It might be hard to imagine something that would unite some elite antiquarians of the post-enlightenment period with some of today’s new age and neo-pagan groups, but many share a common sentiment: a distaste for Christianity and a longing for a return to the virtues of Paganism. Of course, if you think about it, it’s probably not all that helpful to talk about “Paganism” as though it were one thing and not a multiplicity of beliefs and practices. As one of my philosophy professors once told me, “it is easy to idealize that of which you’re ignorant,” so from that perspective it’s not all that surprising that folks would look beyond the bounds of western culture to an idealized and constructed form of “eastern spirituality” or to an imagined idyllic era of pagan virtue that had somehow been despoiled by the rise of Christianity.
This isn’t really a new phenomena; whether Julian the Apostate, Friedrich Nietzsche or a modern person, there have always been those who felt like Christianity was a step backward–whether that step backward was because Christianity was seen as too restrictive, too liberal, too worldly or too spiritual depended on the person. Likewise, when talking about “paganism” you could be referring to popular beliefs, different philosophical schools, the official teachings of various traditional religions or mystery cults etc… So it would be wrong to write the whole thing off, or lump it all together–stoicism and platonic thought are not the same as devotion to Molech. That being said, the rise of Christianity did alter the public morals of the ancient world (from my perspective, for the better), as the following story from the BBC illustrates:
Archaeologists investigating a mass burial of 97 infants at a Roman villa in the Thames Valley believe it may have been a brothel.
Tests on the site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire suggest all died at 40 weeks gestation, very soon after birth.
Archaeologists suspect local inhabitants may have been systematically killing unwanted babies.
Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers said: “The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel.”
With little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels, explained Dr Eyers, who works for Chiltern Archaeology.
And infanticide may not have been as shocking in Roman times as it is today.
Archaeological records suggest infants were not considered to be “full” human beings until about the age of two, said Dr Eyers.
Children any younger than that age were not buried in cemeteries. As a result, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era.
Even so, say experts, the number at the Yewden villa at Hambleden is extraordinary.
Christianity challenged the morals of Greco-Roman society largely through the application of thought inherited from the Jewish tradition. Christians became well known for their criticisms of the practice of exposing infants, abortion etc… In his book When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, Odd Magne Bakke describes the challenge that Christians offered:
From the Didache and Barnabas onward, our Christian sources throughout the pre-Constantinian period reject these phenomena and condemn those who practice them. Here, the Christian texts adopt Jewish thinking, as is especially clear in the Didache and Barnabas, whose authors have incorporated the tradition of the “two ways” into their own ethical instruction. The commandment not to kill children, either in the womb or after birth, is seen in connection with the obligation to love one’s neighbor. Like adults, children are regarded as individuals who must be taken care of. It is interesting to note how in these early Christian writings the opposition to abortion, expositio and infanticide is rooted in the idea of God as creator: since the children are created by him, one must not destroy their lives, but must look after them.
Whenever I hear the laments of Christians that “things are getting bad,” I can’t help but think about what they were like before the rise of Christianity. This doesn’t make the slide any less negative, but it does provide hope: if public ethics were challenged and changed in the past, they may be in the future.