Books on Science and Religion #40: The Atheistic Perspectives of Nietzsche

Books on Science and Religion #40: The Atheistic Perspectives of Nietzsche

 Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Mar 29, 2015

Nietzsche1882Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century, an honor he shared with Freud. Atheism was an essential part of what he had to say. In Atheists: The Origin of the Species, Nick Spencer provides an overview of his atheism, which we review here.

Nietzsche continues to fascinate us, whereas Freud has lost much of his charm. For example, consider the uncritical panegyric that the usually reliable Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers us. Stanford’s Nietzsche is a romantic Dionysian guru-hero encouraging healing, creativity, and playful exuberance:

[Nietzsche] challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and the realities of the world we live in, rather than those situated in a world beyond.

Nietzsche, it seems, affirmed life and inspired people:

Central to his philosophy is the idea of “life-affirmation,” which involves an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. … Nietzsche’s revitalizing philosophy has inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, including dancers, poets, novelists, painters, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and social revolutionaries.

Nietzsche, Christlike, even suffers great agony:

That Nietzsche was able to write so prolifically and profoundly for years, while remaining in a condition of ill-health and often intense physical pain, is a testament to his spectacular mental capacities and willpower. Lesser people under the same physical pressures might not have had the inclination to pick up a pen, let alone think and record thoughts which — created in the midst of striving for healthy self-overcoming — would have the power to influence an entire century.

Thus Spake ZaruthustraThere is something stunning – and strange – about these paragraphs, written by the respected clinical psychologist Robert Wicks, an active proponent of spirituality, therapy and prayer. (The whole of the Stanford piece continues in this lyrical and uncritical vein). Somehow Nietzsche’s dark side and the role that he played in encouraging a widespread embrace of barbarism – the vicious, murderous European barbarism of the 20th century – is sidestepped and ignored. And this uncritical reception of Nietzsche is common.

And Nietzsche survives even critical investigation. More careful thinkers – even those aware of Nietzsche’s fanatical hatred of liberal values – still admire his intellectual honesty, the force and power of his thought, and his extraordinary literary powers.

I have to make a confession here – I too fell under Nietzsche’s sway as young man. I too – like Nietzsche’s hero in Thus Spake Zaruthustra – went into the mountains and lived with my animals, a copy of Thus Spake Zaruthustra in my backpack. I too, emerged transformed. But I became a Baha’i, thank God, not a Nietzschien Overman!

Nietzsche’s Atheism

“God is Dead” is how Nietzsche phrased it. Not “God doesn’t exist.” Not “God is the opium of the people.” Rather “God is dead. … And we have killed him.”

Here is how he phrases it in The Gay Science (as translated by Walter Kaufmann):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

the screamThis is post-atheism. We have killed God. Now some of us – the best – have to become gods to replace Him. Nietzsche’s analysis is that European society has been fatally compromised by Christianity and has to be turned to a new direction. He suffered few illusions, according to Nick Spencer, about the difficulties, chaos, and confusion this would entail:

Perhaps because his childhood faith had been sincere, Nietzsche was never under any illusion about the enormity of what he – and Europe, he believed – was doing … Whereas Marx saw a new Jerusalem, ascending from the proletarian ground rather than descending from heaven, Nietzsche saw the ruins of a civilization. ‘[Very few have grasped] how much must collapse because it was built on this faith … our entire European morality … [few have grasped] the long dense succession of demolition, destruction, downfall, upheaval that now stands ahead’.

The collapse of Christianity, Nietzsche believed, was the collapse of a “slave morality” he saw as a fundamental part of European civilization:

[T]he historical origins of this slave morality could be traced beyond Christianity to slavery itself, specifically to the enslavement of the Jews in Babylon 500 years earlier. Having once been sovereign and belligerent, the Jews had found themselves conquered, captured and powerless to challenge their captors in any of the obvious ways. In response, through priestly cunning, they abandoned their more violent god of earlier ages, and worked out a deliberate act of revenge by which they might take power once again. By revaluing basic human values – so powerlessness became humility, impotence goodness, cowardice friendliness – they turned the tables, enervating their oppressors and elevating themselves.

