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Not Guilty

In a post which, though brief, displays many of the traits that have made him famous, Lawrence Auster revisits my "over-the-top personal attacks" on him from a year ago last June. I don't really have anything to add to what I wrote back then. Anyway, LA provides enough links for interested readers to decide for themselves who is guilty of over-the-top personal attacks on whom.

But there's one issue that comes up in his post which I should probably clear up. Auster's very astute commenter Gerry Neal mentions an article by Jerry Salyer in the August 10th issue of Chronicles entitled "Where the Demons Dwell: The Antichrist Right", wherein I am singled out as a representative of "neopaganism" who supposedly regards "the Church as the worst thing that ever happened to Western civilization."

This is so wrong that it just couldn't be any wronger. Mr. Salyer would have come closer to the truth if he had written that I regard Christianity as the best thing that ever happened to Western civilization.

But that, too would be an exaggeration.

Fortunately, there's no need for me to reinvent the wheel. Because my attitude toward the Christian Church has already been perfectly summed up by a fellow agnostic, in a brief interview which I happened to come across today:

"A Double Take on Early Christianity - An Interview with Rodney Stark.

The whole interview is so good and so interesting that I'm going to take a page out of LA's book and just reprint the whole thing verbatim, the relevant with the irrelevant, and copyright be damned:

* * * * *

Most Christians would find your work iconoclastic. You’ve undermined a number of received truths of church histories.

RS: I don’t think anyone should take offense. My findings make the Christian accomplishment seem all the more wonderful.

One tradition you question is that Christianity was primarily a movement of the poor. Why?

RS: In the upper-class and senatorial families, and even the imperial family, there were many women who were Christians, even early on. In the 1920s we found a paving block dedicated to Erastus, whom Paul mentioned in his Letter to the Corinthians, and the block shows that Erastus was city treasurer. And there’s reason to believe that we have in the early Church a quite literate group. When you read the New Testament, for example, ask: Who are these people talking to? The language there is the language used by educated people.

You describe the everyday misery of the ancient world. Did Christianity change that?

RS: It made it a lot more bearable. The Church didn’t clean up the streets. Christians didn’t put in sewers. So you still had to live with a trench running down the middle of the road, in which you could find dead bodies decomposing. But what Christians did was take care of each other. Their apartments were as smoky as the pagan apartments, since neither had chimneys, and they were cold and wet and they stank. But Christians loved one another, and when they got sick they took care of each other. Someone brought you soup. You can do an enormous amount to relieve those miseries if you look after each other.

You also argue for steady growth by individual conversions rather than by mass conversions. Why?

RS: We don’t have a single documented case of mass conversion. Yes, there’s the passage in the Book of Acts, and I’m not one of these people who say, “Don’t trust the Bible.” But you’ve got to understand what people meant by numbers in those times. Numbers were rhetorical exercises. You’d say a million when you really meant a hundred. What you’re really saying is “lots.” In Acts, I think the numbers are meant to say, “Look, wonderful things are happening.” If the historical demographers are right, Jerusalem had about 25,000 people in it at the time. So if you start talking about eight or ten thousand converts, that’s a little bit out of scale.

What about forced conversions?

RS: There weren’t any in the time I’m talking about. Constantine didn’t cause the triumph of Christianity. He rode off it. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say he had many harmful effects. I don’t believe establishment is good for churches. It gets them involved in the worldly realm in ways that are unsuitable and corrupting. By the end of Constantine’s reign, we see people competing madly to become bishops because of the money. After that, Christianity was no longer a person-to-person movement.

People value religion on the basis of cost, and they don’t value the cheapest ones the most. Religions that ask nothing get nothing.

You look at the spread of Christianity beyond the empire, and you see that it was almost entirely by treaty and by baptizing kings. I think one reason medieval church attendance was so bad in Scandinavia and Germany was that these people weren’t really Christians. If it hadn’t been for the establishment of the Church, they might have been. Their lands would have become Christian because many people would have gone door-to-door to make Christians out of them—and then baptized the king. It was bad for the Church. I think the current pope would agree with me; I think most medieval popes would have me burned for saying this.

American Catholics can understand it, though. They know how good it was for the Church to have to fight for its life in the United States. The old Protestant story was that the priest met the boat, and you had another boatload of Catholics. But that’s not true; those people weren’t used to going to church or contributing money. They had to be turned into Catholics. It was a remarkable feat. Posed with a challenge, the Church rose to it very well, and the American Church became a very strong Church, compared to the Latin American Church.

The received tradition is that many Christians were martyred. Yet you say that blood witnesses were few.

RS: There’s a consensus among historians that the numbers weren’t large at all, and that we may know the name of just about every single martyr. The Romans decided to attack the movement from the top. This would have worked with other religions because there was no bottom to paganism. Paganism was really temples on a shopping mall, and people were very casual about which ones they patronized. If the Romans knocked off the chief priest and took away government subsidy, a pagan temple would fold up.

