A vehement argument about paganism vs. Christianity vs. atheism has raged in our comment sections for quite some time now. It pops up in almost every thread, on-topic and off-topic, and seems to be a major preoccupation of Gates of Vienna readers.
When I refer to Christian morality, I don’t mean today’s deranged (post-) “Christian ethics” which Conservative Swede has so rightly pilloried, but the moral structure championed by Christianity while it was still a fully-functioning religion with a coherent moral philosophy. Those who are discontented with what Christianity brought might want to take a closer look at what it superseded.
“Morality” in this case does not refer to whether one should have sex before marriage or give alms to beggars, but concerns more atavistic human behaviors, whose absence we now take for granted as part of being civilized and humane. Outside of the most hard-core satanists, no modern Westerner seriously believes that human sacrifice or the ownership of people as property are morally acceptable.
But heathendom had no moral qualms about these and many other repugnant practices. One of the last pagan Norwegian kings — Håkon the Bad, if I remember rightly — sacrificed his seven-year-old son to Odin the day before a crucial battle in an attempt to guarantee victory. The boy’s mother may have strongly opposed her husband’s actions, and Håkon himself may have shed tears over his son’s demise, for all I know. But no one among the heathen Norse considered his actions morally wrong.
Christianity changed all that. Yes, I know that Christians bought and sold slaves for centuries after Europe was Christianized, but when slavery was eventually abolished, it was due to the activism of fervent Christians like William Wilberforce, who insisted that public practice be brought into conformance with avowed Christian belief.
The modern Western conscience is a legacy of Christianity and Judaism, even if it has become a vestigial free-floating artifact, a sort of terminate-and-stay-resident program that has remained active in Western cultural consciousness even as the religious impulse that spawned it decays and disappears. The Greeks and Romans gave us reason and public administration, but not our moral sense — that entered Europe with Christianity.
The comments on last night’s post about the Vikings brought this topic up again. During the discussion, in reference to pre-Christian pagan practices, mace said: “There is much that is repugnant about Roman civilization, I’m not an uncritical admirer.”
This was my response:
I’ve no argument with you there.
However, there is an apparently unexamined historical premise that you and many other commenters ignore when discussing such matters: The capacity to feel “repugnance” about these hideous things is a gift from Christianity and Judaism.
Yes, Christians were (and are) serial hypocrites about their morality. Yes, Christians committed many, many crimes which their religion found morally objectionable.
But their sort of conscience — the conscience which they themselves violated when they committed what they considered to be sins — didn’t even exist in Europe until it was introduced by Christianity.
The actions which today’s atheists and secularists find “repugnant” possess that characteristic only because Christianity introduced the idea of their being repugnant. Before the Christian era, enslavement and mass rape and slaughter were something everyone on the receiving end wanted to avoid, but such acts were not freighted with any moral opprobrium. That was simply what invading and occupying armies always did.
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The capacity to recognize most of what we consider immoral behavior as immoral was a gift from Christianity. To a believer, it was wrong in the eyes of God, and therefore immoral to do it.
Over the centuries such morality became internalized, until it represented the unthinking common ethical structure that all of today’s atheists, secularists, and neo-pagans have inherited. It is a gift to them from medieval European Christianity.
Pagan Europe — Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Nordic — simply did not feel distaste for most of what we find morally distasteful. This fact is amply attested by contemporary Greek and Roman writers.
To fail to recognize this and acknowledge it is evidence of an inability to examine and understand our history in any real depth. These things are demonstrably true, as evidenced by the historical record, despite any modern ideology which prompts us to believe otherwise.
Anyone who is nostalgic for pagan practices must accept the ethical legitimacy of human sacrifice, infanticide, slavery, and many other practices which modernity would find morally repugnant. You can’t pick and choose; it’s a package deal.
To invent a heathen belief system which does not include these factors is a fun game, but it has nothing to do with historical reality. That sort of paganism did not exist. It is imaginary.
Dallying in such fantasies may be emotionally gratifying, but it is intellectually shallow. The reality is more difficult to grapple with — but then, the truth is often hard to bear.