This – of course – sounds like standard anti-Semitism. Nietzsche, however, took it further. Christianity, he opines, and then all of Europe, fell prey to this ‘Jewish slave morality’:

lohengrin
A Wagnerian Hero

This morality, designed by slaves to emasculate their masters, was adopted and adapted by early Christians, especially in their attribution of equality and free will to all … The crucifixion ‘was the masterstroke in all this, locating triumph in failure, and placing all men for ever in God’s debt.

Christianity then spread not due to any genuine moral worth, still less on account of its inherent truth, but through a mixture of fear and guilt.

Modern Europe was so corrupted by Christianity that it rejected “everything self-glorifying, manly, conquering, autocratic, every instinct that belongs to the highest and best-formed type”.

Nietzsche had no room for liberal, humanitarian European values. To him, they reeked of “the decaying detritus of Christianity,” Its “other-focused slave morality.” They must be replaced – and they must be replaced by the “self-focused master morality” of his beloved Greeks (Nietzsche was, by trade, a professor of Greek philology). Or they must be replaced by Richard Wagner’s German heroes of pre-Christian mythology.

This led, logically and apparently irreversibly, to Nietzsche’s exaltation of the will to power:

The idea, with its roots sunk somewhere in Darwinism, was that every organism, including human, was driven by an ineradicable lust for strength and supremacy. This was more than mere survival. ‘Life itself is essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing: being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating, and, at least, at the very least, exploiting’.

nietzsche2And thus, German soldiers marched to war with Nietzsche’s books in their satchels and dreams of Nietzsche’s Übermensch driving them to deeds of valor – and their leaders dreamed of mass murder. And of course, to further designs to bring the end of Christianity:

Towards the end of his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche outlined various prospective laws against Christianity, such as all priests were to be either expelled or imprisoned and churches razed.

In this he would foreshadow much twentieth century atheism, although the twentieth century’s atheistic violence would owe more to scientific atheism than to Nietzsche’s unique and unflinching mixture of classical virtue and Darwinism. Nevertheless, his unflinching gaze into a future that no longer dwelt in the shadow of Christianity was to prove prophetic.

Analysis and Summary

It is not going too far say that Nietzsche is the closest thing in modern European society to an old testament Biblical prophet. His long flirtation with Wagner and his music, his rejection of Wagner because of Wagner’s anti-semitism, his infatuation with the beautiful and brilliant Lou Salome, his self-exile in the Alps and Italy, his final years of insanity, his embrace of a Dionysian Greek culture that he seemed constitutionally incapable of enjoying, and above all his extraordinary command of language and his searing criticisms of modern society – all of this works to strengthen an iconography of prophethood – of speaking truth to power – that is still deeply embedded in the European psyche.

moses-old-testament-prophet-1152289

Be that as it may, the content – as opposed to the style – of Nietzsche’s grasp of religion was mundane, stereotyped, firmly based on 19th century opinion and its rampant anti-clericalism, on social Darwinism, on an uncritical appropriation of an imagined Greek, Roman, and Germanic past, and on a glorification of artists, poets, and intellectuals typical of the time. And for all of Nietzsche’s claims to have rejected religion, he embraced ts pageantry, its mythology, and its dramatic turn while rejecting its civilizing values and while urging an uncritical embrace of the barbaric superstitions of the ancient past.

But, he is a great – even inspiring – read!

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will consider 20th century atheism, including that of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and of logical positivism.

………………………

This is the 40th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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15 thoughts on “Books on Science and Religion #40: The Atheistic Perspectives of Nietzsche

  1. Nietzsche was a bizarre character, but this article does not pass the sniff test, it is full of blatant bashing, and taking Nietzsche out of context.

    When Nietzsche said “god is dead and *we* killed him” he is not exhorting people, he is observing the reality if the collapse of mythic culture in the face of modernism’s withering rational analysis of the flimsy nature of mythic belief.

