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Wanda's Book Reviews

I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles.  (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).

Pagans / James J. O'Donnell

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity - James J. O'Donnell

A provocative and contrarian religious history that charts the rise of Christianity from the point of view of "traditional" religion from the religious scholar and critically acclaimed author of Augustine.

Pagans explores the rise of Christianity from a surprising and unique viewpoint: that of the people who witnessed their ways of life destroyed by what seemed then a powerful religious cult. These “pagans” were actually pious Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Gauls who observed the traditions of their ancestors. To these devout polytheists, Christians who worshipped only one deity were immoral atheists who believed that a splash of water on the deathbed could erase a lifetime of sin.

 

This was a great history of the late Roman/early Christian time period. It wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting, but it was still very interesting and written in an easy-to-read style. I thought I was going to get more about the pagan religions of the time. Instead, I learned that the whole idea of being pagan, as opposed to being Christian, was a creation of the Christians once they found themselves in the position to be able to form public opinion. As the author puts it, “Outside Christian imaginations, there was no such thing as paganism, only people doing what they were in the habit of doing.” Like those of us now who don’t really espouse a religion, but still celebrate Easter and Christmas.

The main points to know about the traditional, pre-Christian religions? ①Their gods weren’t perfect. ②The gods weren’t very nice. ③The gods didn’t care whether or not human beings did the right thing. ④The gods hadn’t created the world, either. ⑤They could help you, if you were nice to them.

The relationship between gods and humanity was much more businesslike in traditional religions. If you wanted something badly, you made a sacrifice to the god/goddess of your choice and if they liked your offering, you might get some divine help. But there were no guarantees.

If I have learned nothing else from reading this book, I realize now how completely current European and North American societies are shaped by Christianity. It is the underlying assumption of all our societal structures. Even atheism is completely shaped by its reaction against Christianity.


Also, Christianity has changed greatly since its early days, but some things never change. It’s still split into numerous denominations because its followers are prone to outrage at discovering that someone else dares to have a different opinion. That judginess and tendency towards schisms/excommunication started early and continues on to present day.

The author doesn’t talk about Neo-Pagans (except in one footnote), but the Modern Pagan movement, just by using the word ‘pagan,’ is defining itself in relation to Christianity. Christians created the concept of paganism after all. These Modern Pagans are much more self-conscious about their ‘faith’ than the original worshippers of Zeus or Thor were. (The whole concept of having faith in a god being a Christian innovation).

Amusingly, one of the ‘pagan’ concepts that has hung on is the title of “Pontiff” for the Pope. It was originally the title of the Roman official in charge of all religious occasions, regardless of deity, held in Rome under the Emperors.

The author has also written a book on St. Augustine which might also be an interesting read, although there’s a good summary about him in the last half of this book.