So the empire went after Christianity the same way, thinking, “If we butcher the bishops, things will take care of themselves.” Of course, it didn’t work because there were 92 guys waiting in line to be bishop. That’s what you get with a mass movement.

Does this minimize the traditional notion that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”?

RS: Not at all. One thing about religious truths is that we have to take them on faith, and faith needs reassurance. What’s more reassuring than noticing that some other people, whom you admire, are so certain that it’s all true that they’re willing to go the ultimate mile?

You seem to argue that Christianity was an overwhelmingly good social force for women.

RS: It was! Christian women had tremendous advantages compared to the woman next door, who was like them in every way except that she was a pagan. First, when did you get married? Most pagan girls were married off around age 11, before puberty, and they had nothing to say about it, and they got married to some 35-year-old guy. Christian women had plenty of say in the matter and tended to marry around age 18.

Abortion was a huge killer of women in this period, but Christian women were spared that. And infanticide—pagans killed little girls left and right. We’ve unearthed sewers clogged with the bones of newborn girls. But Christians prohibited this. Consequently, the sex ratio changed and Christians didn’t have the enormous shortage of women that plagued the rest of the empire.

What about in the Church itself? How did women find their place?

RS: Women were leaders in the early Church. Paul makes that clear. And we have Pliny’s letter in which he says that among the people he’s tortured were two “deaconesses.” We’re not helped by Bible translations that render “deaconess” as “deacon’s wife.” I’m not saying the Church was ordaining women in those days. Of course it wasn’t. But women were leaders, and probably a disproportionate number of the early Christians were women.

Some of their husbands may or may not have been, but the women were there. There’s another thing we don’t understand: In every single society of which we have any evidence at all, women are more religious than men. We’re not sure why. But what that has meant is that religious movements are disproportionately female. That’s certainly turned up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when we have good numbers. People in the early Church remarked on it back then. The early church fathers noticed that the movement had more women.

Even Christian historians tend to discount stories of the miraculous and minimize the veracity of early Church documents. Yet you accept the record to a remarkable degree.

RS: People in the patristics field recently were hammering me for naively accepting early accounts. One woman in particular mentioned the early Church’s rules against abortion and female infanticide. She said that I didn’t seem to understand that these prohibitions served all kinds of polemical purposes. Well, of course I know that, but I guess I’m so naive as to believe that groups that constantly hammer against something are more opposed to it than groups that, in their official writings, say that the same thing is laudable and wonderful and that we ought to do it.

From Plato and Aristotle on, the classical philosophers were advocating abortion. And infanticide was fine with them, too. Of course there were Christians who didn’t obey, just like there are Mormons who chew tobacco. But the fact of the matter is: most of them don’t. The same thing applies here.

And as for miracles: listen, people do get healed—spontaneously and, it would seem, miraculously. There’s not a physician on earth who would deny that. What is the agency? I don’t know. But to deny that people in tabernacles around the United States are getting healed is simply wrong. There’s no reason to deny that these things happen just because we don’t share the definitions put on them by the people of another time or place.

Somebody at Harvard Divinity School might say, “That wasn’t a miracle. It was a spontaneous remission.” “Spontaneous remission” is the way the experts say, “We don’t have the slightest idea what happened.” The most hard-nosed scientist has no reason to doubt that miracles took place in the early Church. The opinions of the village atheist are as fundamentalist as anything any Baptist ever believed.

You conclude your book by saying that “what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity.” What do you mean?

RS: If you look at the Roman world, you have to question whether half the people had any humanity. Going to the arena to enjoy watching people tortured and killed doesn’t strike me as healthy. I’m a big football fan, and I see that, when some player gets hurt, they bring out an ambulance and the doctors take twenty minutes to get him off the field. They don’t want people hurt out there. But these people did. They’d shout, “Shake him! Jump up and down on him!”

Was Christianity’s contribution just the elimination of the circus?

RS: No, it was a new idea. Among the pagans, you get the sense that no one took care of anyone else except in the tribal way. It’s what we’re seeing today in the Balkans—you take care of your brothers, and you kill everybody else. Christianity told the Greco-Roman world that the definition of “brother” has got to be a lot broader. There are some things you owe to any living human being.

Does it concern you today that blood sports and violent movies are on the upswing, and that abortion and infanticide are back in force?

RS: It doesn’t surprise me. It offends me. For more than a century we managed to have a period of considerable public decency. Now, maybe we’re sliding back to what’s more typical. I blame the courts, which say we can’t censor anything but religion. The fact of the matter is, when I was a kid, there were rules about what you could and couldn’t put in the mail or show in the movies.