    As noted in a previous discussion, Max Weber took up the same topic and elaborated on the disruptive nature of modernism to mythic belief (such as “world denying love”).

    Nietzsche and Weber and other thinkers of that era did find the collapse of the moral structures and systems that were built on mythic belief in the “impurity” (evil, sinfullness and suffering) of the world to be a frightening thing.

    Nietzsche was reacting to something that was already going on, but not on most people’s “radar screen”.

    The Nazis falsely appropriated both Nietzsche and the Bible.

    The Nazis and Fascists were originally supported by the Catholic church in the unfortunate belief that the Nazis/Fascists could be used as a tool against “godless communism”. But the tail ended up wagging the dog.

    But again, it does not support your narrative to present a balanced perspective of both the positive and negative aspects of the emergence of modernism, you are only looking at the stuff that makes rationalism and atheism look bad so that your religious apologetics seen justifiable.

    1. Hi Eric:

      Thanks for writing in your true guise and with your real name. I do like to have your comments.

      You say:

      When Nietzsche said “god is dead and *we* killed him” he is not exhorting people, he is observing the reality if the collapse of mythic culture in the face of modernism’s withering rational analysis of the flimsy nature of mythic belief.

      Nietzsche was reacting to something that was already going on, but not on most people’s “radar screen”.

      Yes, as is almost universally known, this is correct.

      Then you say:

      Nietzsche was a bizarre character, but this article does not pass the sniff test, it is full of blatant bashing, and taking Nietzsche out of context.

      But again, it does not support your narrative to present a balanced perspective of both the positive and negative aspects of the emergence of modernism, you are only looking at the stuff that makes rationalism and atheism look bad so that your religious apologetics seen justifiable.

      Thanks for holding me to such high standards. The problem is that this is a short blog about Nietzsche’s atheism. As I pointed out – clearly I hope – Nietzsche is held in very high esteem in our modern culture as the highly laudatory Stanford reference I gave shows. Also, as I pointed out, Nietzsche was one of my cultural heros and the closest thing the modern age has had to a old testament prophet. He didn’t say a lot about rationalism – he was opposed to the rationalist aspects of his beloved Greek culture and had little or no use for exaltation of science – so if you want him to be a supporter of that, he will fall short.

      But, surprising for me as I’ve always held him in a kind of God-like awe, is how mundane – how uncritical – are the roots of his atheism and his solution to death of God. He invokes – like so many other claimants to the throne of liberating sectarianism – the same old uncritical worship of an antiquity long in the past and a cruel and barbarous social Darwinism that was to be the bane of the 20th century. He does it in glorious prose – yes indeed – but the content has a very dark side.

      Warmly, Stephen

  2. I have looked at the Wikipedia review of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, since I have not read the book. It turns out that Nietzsche was really not an admirer of Zoroaster, he instead created a fictional Zarathustra, who resembled Nietzsche’s views. And I am not an admirer of Zoroaster either, I found in his religion some things I did not like about Christianity and Islam either, like sexism, homophobia, emphasis on faith as needed for salvation, and creationism.
    But Nietzsche seems to have found different things to dislike about Zoroaster. According to the Wikipedia article, Nietzsche did not like pity and compassion. Didn’t he see that pity and compassion are at the basis of morality? What was wrong with Nietzsche? No wonder he did not like equality. And he had only contempt for our hope that there might be a better life after death. So sad.

    1. Hi Tom:

      Reading Thus Spake Zarathustra was an important and crucial step for me in becoming a Baha’i, and the name Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persian, may have been an important part of what set me in that direction. Not by philosophy, not by ideas, but through mystique and making me curious and interested.

      Since then, I’ve learned that Zoroastrianism, with its absolute opposition of good and evil, with its angels, and with many other of its points of view, probably played a pivotal role in the evolution of Judaism following the Babylonian captivity, and therefore affected Christianity. And I’ve met several Baha’is who were Zoroastrians – very much a persecuted minority in Iran – before becoming Baha’is.

