A World without Saul

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A while ago, I was part of a conversation on one of my favourite speculative topics – time travel. The question asked was, if you had access to a time machine, what would you do with it?

One respondent, presumably an ardent atheist, responded that he would go back in time and kill Saul of Tarsus.

For those of you who don’t know, Saul of Tarsus is otherwise known as St Paul, and he was a critical figure in the development and spread of early Christianity. He was central in taking the beliefs of a small pocket of Jesus followers centred on Jerusalem to the greater Graeco-Roman world. The history of the Roman Empire, and indeed of the world, would be extremely different were it not for his actions.

Now, the sentiment being expressed is a common one, especially on the Internet. There are a lot of people out there who genuinely feel that many of the world’s problems can be traced back to dogmatic religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. This is especially true of the New Atheists, the most famous of whom include Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. There are echoes of Enlightenment-era thinkers in their words and they are strident, unrelenting and unabashed in their criticism of religion and elevation of reason, science and skepticism as the ideal basis of any worldview.

As for why atheists tend to be so vocal on the Internet, I can only speculate. My guess is that many of the more pugnacious atheists are so because they grew up or live in a religious environment or surrounded by believers. Some natural reactions to ubiquitous attitudes that are contrary to one’s own are anger or withdrawal, sometimes both. So, people withdraw to the Internet and vent their rage online.

It certainly doesn’t help that a common belief among religious people is that because an atheist does not draw their morality from an ultimate authority, that they are therefore lacking in a moral centre.

To this young man (I am guessing his age and gender), I told him that I doubted very much that he would like the result.

Northern and Eastern Germany and Scandinavia would still be mainly rural backwaters filled with rapey, bearded, violent raiders. England would likely be the same. Eastern Europe would have no real cities and the rest of Europe and the Levant would cower in fear of Hunnic/Slavic/Mongol/Turkic/Avar horsemen from the Steppe.

Mediterranean civilisation, if it weren’t overrun by invading barbarian hordes, would be much the same as it is now in terms of social mores… only with slightly looser attitudes on things like slavery, which lost favour in Europe very slowly, first with a distaste for the idea of Christians being slaves of non-Christians, then for Christians being slaves at all and finally for slavery entirely. The process took nearly two millennia.

You have to remember that Christianity, by the time it became the religion of the Empire, had essentially absorbed Graeco-Roman morality almost in its entirety and appended some conservative ideas governing sexuality and a few ideals surrounding charity, suffering and pacifism. None of Christianity’s moral attitudes were entirely alien to Graeco-Roman culture, but Christianity did do a lot to standardise them across the board.

Of Graeco-Roman attitudes adopted by early Christianity, one of the more interesting ones is the attitude toward women. The restrictions on a woman’s role in the church by the author of the Timothy letters (attributed to Paul but likely a 2nd century author), for instance, were the result of one Christian community’s attempt at fitting in to the greater Graeco-Roman society around them.

They tried to do this by combatting some of the competing attitudes prevalent in Christian communities at the time, exemplified in popular writings such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which included the notion that a woman could do significant things and was in many ways the equal to any man. The idea that a woman could do more than simply get married and pump out babies was so radical that a common pagan criticism of early Christianity was that it was anti-family-values.

Bear in mind that this dissenting attitude would not be endorsed by many modern feminists. It held that chastity was the greatest virtue and that complete and utter submission to God was the ideal life. It did, however, provide a vision for a woman to have a far greater role in controlling her own life and in her faith.

People seem to misunderstand (and mischaracterise) just how Greek early Christianity was after Paul. From its Platonic conceptions on the nature of God, the immortality of the soul (hotly contested in Jewish circles but not questioned in Christianity), the afterlife, the organisation of its hierarchy, to the morals its adherents lived by and the analytical and argumentative nature of its theological scholarship, it all derived from or was guided by existing Greek philosophical tradition. Far from being an alien implant that swept away or poisoned existing Graeco-Roman culture, it was existing Graeco-Roman culture that happened to import and then digest a bunch of Jewish/Eastern ideas.

This became truer as time went on and Christianity became unmoored from its Jewish roots. When Graeco-Roman Gentiles became the majority of Jesus followers, it was all over. Graeco-Roman Christians depicted God in mosaic and statuary artwork, ate pork, failed to circumcise their sons and generally kept their own ways almost from the beginning.

Even setting aside all that, you have the various crises that beset Europe in the 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th centuries (invasions and plagues, mostly) and the state’s inability to respond to them effectively, and you have the entire thing breaking apart or being absorbed by foreign powers without some pan-European organisation holding it all together, which is what the Medieval Church provided. Indeed, for a long time, with the breakdown of civil administration in Western Europe, the withering of the educational system and the advent of an illiterate warrior nobility, the Medieval Church was the only institution that had anyone who knew how to hold a pen in some areas, let alone how to do sums, build in stone or preserve history.

Without Christianity, there would likely be no Islam either, which would mean that there would be no sudden papyrus shortage in the 7th century (due to the Roman Empire’s loss of Egypt to the armies of Islam) that precipitated a lot of the knowledge loss and paper-reuse in Medieval Europe (people would scrape existing words off a page to reuse the paper). But then again, that’s counterbalanced by the fact that papyrus eventually rots and parchment doesn’t if you look after it properly. The great library in Constantinople had huge issues with thousand-year-old manuscripts rotting away before they could be preserved. With so many books and copying having to be done by hand, it was inevitable.

The bottom line, however, is that without Christianity and especially the Medieval Church, Western Europe would have eventually been overrun and broken up by barbarians and the whole region would have splintered into regional powers with no real commonalities or transmission of ideas or technology between them at all. There would be whole swaths of the continent today where the whole society wouldn’t even know how to read, let alone know what the Romans did or who Aristotle was.

The upshot to all this is that you’ve got a world where European civilisation, mostly centred around the Mediterranean, has a half-remembered, glorious past but where anything too far inland in the north is barbarian land where ruined cities and forts stand in silent testimony to what could have been. In this scenario, China is the world’s leading power and the scientific revolution may never have happened.

With Paul out of the picture, Christianity remains a tiny splinter group within Judaism and may have in fact died with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Without Christianity, what hope could there have been for a pan-European common identity or a pan-European common language after the collapse of the Western Empire? In the chaos that followed, what other forces could have spread ideas as far afield as Dublin, Oslo, Palermo and Constantinople?

I would argue none.

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