Some of the rules may have been a bit much, but where do you stop? Where do you put your limits? If you don’t set them pretty tight, pretty soon they’re blowing people’s heads off. It’s not, for example, that people didn’t get killed in movies in the forties, but there wasn’t this enormous immorality. Evil was to be punished before the movie was over. And they didn’t show all this gratuitous gore. There are people who get turned on by this stuff, and we are helping to build monsters.

You say that Christianity succeeded in part because of its high moral standards. Today, however, many churches are lowering the bar to make religion more popular. How would you analyze their efforts?

RS: They’re death wishes. People value religion on the basis of cost, and they don’t value the cheapest ones the most. Religions that ask nothing get nothing. You’ve got a choice: you can be a church or a country club. If you’re going to be a church, you’d better offer religion on Sunday. If you’re not, you’d better build a golf course, because you’re not going to get away with being a country club with no golf course. That’s what happened to the Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Unitarians and, indeed, to some sectors of Catholicism.

Are Christians waking up to that?

RS: Most denominations are tightening up, and the reason is they’re running out of members. The young clergy have religious motives that their elders didn’t necessarily share. It was a much better job forty years ago. If you look at Catholic religious orders, you’ll find that some are recovering and some new ones are growing. The only ones growing are those that have joint living arrangements instead of everybody living out on their own; that have organized worship; and that have some distinctive dress, so you can recognize them on the street as not just your average social worker or schoolteacher. That’s a QED. If religion gets too cheap, nobody pays the price.

Here’s an example: Do you really need to have hamburgers on Friday? Getting rid of meatless Fridays was a dreadful error the Church made. When I was a kid—in a town that was 40 percent Catholic and 60 percent Protestant—meatless Friday was an enormously important cultural marker. Every Friday reminded you who was like you and who wasn’t like you—and it did this in a way that wasn’t harmful to either side.

Our high-school football games were always played on Friday nights. After the game, you took your girlfriend to the drive-in restaurant. And, around midnight, you could hear the Catholic kids count down to twelve and then shout, “Hamburger!” And everybody would laugh. It was a little social ritual that left Catholics with an enormous sense of solidarity. We thought hamburgers were the big denominational difference.

What do you make of the current pope?

RS: Here’s someone who knows what it was like for the first Christians—who knows what it is to fight for his Church’s life. If an Italian bishop wants to know how many Catholics are in his diocese, he looks in the census books for the number of people who live nearby. A bishop in Communist Poland knew that the census and the number of Catholics were not the same number, and that it’s important to get yourself some Catholics if you want to have a Church. Whether you agree with him or you don’t, it’s very clear this pope is a holy man, that he’s on a mission.

You once wrote that you’re “not religious as that term is conventionally understood.”

RS: That’s true, though I’ve never been an atheist. Atheism is an active faith; it says, “I believe there is no God.” But I don’t know what I believe. I was brought up a Lutheran in Jamestown, North Dakota. I have trouble with faith. I’m not proud of this. I don’t think it makes me an intellectual. I would believe if I could, and I may be able to before it’s over. I would welcome that.

* * * * *

All I can add is that I wish that I had said all that. But, then, now, in a way, I have, haven't I?

* * * * *

P.S. to Gintas: I am perfectly content to accept your characterization of me as "anti-illustrious." Obviously, Paul Cella was "being tongue-in-cheek."

Comments (33)

Quick question: Whom has Larry Auster NOT attacked? I think Auster does some great writing -- but the guy does have a knack for attacking and alienating people. I think Richard Spencer summed it up best when he said that Auster will take a small point of disagreement and turn it into an existential crisis.

Regarding the interview below, one can get a great sense of European conversions by reading Bede or Gregory of Tours. It seems that many of these European kings were first introduced to Christianity through their wives or mothers. Even though they convert to Christianity, Bede still traces their pagan genealogy, sometimes all the way back to Odin -- highlighting the ancestor worship aspect of paganism and how it's still important in this early syncretism. Although Christian, many of these kings maintain their pagan warrior ethos -- which makes Medieval Christianity more warrior-like and less meek.

As a side note, in previous posts when I've criticized contemporary trends in Christianity (its anti-Western tendencies in the West and its leftward drift in support of universal human rights, etc.), I never meant to imply that ALL Christians today are anti-Western. There are small islands of pro-Western Christianity -- such as here at WWwtW, or Chronicles Magazine, or among some of the Eurocentric SSPX members or Calvinistic Lutherans I've met. My wish is that more of the Christian leadership in the U.S. were like this (actually pro-Western) -- and not not like Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbiship Jose Gomez, Rev. Richard Land, Rev. Leith Anderson, et al.

Very interesting interview. I would recommend, as a complement to it, David Berlinski's _Devil's Delusion_, which I'm enjoying reading right now.