      Stephen

      1. Hi Stephen,
        yes, it is a well accepted view that Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism, like in how Satan is viewed, how the Messiah is viewed as the future universal king (no longer just a king of Israel), afterlife in heaven and hell, final bodily resurrection, final universal Day of Judgement, final battle of Satan’s army against God, and the final defeat of evil. All these ideas entered Judaism basically when Persia defeated Babylon and then freed Jews from being forced to live in exile. The most direct proof is the demon Asmodeus in the Jewish apocryphal (considered Deuterocanonical by some Christians) book Tobit, who is clearly named after the Zoroastrian demon Aeshma. Interestingly, most of these ideas seem to be missing in the Baha’i Faith.
        Still, my problem with Zoroastrianism is similar to my problem with Orthodox and Karaite Judaism, and with later Christianity and Islam, namely sexist doctrines, homophobia, necessity of faith for salvation, and creationism, and also the belief in long lasting torment in hell. The first four problems were present in Judaism even before contact with Zoroastrianism, and the last one, long torment in hell, entered Judaism from Zoroastrianism, and all of these then entered, from Judaism, also Christianity and Islam. So sad.

        1. Hi Tom:

          Zoroastrianism, like you say, is partly a source of both some of both iconic images of Christianity (angels) and belief in things like hell. It was also, famously, closely associated with the great Persian empires of the past, the first and greatest of which received very high marks for tolerance in general and religious tolerance in particular (I know less about the Sassanian Persian empire that fought so long against the Roman empire).

          You write:

          Also I might add, that Zoroastrianism shares with early Judaism some amount of religious intolerance. For example the prophet Mani was put to death for his preaching under a Zoroastrian king, and long afterwards, Manichaeism was persecuted by Zoroastrians.

          and

          And of course then Christianity and Islam inherited from Judaism religious intolerance doctrines. Of course then Zoroastrianism itself fell victim to persecution by Islam. In fact it seems that on the average, monotheistic religions are more likely to be intolerant to other religions than polytheistic religions.

          The question of religious tolerance and religious intolerance is an enormously important one, and closely tied to the state of development of a society. And it is just not a question about religion, but about beliefs and belief systems in general, and about groups and groups in general. I view the problem as “hard-wired”: it’s a legacy of our evolutionary heritage.

          Just to illustrate from recent doctrines originating in Darwinism. A core prejudice buttressed by Darwinian societal evolutionary thinking was that Northern Europeans – the British, the French, the Germans – were intrinsically superior to the other peoples of the world due to their higher evolutionary fitness. This point of view, supposedly scientific in origin, was used to support all sorts of imperialistic, colonialistic, and militaristic adventures and are at the root of many of the problems of today, most notably throughout Africa, the Middle-east, the Far-East, and in the Americas, countries conquered by those same Northern Europeans. And, inspired by these points of view, genocides directed against other peoples were widespread in the 20th century and persist still. (Yes, they mirrored, extended, and made more fierce previous prejudices often associated with religion.)

          Yet thinking has shifted and advanced. Now we know all peoples are related, mainly descended from African forebearers, and that, as the Baha’i writings so dramatically proclaimed, all people are one.

          As these prejudices exist now, how much more would they have existed 2,500 years ago? That means that we have to understand a groups spiritual and intellectual state – their understanding – in the context of the times. And we must understand how it was evolving. And we need to understand if, as a cultural and social institution, their religion was advancing or declining, given that religions obviously go through life-cycles. Failing that, we will fail to grasp the enormous impact for growth and progress that these great religions brought to the table.

          Stephen

          1. Hi Stephen:
            It is not just an issue of ancient times having been intolerant. It is true that in ancient times it was very common for ethnic groups to feel superiority over other ethnic groups, which could lead to oppression and to wars.
            But my issue above was that in matter of religion, polytheists tended to be quite tolerant. There were exceptions, sure, like the attempt by Antiochus Epiphanes to force Jews to abandon Judaism and convert to polytheism, as described in books 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, which some Christians have in their Bibles. And some Roman emperors persecuted Christians of various churches for refusing to worship emperors. But in general polytheists were usually tolerant toward all religions in their countries. But monotheists tended to be intolerant, until recently. Even today, in some predominantly Muslim countries, like Egypt, the only religions allowed are Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And if someone converts from Islam to another religion, he can be prosecuted or even killed.

