by Ferdinand Bardamu
A religion for simple-minded folk
Scholars have long noted the great appeal Christianity has always had for the lowest dregs of humanity. Few intellectuals were ever attracted to the religion; those who converted became anti-intellectual extremists who turned their back on Western culture and civilization.
The 2nd-century Latin theologian Tertullian, one of the most bigoted Christian anti-intellectuals to have ever lived, famously asked:
What indeed has Athens got to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?… We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.
Contemporary pagan philosophers frequently observed that the earliest converts were drawn from the ranks of stupid, ignorant people. Celsus, an early pagan critic of the new religion, wrote that it was Christian policy to turn away the wise and the educated; only boys, fools and slaves were considered as potential converts. “Their favorite expressions,” wrote Celsus, “are ‘Do not ask questions, just believe!’ and: ‘Your faith will save you!’ ‘The wisdom of this world,’ they say, ‘is evil; to be simple is to be good.'”
The educated pagan was contemptuous of folk belief. To be worthy of belief, religions had to be logically consistent and empirically grounded. They had to have some basis in science and philosophy. Anything else was “superstition.” In classical antiquity, superstition was defined as fear of “daemons” and belief in the supernatural causation of natural and physical phenomena, such as disease.
To the pagan intellectual, Christianity embodied everything they hated about superstition. What made Christianity especially reprehensible was that it had inherited all the worst features of Judaism, namely intolerance and bigotry. The religion also spread like a contagious disease. As the pagan intellectual saw it: Christianity was devised and spread by ignorant men for the benefit of ignorant men, especially because of its close resemblance to the superstitious beliefs of the masses. The triumph of Christianity led to a complete reversal of elite pagan values in late antiquity. The educated man now embraced wholeheartedly the beliefs of the semi-barbaric multitudes.
St. Augustine, originally educated in the classical curriculum and trained in rhetoric, could state with confidence that all diseases were of supernatural origin, in open defiance of well-established Greek medical practice. Whereas before Constantine, there existed a significant gap between the beliefs of the educated pagan and the hoi polloi, after Constantine, there was no such gap. For the first time in classical antiquity, the elite and the masses were indistinguishable in terms of belief, with all naively subscribing to veneration of saints, their relics and miracles.
The triumph of Christianity in the West was the triumph of a profound ignorance that lasted centuries.