I mean paganism was entreanched, seemed to be more liberal and was tied into the local customs. Along comes Islam and suddenly – adultary is wrong, drinking is wrong, sex is restricted, canvas artworks are outlawed etc. Just seems to me that the monotheistic religions were a worse choice than pagan religions.
Well, it was entrenched to be sure, but also remember that Christianity didn’t rise up in a day. The first definite ministries of Christ cropped up in Jeruselam, Antioch, Corinth, and eventually Rome, around the mid 1st century.
Christians of the time were percieved as a strange lot by the Romans. They met in catacombs. They pretended to cannibalize their dead savior. They refused to bathe. Is it any wonder that when Nero needed a scapegoat he turned to those strange cultists?
However, Rome was a tolerant society. As long as their religion didn’t upset civil order, and they paid the occasional state sanctioned sacrifice to the Gods, Rome pretty much left people to their own devices. It should also be known that the Romans were disgusted when Nero fed families to the lions, it was a well known secret that Christians had nothing to do with the fire, and Nero was just covering his behind. When Nero’s reign was cut short, the persecutions ended.
In Rome’s tolerant society, Christianity thrived. Paganism is naturally inviting of other gods and religions, so the common folk had little beef with the Christians, and were even willing to entertain them in philosophical discussion. Christianity is rooted in neo-platonist philosophy, which made it more intellectually appealing than simple pagan religions. Christianity is also highly adaptive in nature, so it was always able to borrow the most virtuous elements of other religions (for example, it was the Roman goddess Vesta who originally espoused the idea of virginity as purity, and it is likely that Mary’s virginity was specifically emphasised as a way to appeal to worshippers of Vesta.)
This wouldn’t last
By the third century, most of the old gods were no longer worshipped. The empire was in turmoil, near collapse. The new religions were all imported deities: Sol Invictus, the invincible Mithras, and Christianity were the three dominant religions during this time. worship of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun) was made the state religion by Aurelian, and unlike the old pagan ways, both Mithraism and Solism were jealous deities. It is this reason that the final persecutions of Christians under Aurelian and Diocletan were the most savage. These persecutions were ceased during the reign of Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan. At this time, Christians approximated 10% of the Empire. This was a time of significant religious upheval, with religious mobs (both Christian and pagan) provoking conflict within the cities. The final deathblow to Paganism came when Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the state religion. Immediately Christian mobs were given sanction to burn and demolish pagan temples, and all Roman citizens were required by law to convert to Christianity. Virtually the entire empire became Christian. In addition, most Germanic tribes, such as the Franks and the Goths, had converted to Christianity, due to the adaptive nature of the religion. So when the Empire fell and the Germans took over, there was no one left to defend the fallen pagan institutions.
the rise of Islam was more of a ":perfect storm": than anything. During antiquity, the Sassanid Persian Empire was not pagan (paganism in the middle east had been extinct for centuries), it was Zoroastrian. The Persians and the Romans (and later, the Byzantines) feuded bitterly with each other initially, but by the 5th and 6th centuries, hostilities faded, and the middle east became one of the more peaceful areas of the Earth, compared to the frequent, savage wars were fought by the Germanic tribes as they migrated into Europe. This became a sore point for many Persians and Arabs, who saw the Romans as tyrannical conquerers, as well as many of the Roman citizens themselves, who found life under a Christian theocracy to be overbearing, and taxation to be onerous and burdensome. Islam conquered under the premise of religious toleration, which is why places such as Palestine and Egypt welcomed the Arabic muslims, which freed them from the Christian tyrants. Early Islam invaded a both religiously and economically repressed land, and its libration ushered in a Golden Age for the middle east. At a time when the average European took maybe a single bath a year (baths in Europe at the time were a sign of Roman pagan ":decadence":, thus were avoided as a sign of purity), muslims were taking as many as 5 a day.
It was only after the Christian Crusades and the Mongol invasion that the fundamentalists came to power in Islam, and transformed it into the ultra-conservative form that it is today.
Although ":Paganism": or the myriad of pagan beliefs were widespread at the time, Christianity and Islam had appeal for the elites and the leaders because of two contradictory reasons:
The ":goodВЁreason: Both Christianity and Islam seem to be very pious religions, very ":humane": if you want to call them, at least in theory.
The ":bad": reason: Being ":intolerant": religions with a jealous God, it had a unifying sense that monarchs and local leaders must have found appealing in order to have an even tighter control over their folks.
I think that, in a nutshell, this must have been two big reasons why these two monotheist religions displaced other religions or beliefs.
Christianity and Islam were/are ‘organized religions,’ even to this day Pagans tend to be disorganized – – – both major religions had strength in numbers much of that due to an uncompromising attitude, more so on the part of Christians than Muslims, that if you did not believe then you should be killed.
In many ‘Pagan’ Communitties in places such as Grmany the sight of the Village headman lynched beaten hanging from a tree his teenage sons &: daughters brutally raped all in the Name of Christ convinced many Pagans that switching religions was a safer alternative.
I’m not nearly as familiar with the spread of Islam, so my response will be mainly about Christianity.
I suspect you might have a narrow view of the religions you talk about. Yes, Christianity stressed controlling sex (keeping it inside of marriage) and venerated those who chose to refrain from it altogether, but much of that came from the Roman and Jewish culture in which it developed. A woman who had sex outside of marriage was deeply shamed in both of those cultures. Christianity was actually hugely liberating for Roman women, because it taught that both genders were saved and loved by Jesus and that women were in control of their own salvation. The idea that a woman could dedicate herself to Christ and swear off sexual life gave her tremendous power in a culture where women were often pawns in marriage alliances and who were under the complete control of Roman husbands.
The idea of sex being bad in the first place also has its roots in pagan intellectual thought at the time. There were a variety of intellectuals who believed that wisdom and strength were bound up in a man’s semen. Thus, sex drained me of that strength. Some choce celebacy. Some even chose castration… a habit certain Christian hermits adopted from them.
Christianity spread a number of ways in the Roman Empire. It offered hope in a time of decline. It preached a message that appealed to people. It welcomed everyone, as opposed to the mystery cults that abounded, which were exclusive and secretive.
I’m not quite sure what you mean about the monotheistic religions being ":worse.": They were certainly different. But Christianity, for example, came out against the common practice of infanticide, while Islam limited the number of wives to four and then only if you could afford it (as opposed to previous practices, in which husbands could just abandon wives when they grew bored of them and leave the wives destitute while he picks up a new plaything). I wouldn’t call either of those ":worse,": personally. Some things IMHO were worse, but some were better.
I agree with you even if pagan religions weren’t really better (human sacrifices for Celts, Mayas and Aztecs). Beliefs of Pagan religions were closer to nature whereas monotheistics were centered on mankind.
For Christianity, once it became the official religion of the Roman empire it was carried and imposed throughout Europe. Local groups are usually absorbed by empire.
For Islam, it was their expansionism, carried west to northern Africa and then their invasion of the European Mediterranean countries (France, Italy and Spain).