No doubt I would disagree strongly with both Stark and Berlinski on the merits of the actual evidence for Christianity. (But I think it's interesting to note that Stark's general approach as indicated here, whereby he takes at least the general outline of the New Testament documents in some sense at face value, would definitely seem to mitigate against any silly notion--for which even Bart Ehrman has tart words--that Jesus never existed, though Stark doesn't mention that particular claim.)

Berlinski tends towards a rather _general_ skepticism.

But I think both the interview and the book are to some degree healthy antidotes to the virulent anti-Christian opinion that is becoming more and more respectable today in intellectual circles and that often clothes itself in the guise of Science.

My main corrective would be to point out that not all Christians regard faith as anything other than complementary to reason.

Mr. Salyer would have come closer to the truth if he had written that I regard Christianity as the best thing that ever happened to Western civilization.

Just a quibble: Christianity didn't happen to Western civilization; Christianity created Western civilization. The before and after are different in kind rather than degree.

Good interview, though. That was precisely my own attitude a couple of years before my conversion. :-)

Interview with Rodney Stark three years later in which he says that he is by that time a Christian, though apparently does not identify himself with any particular denomination:

http://www.cesnur.org/2007/mi_stark.htm

Jeff C.,

Just a quibble back at you: What do you consider Greek/Roman/Jewish civilization before Christ? I always thought of it all as part of our great Western heritage.

Lydia, I was particularly struck by this passage:

"Abortion was a huge killer of women in this period, but Christian women were spared that. And infanticide — pagans killed little girls left and right. We’ve unearthed sewers clogged with the bones of newborn girls. But Christians prohibited this. Consequently, the sex ratio changed and Christians didn’t have the enormous shortage of women that plagued the rest of the empire."

Facts like these foreclose any temptation I might otherwise have felt to identify, whole-hog, with the values of pre-Christian antiquity.

Quite right, Steve. And something like it goes on today. Little girls in India are (not all that infrequently) taken home from the hospital and fed the juice of the tobacco plant until they die. Paganism. Hoo-rah./sarc

Jeff C.: "Christianity created Western civilization"

A quibble: You don't consider the pre-Christian Greeks, Romans, Celts or Germans to be a part of Western Civilization? You cast our pagan forbearers into darker recesses of Hell than did Dante? It's wishful thinking and ideological. It's like denying a dog is a dog because you glued some feathers on it.

Lydia: Obviously infanticide is horrible anytime it happens - pagan Europe, Medieval Europe, etc.. It often seemed to be the result of limited resources. The family often already had children and didn't want to take resources away from raising these children (undermining their chances for survival) by diverting resources to another child (who might have had unfortunate physical conditions or been an unwanted gender, etc.). It would have been a very tough decision, I'm sure. Still, the pagans loved their children, even their female ones. Read Cicero's letters about the loss of his daughter and I doubt you will be unmoved.

Infanticide aside, in some respects the pagans were more "pro-children" than were the early Christians. Ancient paganism was largely ancestral and often involved ancestor worship. It was not a creedal religion; it was passed on by blood and progeny. Thus, having children was vital for the continuation of the family cult. Marriage for them was concrete and entailed procreation. The Latin verb for "to marry" (maritare) also means "to impregnate." Contrast this to some of the accounts of early Christian marriage - which was more ideological. I remember reading accounts of early Christian marriages that were so ascetic that the husband and wife wouldn't even copulate because they thought it unholy. This, of course, seemed entirely bizarre to the pagans who thought children the natural and desired consequence of marriage. Fortunately, for the European Christians, Roman pagan marriage customs eclipsed the more austere early Christian view of marriage.

"What do you consider Greek/Roman/Jewish civilization before Christ?"

I consider it vastly overrated. Roman government, Greek culture, and Jewish religion met in one place: the crucifixion of the one perfect Man. Even an allegedly enlightened ruler like Marcus Aurelius was still a killer of Christians. It doesn't seem to me that either Christ Himself or his apostles were overly impressed by classical culture. Nor am I.

It would have been a very tough decision, I'm sure.

That leaves me...speechless. Well, okay, not exactly. But I'm trying to resist blasphemy.

Lydia, by no means was I trying to justify infanticide. And my comment wasn't even so much directed at you -- I know you were being sarcastic -- as it was toward what I believe to be a common misconception that, since infanticide, often in the form of exposure, occurred in the ancient world, the ancients somehow loved their children less. My intuition is that it was rare and only the most dire necessity called for it. In most times or places, I imagine that parents love their children and want to see their success. I suspect that humans have evolved so that they're somewhat "hardwired" not to want to harm their own children.

Here's Thomas Fleming in a recent discussion on exposure:

"General tendencies and universal laws admit of exceptions and violations, and, as regards children, nature in the raw does not present an entirely encouraging spectacle.  Chimpanzees from one band will kidnap and eat the offspring of another, and among human beings the exposure or killing of sickly, deformed, or surplus infants is far from unknown.  The tales of exposure found in Greek literature have been, to some extent, confirmed by historical research, although it is difficult to draw general conclusions.  But surveying from a distant perspective the vast experiences of primates, including man, two broad generalizations can be made. 

