A Real Pagan-Turner

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity, by James J. O’Donnell – This book basically covers the switch from polytheistic religion to Christianity in the Roman Empire, largely looking at it from the point of view of the pagans. O’Donnell makes clear that “pagan” was a term invented by Christians, basically meaning “peasant,” to create an us-vs.-them sort of mentality. The followers of traditional Roman religion wouldn’t have considered themselves pagans, or polytheists for that matter, before monotheism became the norm. There’s some information on how Caesar Augustus more or less invented Roman religion under the guise of restoring old-school practices, and how there really wasn’t any one form of religion that dominated before the rise of Christianity. The earlier religions of the Empire were generally not about faith and personal relationships with a chosen deity so much as participating in certain rituals to appease the gods. The amount that the gods cared about humanity varied greatly, but animal sacrifice was the norm in trying to get them to favor you. Even monotheistic Judaism practiced this prior to the destruction of the Temple. O’Donnell argues that Constantine adopted Jesus as his patron deity in a way that wasn’t specifically Christian, but rather how followers of other pantheons would call on a specific god for success in battle. The book also argues that there wasn’t really a major struggle between Christianity and paganism, at least not in the major cultural centers of the Roman Empire. Some emperors chose to return to worship of the old gods after the rise of Christianity, but didn’t really do much to curb the new religion. The lines were rather less obvious than they are today, with people adopting elements of Christian belief and practice along with pagan ones. It was more of a gradual replacement, aided by the Roman rulers realizing they could use Christianity to their advantage. O’Donnell has a snarky style that I found amusing, but would probably bother some readers. It’s a very secular look at religion, examining the political side more than the personal.

Not directly related to the book, but somewhat inspired by it, I do kind of wonder why monotheism is still the norm. Democracy has become increasingly popular, because societies have learned how dangerous it is to have one person in charge of the government. But isn’t monotheism essentially dictatorship on a heavenly level? At least with polytheism, you can choose another god if yours isn’t working out. But even modern paganism has largely come to favor the idea that many gods are just aspects of one or two main cosmic forces. Of course, what would be convenient for people isn’t necessarily what’s true, so could the prevalence of monotheism despite its drawbacks for humanity be an indication that there’s truth to it? Well, maybe, but I’m still skeptical. After all, people believe in a lot of things that aren’t true and that aren’t to their benefit. Trickle-down economics, for instance. As I’m an atheist, I don’t really have a stake in any particular belief system being the right one, but I do think theists should be made more aware of their options.

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7 Responses to A Real Pagan-Turner

  1. Will says:

    I read this book a few months ago and was deeply impressed, Jesus as a patron deity and the author points out that other high ranking Romans would then adopt this new god both to get get success for themselves and to join a new club to make contacts like joining the Shriners.
    If you look at it we do have a polytheism, some people worship Hippie Jesus who’s cool with a lot of things as long as you’re a good person, there’s Republican Jesus who kicks ass and smites sinners, there’s the Jesus in your head who hates the things you hate and loves the things you love.

    • Nathan says:

      Even monotheistic religions often tend to place a lot of intermediaries between humans and God, like the Trinity, angels, and sometimes saints. Not that these in-between beings are worshipped per se, but it seems even people who think they have direct relationships with God often want some sort of intercessor.

  2. Will says:

    One more thing, athletes in violent sports like boxing who thank Jesus for their victory

  3. You always have thought-provoking essays. I don’t think the prevalence of monotheism makes it necessarily truer than any other belief-system. Something is either true or not in and of itself, and not because it’s popular or prevalent culturally. What is practiced and prevalent in our culture is monotheism, but isn’t what Christ taught. Because so many people are a-literate and don’t make time to read, they don’t know what his teachings are. If they do go to some kind of church, they get a filtered down version that may or may not reflect what he said, usually a mixture, and in some churches, there’s no reflection at all.

    So, there are these counterfeit Jesus’ idols that get propped up, but have nothing but the name in common with the person in New Testament, which, I believe is why there are so many warnings in there about the coming of counterfeit Christianity, and why he focuses so much on the message of love (Matt 7:12).

    Christ’s words, not his impostors who misrepresent him, are the only measure upon which we can discern whether this Christ thing is true or false. It’s also the measure upon which we discern whether a group or individual is actually Christian or not (Matt 7:16). I agree that theists need to be made aware of all the choices before them, and I think that’s true for everyone with an open mind. Yet, those who want to be spoon fed, or go along with the crowd, or who don’t want to spend any time learning, will never see it.

  4. Bryan T Babel says:

    Pagan (n.)

    late 14c., from Late Latin paganus “pagan,” in classical Latin “villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant” noun use of adjective meaning “of the country, of a village,” from pagus “country people; province, rural district,” originally “district limited by markers,” thus related to pangere “to fix, fasten,” from PIE root *pag- “to fix” (see pact). As an adjective from early 15c.

    Religious sense is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for “civilian, incompetent soldier,” which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (such as milites “soldier of Christ,” etc.). Applied to modern pantheists and nature-worshippers from 1908.

    –Online Etymology Dictionary

    If you are interested in some rather cogent philosophical arguments for monotheism, and enjoy snarky style, you may find both in Professor Edward Feser’s book “The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheists.”

    • Nathan says:

      I think snarky style is pretty much always easier to take when you AGREE with it, although there are exceptions. That sounds pretty interesting.

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