Why Did Paganism Die?

A Rob Cain Rant (editorial, first published 2015/04/18)

I’m the type of guy that tears out an article out of the newspaper, folds it up, and carries it about in my wallet. It has to be special. The subject has to be something that pricks on some unexplainable level. The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Edition, Saturday/Sunday, March 21-22 2015 had a fascinating book review on two recently published worksComing out Christian in the Roman Worlby Douglas Boin and Pagans by James J. O’Donnell.   I fully intend to find these books and crack them open – however, it’s really ‘something’ to find a newspaper review that provokes the same thoughts and sense of awe that I am sure the books will provide once I get a copy.   I just want to say that Peter Thonemann’s book review was outstanding, well-written, well-researched, and the article itself was a joy to read like remembering a college class that really opened your eyes to the nature of the world.

The title reads: Rome at the Crossroads. The article reviews two books that study a fascinating point. Why did Rome choose the path of Christianity? Was it sudden? Was it a gradual awakening? What are the crossroads where society chooses or discovers another path?

How many of us can claim that we ever witnessed a societal crossroad in the first place? There’s only a couple I can think of.  The Digital Age?  The Civil Rights Movement?

According to the article large Christian communities rose up only 150 years after the death of Jesus. ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS! This is nothing on the calendar of human endeavor. What are 150 years, really? This is two to three generations at the most.

So Boin and O’Donnell have to answer a very big question. What made paganism “roll over” in a very short space of time?

No. I am not forgetting the persecutions.   However, even an emperor or two would eventually find a trusted advisor to be Christian, even as high as the corridors of the imperial house.

What made paganism die? Was paganism already on its way out? Was there something in the pagan thought that made it ready for something new?

This quote by Gibbon is at the top of the page of the article: “According to the maxims of universal tolerance, the Romans protected a superstition which they despised.”  Meaning…the Romans did not believe in the Pantheon of Gods but continued with it as a matter of course…tradition dies hard some say.

However, as Christians were being rounded up, what happened to those that escaped the net?  There had to be some missed, who hid, who denied their faith when confronted, who lived under the radar and were careful of any misspoken word that might give them away.

Were there Romans perfunctory ‘burning the incense to the Emperor’ as we pay our taxes today? The article brings up that many Romans were quite happy to serve the Emperor, pay their taxes, serve in the Army, and keep a secret Christian altar in the basement. Can a man serve two masters? Short answer: Yes, but not very long. Maybe the pagans served two masters long enough until it was ‘safe’ to serve one.

Was paganism weak? The article poses this question. I don’t believe they were weak at all. For thousands of years, they conquered, explored, went adventuring, pillaged and dared the gods, and lived on to build empires. It certainly provided a basis to explain the world. It provided an explanation of the changing of the seasons, of man, of a world filled with unanswered questions.

A pagan philosopher exclaimed upon witnessing the properties of a magnetic rock: “There are gods in everything.”

Maybe all that man needed at that time was one. Maybe there were just too many sacrifices (burning incense, and animal sacrifice) to be made to a list of gods that covered anything and everything. Maybe there were just too many ‘masters’ to serve in that ‘pagan’’ world when you have a god for anything you can name (the door, the heavens, the stoop, the harvest, the hymen, and the wind, etc, etc).

Maybe Matthew 6:24 is correct: “No man can serve two masters.” Maybe Judeo/Christian thought provided the one religion needed at the right time to cut down the confusion. Was Christianity more flexible (i.e. turning Saturnalia into Christmas)?   I leave that one to the scholars.

These are too many questions for me, and already my head hurts.  I had coffee with a good friend Dr. Vincent Guss in hopes of a cure.  I showed him the article.  He is a clinical Ethicist and Board Certified Chaplain. He had a different take on my explanation of the article: “The Roman religion lacked spirituality.”  I sent him the article later and he sent back this email.


Thanks so much for the article and the good conversation about how and why “Paganism” was so easily replaced by “Christianity”.  The article and our conversation gave me the opportunity to pause, consider and reflect on that important topic for our culture as it developed in ancient times.  There was a lack  of spirituality (by the time of the “common era”) that so-called Roman paganism had as compared to Christianity at that time, and was the most likely reason that Paganism all but disappeared by the 4th Century. I fully agree with the author of the article in his final words: “…it is dispiriting to [say] ‘novelty intervened to distract people’” as the reason that “…the implausible triumph of Christianity” replaced paganism so easily.  I believe that regardless of philosophical or religious orientation (or the lack of either), humankind as a deep need for spirituality.  What is wrong with what supposedly passes for modern evangelical Christianity is that it also lacks true spirituality, and the main teaching of Jesus to value the poor and vulnerable is replaced with legalism and tribalism.

End quote.

Saw Vincent for coffee later in the week (follow up appointment…ha, ha) and he had just one additional comment: “Maybe paganism was already dead when Christianity came about.” 

As for Thonemann, the book reviewer, he has achieved something rare.  He made me discuss religion and philosophy, something I rarely do.  Considering Peter Thonemann is a lecturer at All Souls College at Oxford University it should come to no surprise that he can inspire and raise the level of discussion for me in as little as twelve paragraphs.

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