First, most primate and human parents attempt to raise all their children, sacrificing even their own self-interest to that of their offspring; second, under some circumstances, some parents will neglect, abuse, abandon, or kill their children.  In many cases, either the parents or the social group is morally sick.  Colin Turnbull’s portrayal of the IK, an African people so impoverished that they routinely refuse to take care of their children, is the classic case in the anthropological literature, and one can parallel his account with examples drawn from wealthy as well as slum neighborhoods, private schools and Indian reservations.  But setting aside pathological cases, there have been otherwise wholesome societies in which infanticide is regarded as a morally and socially acceptable practice.  Scarcity of resources is the principal pressure against rearing large numbers of children, especially in the case of a child who, because of deformity or sickliness, is unlikely to lead a productive life.

As the human species is made, men and, to a greater degree, women take satisfaction in the rearing of children.  For people who make their living by hunting or farming, additional children are not regarded so much as mouths to feed as hands to work.  Under normal conditions, then, it is not natural to dispose of a child, born or unborn.  In some economic circumstances, however, children can become burdens rather than assets.  In times of crop failure or in a modern city, parents cannot hope to realize a return on their investment.     In the absence of other pressures, the mere inefficiency of child-rearing would not constitute a sufficient incentive to infanticide, if only because parents very quickly become attached even to a deformed child.  If, however, there are means of depersonalizing the infant–if deformity, for example, renders him taboo–the parents will find it easier to harden their hearts."

http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2010/06/14/conservative-credo-iv-the-abortion-debate/

"Ah but, someone will say, the ancients exposed unwanted children.  Some did.  We have little idea of numbers.  Some attempt has been made to indicate that skewed sex ratios, where we have such information, indicate high rates of female infanticide, but, as has been pointed out repeatedly, girls were undercounted even within upperclass families.  There were two kinds of exposures.  Non-viable or seriously deformed babies were left to die, as indeed many would die even with the best care.  From a pre-Christian perspective, a seriously deformed baby (I am not talking about club foot) if it survived would be a drain on family resources that would injure the other children.  The other case is that of a family under economic stress.  In this case, unless the whole community was undergoing a prolonged famine, the child was picked up almost immediately either by a childless family or someone who wanted to rear a slave.

Abortions were quite dangerous, and it was certainly safer to bear than abort.  Nonetheless, the ancients certainly knew how to procure abortions.  The Hippocratic Oath explicitly forbids the administration of the pessary, a sort of abortifacient pebble, though Hippocrates and some other physicians recommended exercises to induce miscarriage.  I don’t know whether such exercises actually worked, and scholars have puzzled over the apparent discrepancy.  One thing we might say is that an exercise is not the same as an insertion or a surgical intervention. Some ancient discussions of abortion techniques are aimed exclusively at cases where the mother’s life is threatened–far more common in the days before modern medicine–or the baby had actually died.

There is little or no evidence of abortion as something socially acceptable by normal people.  Juvenal, in a famous passage, talks about the degeneracy of Roman women in his day and accuses them of getting abortions.  Now, Juvenal as a satirist goes over the top on every subject, but his testimony is valuable, because he reveals clearly that normal people viewed abortions–but not exposure–as shameful.  Christian writers are not always to be relied upon as witnesses because they quite naturally liked to paint the pagans in the blackest colors.  Non-scholars will say that we just don’t know enough about the ancient world.  In fact, we know more than many think.  We have important witnesses in comedy to everyday attitudes; we have gossipy historians like Herodotus; and, best of all, we have the letters of Cicero on everything under the sun, the elder Pliny’s encyclopediac Natural History, and his nephew’s letters, and what we do not find is moral approbation of infanticide or abortion.

Certain classes of women would have had incentives, particularly prostitutes and concubines who would lose business or status by carrying a baby to term.  These women also had no husbands to complain, if they were robbed of offspring.  Abortions were not illegal because ancient law rarely intruded itself into private and domestic life; there was little regulation of marriage and divorce, except where property and citizenship were involved, and even the prosecution of homicide in classical Athens was treated as a kind of civil action that had to be brought by the murder victim’s next of kin.  Modern “scholars” who equate lack of legislation with moral indifference are either not doing their homework or lying.  A good case in point is a Roman law on abortion.  A couple could decide on an abortion without being subject to criminal charges, but a wife who had an abortion without her husband’s permission might be put to death.  We’ll come back to this point.