          2. Hi Martin:

            I’ve been thinking about your point about monotheism and intolerance, and yes, its true that in many countries today, there is intolerance towards other religions. And Baha’is, the largest religious minority in Iran, have long been persecuted and occasionally been killed because of the belief that Islam is the final religion and that to claim that another “Manifestation” of God has come is punishable by death (the main problem in Iran seems to be that the Baha’is strongly promote education and don’t allow a clergy, meaning that the ulama would lose their function in a Baha’i society).

            But is this due to monotheism as opposed to polytheism? I.e., is polytheism better in regards to tolerance? A book I highly recommend – by the extremely capable Karen Armstrong – argues not. Called Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence, it is compelling and very enjoyable to read. She addresses the topic of the supposed exceptional violence of monotheism and concludes that it is, in my words, not hers, a myth of the modern world. Pre-modern religion, she says, is intimately bound with the state and when the state exercises violence, then state-bound religions tends to support that violence independent of whether it is polytheistic or monotheistic.

            But often, monotheisms accomplish just the opposite, suppressing violence and creating widespread unity. The examples she gives are many, include the use of Buddhism by Ashoka in India, the Zoroastrianism of the first great Persian empire, and the advent of monotheism in Judaism, which she dates to after the return from the exile in Babylon at the very beginnings of monotheism. And any historical student of Christianity or Islam knows of its role in creating eras of widespread peacefulness and growth, despite the fact that episodes of violence and suppression did occur, especially when they became older and started to lose their freshness and became shot through with superstition and the failure to use scientific thought and reason.

            I’ve struggled a bit to think of polytheistic societies free of violence, but can’t. I’m most familiar with Europe, pre-European North American and East Asia (Japan, China, etc) societies and can’t find any good example of tolerant polytheistic cultures. Could you share your thoughts on examples we could think about?

            Stephen

          3. Tom, are you forgetting the myriad Christians killed by the polytheistic Romans? The pagan Romans were extremely uncomfortable with Christianity for a number of reasons rooted in great part in the “alienness” of Christianity.

            1) It was text-based rather than tradition-based. Though the Jews in the empire had a text-based faith, it was largely driven by rabbinical philosophizing and tradition, which the Romans understood. They did not understand the idea of absolute standards for—for example—not worshipping other gods.

            2) So, Christianity was considered by some Romans who wrote on the subject, to be atheistic. The Christian god was invisible and unknowable and had no corporeal existence. That simply did not compute. So, to many Romans that meant the Christians had no god at all.

            3) It was evangelical. The Jews could be tolerated because they were not generally out actively recruiting new members. The Christians were. And because they wanted no part of Roman tradition, more Christians meant a decay in such institutions as oracles and temples or retreats where Romans went to dream prophetic dreams or hire someone to dream for them. It could affect the economy among other things.

            4) And probably most significantly, Christianity inspired a loyalty to something higher and broader to its adherents than the empire and its god-emperors. The Iranian government has a similar issue with the Bahá’ís. Their first loyalty is to their faith and to God and they obey their government because their faith bids them obey. The Romans were leery of the Christians’ loyalty to something they considered greater than the empire and who refused to even burn so much as a stick of incense to their emperors. Everything was fine only as long as the core tenets of faith didn’t come into conflict with the imperial fiat.

            There was also, the feeling among the populace that the Christians, being atheists and stubbornly refusing to honor local deities, brought down all sorts of evil upon those among whom they lived. If the rains failed to come or the creek overflowed, it was thought by some to be the fault of those villagers who refused to honor the gods. Persecution of Christians broke out among the Roman populace at a time when the government was still trying to figure out a way to exercise toward them the same sort of tolerance that they might for worshippers of Mithras, or Amun-Ra or even Yahweh.

