Sunday, May 1, 2016
Philip Harland Says Early Christians Were Widely Considered To Be Atheists
Breaking news: Early Christians were impious atheists...in the eyes of some angry Greeks and Romans, that is. So claims Harland.
Well, Professor Harland and I disagree. Harland says that Tacitus and Pliny the Younger "imply" that Christians are atheists. I disagree with him about that. It could be that Harland is much better at reading between the lines than I am. Or it could be that he pulls the charge of atheism in Tacitus and Pliny the Younger out of -- thin air, so to speak. The offense of the Christians in Tacitus and Pliny -- and Tacitus implies that Nero trumped up the charges -- is that they refused to go along with the public offerings to the gods which included deified Emperors. The concern is not so much with what the Christians believe as with whether or not they are loyal Roman subjects. Politics and religions were very much combined in pre-Christian Rome, and everyone was expected to go through the motions of making sacrifices to the deified Emperors, much the same way that everyone was expected to pay whatever taxes were levied on them. If people refused to go along with the public sacrifices, it was suspected that they might refuse to pay taxes also. (And this suspicion sometimes turned out to be right.)
The only texts Harland produces in which Christians are called atheists are the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Acts of the Christian Martyrs -- hardly the most reliable historical sources. (See "The Myth of Persecution" by Candida Moss.)
And in any case, being an atheist was not an offense to pre-Christian Romans, not the way it became an offense under Christian rule. Many ancient Romans -- for example, Pliny the Younger's dad, Pliny the Elder, the celebrated author of an encyclopedic work we know as the Natural History -- made it quite plain that they didn't believe any of that religious stuff, and many more made ambiguous statements which certainly could be taken as implying that they didn't take any of religion's supernatural claims seriously, from Ovid pointing out in his Metamorphoses that since his subject in that work was deities, it was certainly practical to behave as if he believed they existed, to Suetonius' account of the Emperor Vespasian crying out on his deathbed, "Oh no, I think I'm becoming a god!" The general reaction to this passage in Suetonius -- respect for Vespasian's character, because it seemed he had a sense of humor about himself right up to the last, and not outrage because he was making light of the supernatural -- seems to indicate that among the Romans skepticism about the supernatural was widespread, and not a big deal. They just weren't in the habit of going out of their way to rub believers' noses in it, nor did they connect their atheism with a rebellious attitude against the Roman Republic or Empire. Occasionally a believing Roman got offended anyway, the way that Manilius was offended by Lucretius (deceased when Manilius wrote) and other Epicurians, but Manilius didn't get anyone killed over the issue, nor do I see any evidence that he would have wanted things to have been taken that far. He just felt that Epicurus and Lucretius and their followers were mistaken and that the gods existed, and he wanted to make that point very clear.
So. Professor Harland says that the early Christians were widely regarded as impious atheists. I agree that they were widely regarded as impious, as were all monotheists, whether Jewish, Zoroastrian or Christian, because to the Romans piety meant respect toward all of the deities in the world. But atheism was not required in order to be impious, nor was it guaranteed, just because someone was an atheist, that he was impious as well. Lighthearted statements of disbelief in all supernatural things seems to have been widespread, and accepted. But grim attacks against the reality of this deity combined with the worship of that one -- that was impiety, to the pre-Christian Romans.