I am not going to produce  a survey of ancient or Medieval texts on infanticide and/or abortion, but I shall confine myself to one point.  Parents–mothers especially–are supposed to love their own children.  To kill what we are supposed to love is to overturn the moral order.  If we set aside the extreme cases–to save a mother’s life, to eliminate an unfit child that is a threat to the survival of his siblings–then we can join the ancients (apart from rich degenerates) in viewing child-rearing as a blessing and a duty and in ascribing at least as much authority over infanticide to the father as to the mother.  What we shall see that just as morality completes our nature, so Christianity completes our morality."

http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2010/05/31/credo-for-conservatives-iv-abortion/

I've heard stories of how in some places like Africa women choose child to starve because they literally don't have enough food and one of their children HAS to starve. I don't know if a similar motive was behind the use of infanticide in the ancient world.

The Chinese (and apparently Indian-didn't know that) habit of killing girls is really sick. They're not doing it because one of the children would starve anyway, and besides, we should always protect our girls to the point of fighting to the death for them.

Of course, our women murder their unborn infants so they can retain the freedom and independence to do ......... whatever.

The West is an amalgamation of Classical Greco-Roman, Christian, and Northern Germanic-Celtic cultures. The Christians borrowed from the traditions of others and incorporated them into the Church. The very low-church types, puritans, etc. have always wanted to strip these elements, the leaven of Rome if you will, from the Church. Since most people here seem to be RC, EO, Anglican and Lutheran that thinking should't have much appeal here.

My intuition is that it was rare and only the most dire necessity called for it.

Mr. Roberts, your words here speak for themselves, as do your words of 11:31.

Rodney Stark is not convinced of what your "intuition" says--some "dire necessity" "calling for" sewers clogged with the bones of baby girls. Neither am I. He also does not see us as needing to "join" the pagan world in its valuation of children, particularly baby girls. Neither do I.

The Internet is large and life is short. I will simply repeat your words, with emphasis, from 11:31, and leave it at that.

Obviously infanticide is horrible anytime it happens - pagan Europe, Medieval Europe, etc.. It often seemed to be the result of limited resources. The family often already had children and didn't want to take resources away from raising these children (undermining their chances for survival) by diverting resources to another child (who might have had unfortunate physical conditions or been an unwanted gender, etc.). It would have been a very tough decision, I'm sure.

All right, at the risk of loss of dignity, I do have something to add: However odd one may think marriages with vows of no sex (and as a Protestant Christian I do think such marriages very odd) the attempt to compare such marriages to pagan infanticide in order to make the pagan world seem more "pro-child" than Christianity in some significant respect is nothing less than obscene and fills me with disgust. It brings to mind G. K. Chesterton's words, which I give here from memory, "Let us do with babies as we do with puppies. Let all the babies be born, and then let us drown the ones we do not want."

Lydia, in bringing up the concept of early Christian marriage my purpose was not to compare it with infanticide (I wrote "infanticide aside"), which would be perverse, but to show that paganism, unlike early Christianity, viewed children as the natural and desired result of marriage.

MA, saying that there were a few Christian marriage in which the spouses remained celibate "for the Kingdom" does not show that the religion didn't place a great value on children, nor does it show that the Christian religion did not view children as the natural and desired fruit of marriage. That just doesn't follow logically. It is perfectly possible to view something as a good and still to give it up for something that is either more urgently necessary or a more noble good.

If you were to provide solid evidence that the Christian religion promoted childlessnes among married couples, and indeed promoted so thoroughly as causing a reducing population of Christians, then your point would be made. But I think that the evidence is squarely against that: few marriages were in fact childless by choice, and the few people who went around promoting childless marriages as if it were the natural and normal form of Christian marriage were labeled heretics. So, NO, early Christianity did not view marriage the way you're saying.

Tony: I do not deny that most early Christian couples might have copulated and had children. Nature beckons. I wrote, "Contrast this to some of the accounts of early Christian marriage - which was more ideological. " It does not change the fact that at least _some_ Christian married couples were celibate and refused to copulate - not as a matter of circumstance (which will happen at any time or place) but as a matter of religious belief. Read the selections from Carolinne White's Early Christian Lives. To the pagans, this celibacy was very bizarre, as procreation was built into the pagan conception of marriage.

In view of Mr. Roberts's recent remarks extenuating infanticide among the ancients, it might be worth pausing for a moment to see what the common people said about it themselves. I therefore offer a letter from a laborer to his wife and family, Oxyrhynchus papyrus P. Oxy. 744, dating from about 1 B.C., which I will quote in full:

Hilarion to my dear wife Alis, many greetings, also to Berous my lady and Apollonarion. Know that even now we are still in Alexandria. Do not fret. If they go their way, I will remain in Alexandria.

I beg and call upon you: take care of the little child and the minute we receive our pay, I will send it up (river) to you.

If you give birth -- the best of everything to you! -- and it is a boy, let it alone; but if it is a girl, expose it.

You told Aphrodisias, "Don't forget me." How can I forget you? Please do not worry. Year 29 of Caesar, Payni 23.

