly twice the birth rate of non-religious Americans…” Globally, the Pew Research Center expects those with no religious affiliation to shrink from 16 percent in 2010 to 13 percent by 2050. Much of this religious growth is not Muslim but Christian, as Christianity is exploding in China and Africa.

Big Reasons for Women to Revolt Against New Paganism

Some will point out that one of the biggest differences between ancient Rome and modern pagan society is the status of women. Today women are liberated, free to be whatever they want to be. Thus, Christians no longer provide the advantages to women that they did in the early days.

That would seem to be indisputable. Yet it is also true that women disproportionately suffer the consequences of New Paganism. Women, far more than men, suffer from STDs. Women, far more than men, are left to rear children born out of wedlock. It is women who have to get abortions and suffer the emotional and physical results. It is women who suffer from sexual predators unrestrained by moral codes. It is women who are sold into the global sex trafficking market. Indeed, pagan “liberation” seems to have mostly liberated men from taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions.

These are big prices to pay for pagan liberation. A faithful Christian community would offer women all the advantages of education, career advancement, and self-determination enjoyed by pagan women without the negative consequences. A faithful Christian community will tend to the ill and the hopeless, as we saw during the Ebola crisis. A faithful Christian community will demand moral behavior from men every bit as much as women. A faithful Christian community will identify pagan practices as sinful, but welcome such sinners with love and compassion. A faithful Christian community will see the image of God in every human being, regardless of race, class, or national origin.

Who wouldn’t be attracted to such a community? It may be the only hope left for a society that has gone so badly off the rails.