            There were horrific persecutions of Christians among pagans in the first several centuries after the birth of the faith. They didn’t end really until the time of Constantine. Constantine, it could be argued, saw the unifying quality of Christianity as a boon to the empire, which was, at that time, beginning to suffer from the effects of its size and the diversity of its population.

          4. Hi Stephen:
            You can call me Tom. Martin is my last name.
            I do agree that there was a lot of violence in polytheistic societies, a lot of murder, wars, rapes, assaults, and in many also vicious slavery. I read the book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence has Declined, in which the author Steven Pinker has shown that both in ancient and medieval times, and also nowadays in tribal societies, violence is far worse than in modern states with police, with good enforcement of law and order. I was talking instead not about violence in general, which indeed was horrible in ancient times when paganism was almost universal, but about religious tolerance. Polytheists in general were usually tolerant in religion, with only occasional exceptions.
            I have not heard any mention of Ashoka believing in any monotheistic form of Buddhism. Such forms of Buddhism are rare even today. I don’t think any monotheist form of Buddhism existed in Ashoka’s time, in spite of Baha’i claims that Buddha was a monotheist. The first great Persian empire, with Zoroastrianism as official religion, might not have had civil wars, but being ancient, they surely had a lot of murder and other violence, and they had wars against Greeks and other neighbors. Jews and Christians often date the beginnings of monotheism in Judaism to Moses, and according to the Bible, Moses himself conducted genocidal wars, as did his successors Joshua and after him the Judges. Now if we instead, as does Armstrong, date the beginning of monotheism in Judaism to the return from the exile in Babylonia, then sure, for a brief time the Jews had some peace under Persian rule, though even then they did have some conflicts with neighbors, but later Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, and his successors fought with each other, sometimes affecting Judea too. Then Antiochus Epiphanes started his suppression of Judaism, leading to the Maccabee uprising, after which the Jews themselves converted, often forcibly, some neighbors, including the Edomites, who were at that time called the Idumaeans. And of course they had struggles with the Samaritans, leading to them destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. And that was in spite of the fact that ancient Judaism was very similar to the Samaritan faith, both were based largely on the Law of Moses and on monotheism. And so likewise the Samaritan temple was similar to the Jerusalem temple, both being based on the biblical design of the tabernacle in the Law of Moses.
            I am not familiar with any eras in Christianity of widespread peacefulness. The Roman empire, when it became Christian, was just as involved with wars with neighbors as before it became Christian. Likewise after the fall of the western Roman empire, the history of Europe until 1945 was of almost constant wars between Christian countries. I know well the history of the Czech lands, wars were frequent every century. And the Czech lands were not unusual in this at all. And of course there was frequent fighting between Christian lands and Muslim lands, not only the Crusades. And besides the Crusades against Islam, there were crusade expeditions against Hussites, Albigenses, and also pagans. In more recent times there were also colonial wars. The colonial wars ended really only when the Portuguese colonies in Africa gained independence after fascism fell in Portugal in 1974. So no, I don’t see any long era of peace in the history of Christianity, and I don’t think this was true of Islam either. Muslims kept conquering lands, like Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia (leading to the genocidal conquests of the Muslim Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, who almost destroyed the Church of the East, which used to be a very large denomination. It is also nicknamed the Nestorian church.), and then India, and also various parts of Africa. And then also in Malaya and the islands of what is now Indonesia, the Muslims had lots of wars of conquest.

