I recently bought Pocket History of the Church by D. Jeffrey Bingham, a brief summary of the history of the Christian church, starting after the death of the Apostles. While reading it this afternoon, I ran across the following passage, which made me quietly chuckle. If you substitute “Modern Christianity” and/or “Modern Secularism” for “Romans” and “Mormons” for “Christians”, there are some remarkable parallels:
Roman religion also was intimately related to the past. Greco-Roman society held that the rites of the ancients were more harmonious with the gods than the newer rites. That is, the past was closer to the ancient gods. For Roman society, only one ancient religious doctrine existed, and it was expressed and maintained in a variety of traditional forms by various nations. Abandonment of these variant but traditional forms and customs was wicked. Novelty in religions, they thought, was irreligious. Therefore, because Christians were seen as antisocial and “new”, they were viewed as a danger to Rome. The gods were unhappy and had to be pacified.
When Christians worshiped only one God, their polytheistic Roman neighbors viewed them as atheistic. When Christians gathered in worship, separate from Roman life, they were seen as destructive to the social structure of the empire. In their refusal to confess the emperor’s deity they were viewed as wicked. Their refusal to engage in civic religion led the Christian apologist Tertullian to write that the Romans considered Christians “public enemies” and “enemies of Rome.”
But the Romans did not end their criticism of Christianity with reference to what they viewed as irreligion. They also criticized Christianity for being irrational. Christians seemed to receive their teachings by faith rather than by rational examination of the evidence or critical thinking. According to the Christian theologian Origen, one Roman, Celsus, wrote that some Christians said, “Do not ask questions, only believe.”
Also, the Romans interpreted some Christian practices as deplorable, because of what seemed to be a secretiveness, a ridiculous perspective of life, death and future judgment, an arrogant haughtiness towards Roman religion and a lifestyle of perversity. Minucius Felix, a Latin Christian apologist of the third century, recorded some early Roman understandings of Christian rites and beliefs. Many unbelievers thought that Christians were “a people skulking and shunning the light, silent in public but garrulous in corners. They despise the [Roman] temples as dead houses, they reject the gods, they laugh at sacred things. . . . They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another. Everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters.”
The belief that Christians were clandestine in their gatherings because of their shameful “incest” (because they married those they called “brother” and “sister”) was common, as was the charge that they were cannibalistic (they ate the body of Christ and drank his blood). Because of the secret nature of their rites, and also because some groups claiming association with Christianity were reported to have engaged in acts of perversity, the rumors grew to absurd proportions. Christians were even accused of eating infants. The Christian apologist Athenagoras was accurate when he said, “Three charges are brought against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts [cannibalistic banquets] and Oedipean intercourse [incestuous unions].”
As strange as it may sound to modern Christian ears, the Romans were appalled at the supposed wickedness, social rebellion, irrationality and impiety of the Christians. The “popular and uncritical” rumor about the Christians, to use the language of Athenagoras, set the tone for how the Romans responded. Of course, we ought not to think that early Christianity was perfect or without blame. Many Christians did not balance their faith in the one true God through Jesus Christ with a biblical call to morality and state loyalty. In addition, some non-Christians who associated with believers were said to have practiced their Roman religion in feasts that did involve promiscuous rites. On the whole, though, the charges of rampant perversity in Christ’s body within the Roman Empire were false. (pp. 31-33)
Sounds kind of familiar, huh? ..bruce..