The evidence of the Roman satirists regarding infanticide is often discounted because they may be presumed to emphasize the exceptional; and it is not the exceptional that gives character to an age, but what is assumed to be normal. That is precisely what Hilarion gives us here. His letter is sympathetic, masculine, direct, and affectionate. And he takes it for granted, and assumes that his wife and kin will take it for granted, that infanticide of a female infant is acceptable.

The bones of baby girls clogging the sewers do not lie. They bear mute testimony to a horrible truth about the pagan side of the Roman world into which Jesus was born.

Of course the Christians reproduced and do not die out -- in part because the Roman pagan view of marriage eventually tempered the more extreme view of marriage that one found among some of the early Christians.

Tim: Of course there are many accounts of exposure. It did happen. But what percentage of people was exposing its children? Parents, I think, are hardwired to love and nourish their children - a fact supported by evolutionary thought. It takes unusual circumstances to harden parents' hearts. Regarding daughters, both Caesar and Cicero cherished theirs. Cicero was distraught when his daughter died.

BTW, infanticide occurred in Medieval Europe all the way up to the 19th century. There are accounts of children being left in the streets, on church steps, in trash heaps, by rivers, etc.


From the Encylopedia of Death and Dying:

"During the Middle Ages, exposure was a prevalent practice due to overpopulation and the large numbers of illegitimate births. During the Renaissance in Italy, the abandonment rate was in excess of 50 percent of all babies.... In 1741 Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain, was so disturbed by the sight of infant corpses lying in the gutters and rotting on dung heaps that he opened Foundling Hospital in England to "suppress the inhuman custom of exposing new-born infants to perish in the streets" (Langer 1974, p. 358)."

I'm sure the above is probably an overstatement for Christian Europe, but infanticide was still taking place. It did not end with the conversion of Christianity.

Hilarion's letter does not imply unusual circumstances, and it shows no love whatsoever towards his hypothetical infant daughter, doomed when she is not yet even known to exist.

You're just digging yourself in deeper, Mr. Roberts. Seriously, you should stop now telling us about the agonizing decisions, driven by "unusual circumstances," the ancient pagans made to kill off their daughters (specifically), clog the sewers with their bones, and create gender imbalances in their society.

"Infanticide aside, in some respects the pagans were more 'pro-children' than were the early Christians."

I also hear that the crime rate in D.C. isn't too bad aside from the murders.

Imagine comparing two men as to their "pro-woman" attitude but asking that we do so "aside from" the fact that one beats his wife every night and the other does not.

By the way, it's a "tough decision" to put one's dog down. It's a heinous evil to murder one's infant daughter.

M.A.

Pagans in all ages have abandoned their unwanted infants, right through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Rousseau -- that stalwart defender of Christian orthodoxy -- boasted of having abandoned all five of his illegitimate children.

In The Kindness of Strangers, John Boswell estimates that urban Romans in the first three centuries A.D. abandoned between 20 and 40% of their infants by exposure, though he suggests that a fair proportion of them were probably rescued. By whom, I wonder? No doubt sometimes by slave traders. But I would be interested to know what percentage of those exposing their children were self-identified as serious Christians -- and what percentage the Christians formed of those who exhibited aliena misericordia.

Tim: But doesn't Boswell in his book say that infanticide was common in both pagan AND Christian Europe? From the cover: "In The Kindness of Strangers, John Boswell argues persuasively that child abandonment was a common and morally acceptable practice from antiquity until the Renaissance."

Lydia: I'm not disagreeing that infanticide took place in both pagan and Christian Europe. But don't you think that parents, especially mothers, are hardwired to care for their own legitimate children? Or do you think that people are naturally murders who care nothing for their own children?

For once, I must register some disagreement with Michael Baumann: I don't think that classical culture is overrated.

I'm teaching Plato's Euthyphro, Apology, Crito & Phaedo, just now, and finding myself in awe of these texts, in a way that I never used to be. In my younger days, I used to carp & snark about all the many errors of reasoning etc. But now I read them in historical context and find myself just staggered by the extent to which they lay the foundations for so much that is worth preserving.

Matthew knows a lot more than I do about pre-Christian history, so I wonder what he would say about this passage from Stark's interview:

"If you look at the Roman world, you have to question whether half the people had any humanity. Going to the arena to enjoy watching people tortured and killed doesn’t strike me as healthy. I’m a big football fan, and I see that, when some player gets hurt, they bring out an ambulance and the doctors take twenty minutes to get him off the field. They don’t want people hurt out there. But these people did. They’d shout, 'Shake him! Jump up and down on him!'"

Isn't it true that the Romans, from Aristocrat to canaille, took pleasure in cruelty in a way that we would find almost unimaginable, today?