            Tom

          5. Maya, I did write above that the persecution by some Roman emperors of Christians, was one of the exceptions, where polytheists did persecute a religion. And of course you are right that in some cases that involved the brutal executions of many thousands of Christians, of various denominations. I am well aware of that fact.
            And you are of course right that they did it to Christians and not to Jews (except twice when Jews rose up and tried to gain independence), because the Christians, of various denominations, were generally very evangelical, unlike generally the Jews. Judaism was considered basically a traditional ethnic religion, not likely to convert a large percentage of Roman citizens. So Christianity was viewed as much more threatening, so it was Christians who were persecuted for their refusal to worship the emperors and other gods.
            But I don’t see the fact that they worshiped a usually invisible God, as a major reason for persecution. Roman gods were also considered to be generally invisible, with the exceptions being mainly emperors. But then most Christian denominations considered Jesus to also having been visible, at least until he allegedly ascended to heaven. And even after that, according to the New Testament, Jesus became visible to Stephen shortly before Stephen was stoned to death for alleged blasphemy. And later Jesus became allegedly visible to Paul on the road to Damascus, to convert Paul, who was back then called Saul. And still later, John reported having seen Jesus in his visions that formed a large part of the book of Revelation. John even provided a description of what Jesus looked like in heaven.
            And likewise Christianity did not consider God to be completely unknowable, the Bible provides a lot of info on God’s character and his deeds, if one were to believe the Bible. In fact more info than Roman myths provided about most Roman gods. Few Roman gods had a lot of stories, myths, about them, while the Christian God had a lot of stories about him in the Bible.
            Of course later, when Catholic Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, all other religions, including all other Christian denominations, were persecuted, and most of them totally eliminated. And as a result, history does not remember the martyrdom of non-Catholic Christians, who were being killed along with Catholic Christians, because Catholic historians did not consider it important to record the names of any non-Catholic martyrs, after all, to Catholics, they were viewed as dangerous heretics, and therefore headed surely to hell after being martyred. Catholics, from 2nd century on, wrote lengthy descriptions of the alleged heresies, of uncertain accuracy, and denouncing them vehemently. And writings of the other denominations from the time of the Roman empire, were usually lost, often burned by Catholics. So we generally don’t have their own descriptions of their own beliefs, unlike the beliefs of the ultimately dominant Catholic church.

          6. Tom, you wrote: “But I don’t see the fact that they worshiped a usually invisible God, as a major reason for persecution.”

            I’m not giving my opinion Tom, I’m relaying the scholarship on the subject based on writings from the time. As I said, the pagan Romans viewed the Christians as atheists because they worshipped a God that had no iconography. He was nameless, faceless, and had no extant oracles or sibyls. He had spoken through a succession of Prophets. Guidance came through the texts and the clergy—who were not themselves authorized to reveal any new material.

            At any rate, pagans did persecute and kill members of other faiths when they felt that those faiths threatened them. In the case of the Roman empire, the most crucial issue was one of loyalty. The Christians, as I noted, were loyal to an authority they believed higher than any emperor. This was of primary importance to the Romans and played a major part in the “trial” of Christ. It’s why the issue of Jesus being “king of the Jews” was such an important element in the case against Him.

          7. I see, Maya, by saying the Christian God was invisible, you did not mean the invisibility of God himself, but the absence of any iconography of him. I am surprised that the Romans would have found that as objectionable to them. It is true that Christians of that time did not generally believe in having images of God, I don’t know if any denominations back then disagreed with that. The Carpocratians did have images of Jesus, along with images of Pythagoras, Aristotle etc., but it is true that they did not consider any of these men to be God. They were a very unusual denomination, I don’t know if they even considered themselves Christian. To them Christ was not even the most important man. Though they were listed among the heresies that ancient Catholic writers condemned. Maybe because they did believe that Jesus was the Christ.
            Anyway, there were also pagans at that time who did not believe in having religious images. Origen in the third century listed several of them, namely Scythians, Libyans, Seres, and Persians (Persians meant surely the Zoroastrians). Yet I did not read of Romans persecuting any of these groups, even when members of such groups lived in the Roman empire.

      2. Also I might add, that Zoroastrianism shares with early Judaism some amount of religious intolerance. For example the prophet Mani was put to death for his preaching under a Zoroastrian king, and long afterwards, Manichaeism was persecuted by Zoroastrians.

        1. And of course then Christianity and Islam inherited from Judaism religious intolerance doctrines. Of course then Zoroastrianism itself fell victim to persecution by Islam. In fact it seems that on the average, monotheistic religions are more likely to be intolerant to other religions than polytheistic religions.

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