Steve, it is true the ancients did seem to enjoy violence, e.g. the gladiator games in Rome. Human life was cheap. Slavery was widespread. The growth of the Roman empire seemed to exacerbate these tendencies. The gladiator games in the mid-Republic were nowhere near the magnitude that they reached in the empire. The conquest of new peoples increased the supply of slaves, who in turn displaced the poor Italic peoples (this problem starts in the Republic and continues into the Empire.) Under Christianity, the gladiator games and slavery eventually disappear. But gladiator games had their own pagan critics (Cicero) and slavery later reappears in the modern world under Christianity. Regarding torture and inflicting pain, Medieval Europe here might definitely take the cake.

In "A History of Torture in England," L.A. Parry wrote:

"...What strikes us most in considering the mediaeval tortures, is not so much their diabolical barbarity … as the extraordinary variety, and what may be termed the artistic skill, they displayed. They represent a condition of thought in which men had pondered long and carefully on all the forms of suffering, had compared and combined the different kinds of torture, till they had become the most consummate masters of their art, had expended on the subject all the resources of the utmost ingenuity, and had pursued it with the ardour of a passion."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a blind defender of the ancient pagan world. The decadence of the Roman Empire, or instance, is not something that should be emulated.

Just a quibble: Christianity didn't happen to Western civilization; Christianity created Western civilization. The before and after are different in kind rather than degree.

Just a quibble back at you: What do you consider Greek/Roman/Jewish civilization before Christ? I always thought of it all as part of our great Western heritage.




The point as made by Hilaire Belloc and Christopher Dawson is that these disparate elements of history and tradition were united through Christianity and it was at that point that the West itself came into existence. It was the coming together of all these traditions within Christianity that created the West as we know it. To them, the Roman Catholic Church was the foundation, upon which the rest of European culture and civilization was then built.

"Contrast this to some of the accounts of early Christian marriage - which was more ideological. I remember reading accounts of early Christian marriages that were so ascetic that the husband and wife wouldn't even copulate because they thought it unholy. This, of course, seemed entirely bizarre to the pagans who thought children the natural and desired consequence of marriage. Fortunately, for the European Christians, Roman pagan marriage customs eclipsed the more austere early Christian view of marriage."

I'm a little confused by this as well, doesn't it say in Genesis "be fruitful and multiply" does that message appear to you to be Anti-Children. Pointing to a few people who misunderstood the basics of Christian thought and then using these people as the evidence to re-write the entire history of Christianity on your own terms, comes across as dishonest on your behalf.

"I'm sure the above is probably an overstatement for Christian Europe, but infanticide was still taking place. It did not end with the conversion of Christianity."
If there were a large numbers of illegitimate birth's taking place then the people weren't acting like Christians were they. The fact that many of there other actions were also Un-Christian as well isn't thus surprising. The point is not that these actions or behaviors no longer took place within Christian Europe, (its impossible to put an end to all amoral behavior) the point is that came to be looked down upon by the society at large due to Christianity. Christianity did prohibit these actions, where as paganism did not, the views on infanticide were remnants of the old paganism. Even if infanticide did take place it was in no way near the same percentages as before.

I haven't read Boswell's book, but his thesis seems to be: "child abandonment was a common and morally acceptable practice from antiquity until the Renaissance."

Phantom Blogger: Genesis might have stated to be fruitful, but the asceticism of the early Christians is well documented. What's unique about European Christianity is its syncretism with European paganism. Medieval European Christians adopted many fine things from paganism: marriage practices, law, philosophy, holidays, the warrior ethos, etc. Men like Charles Martel were products of both traditions. If only we had more Charles Martels and Archbishop Turpins today and fewer Roger Mahonys and Jose Gomezes.

What people might be expected to be hardwired to do and what they actually do often diverge. I should have thought that fathers would be hardwired to behave much differently from Hilarion. His letter chills the blood. And the widespread, differential killing of baby girls is _irrational_ from the perspective of social stability, so one might have thought that people would be hardwired not to do it. But there is no point in being a prioristic about things when we have data about what people actually do. And mothers do not always have the main say in what happens to their infants: Husbands and in-laws are sometimes very influential. (In-laws especially so in India.) The Christian can of course point out that the fall of man explains such surprising barbarisms as the pagan female infanticide Rodney Stark talks about.

Quite right, Steve. And something like it goes on today. Little girls in India are (not all that infrequently) taken home from the hospital and fed the juice of the tobacco plant until they die. Paganism. Hoo-rah./sarc

What, you mean real paganism is not a "girl-positive, Earth-mother religious system" where the sacred feminism is exalted?

Genesis might have stated to be fruitful, but the asceticism of the early Christians is well documented.

??? The asceticism of early Christians was: a) not total, b) in conformity with Jesus's admonition that not everyone is called to celibacy, c) being fruitful does not have anything exclusively to do with material riches or greed.

The Chicken

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