Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Does Not Follow: Pagan Edition

I suppose it's cheap to write a post about "bad logic I found in a blog post some stranger linked to on Facebook", but this struck me as such an obvious example of a type of bad reasoning that people engage in on a variety of topics that I couldn't help myself.

I ran across a link to this post on a pagan blog, which seeks to make the point that Europe became Christians through the persecution of pagans by Christians. The post opens:
Christians complain a lot about the “persecutions” they allegedly suffered in ancient Rome. Given that they were trying to destroy the heathen spiritual values that had made Rome great in the first place, it is not surprising that the heathens tried to defend themselves.

The Christian apologists also try to imply that heathenism somehow just melted away before the Christian religion, as if the heathens somehow saw “the error of their ways” and leapt to accept the Christian god as soon as he was offered to them.

What the Christians don’t like to remember is the very real persecution they inflicted, as soon as they could, on heathens who chose to retain the faith of their forebears.

Here is just a small sample of the atrocities that led to the Christian destruction of heathen Europe:
What follows is a long list of occasions on which pagans were attacked or persecuted by Christians, starting after Christianity became legal in the Roman empire. (The post dates this to 315, but I imagine that what the author has in mind is the Edict of Milan which was issued by emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313 AD.)

While the list is one-sided, and given that it gets the date of the legalization of Christianity wrong by two years I would tend to assume it contains other errors of fact, it's certainly true that on many occasions Christians used violence and coercion against pagans.

At the end of this list, we get, out of the blue, this statement:

It is clear that Christianity prevailed over European heathenism solely because Christians resorted to torture, murder, and other clear breaches of the law that applied in those times, while the heathens upheld the prevailing “rules of engagement” that they considered to be honourable.
The problem is, this doesn't follow at all. The fact that on a number of occasions Christians used violence and coercion against pagans does not prove that therefore Christianity prevailed only because it used violence and coercion. All the list of atrocities proves is that Christians used violence and coercion on a number of occasions. That's bad, but it doesn't answer the question of why Europe became Christian rather than pagan. You can't get from "Christians used violence and coercion" to "Christianity prevailed only because it used violence and coercion". The one doesn't follow from the other. And yet, this rhetorical ploy is fairly commonly applied. Group X treated other groups badly. Group X prevailed in some historical sense. Therefore, Group X only prevailed because it behaved badly.

Similarly, a list of atrocities against pagans by Christians does not in any way prove that pagans were holding themselves to a higher standard and not using similar atrocities against Christians. It's a logical possibility (though clearly contrary to any fair reading of history) that pagans held themselves to a higher standard in regard to violence and coercion than Christians did, but simply listing occasions on which Christians treated pagans badly doesn't actually demonstrate that. However, it's commonly assumed that if group X treated group Y badly, and prevailed, that group Y must necessarily have been "better" than group X. I think there are two tendencies that come into play here. One is that people tend to assume that in any situation in which two groups are opposing each other, if one is bad the other must be good. The other is that we have a tendency to romanticize history's losers once they are nothing but romantic visions of the past.

In a trivial reflection of this: As a boy, I was a great collector of toy soldiers, not just the little green army men but the metal ones which I would buy and paint. It was a trend noted by many of the manufacturers of these model soldiers that it was almost invariably the losing side that was more popular with collectors: French Napoleonic troops over British ones, Confederates over Union Soldiers, Nazis over Allies, etc.

Since I'm getting random, I'll close with a real account of Christians mixing it up with "Odinists" from the always readable Njal's Saga:
Shortly after Olaf Tryggvason became King of Norway he decreed that the old faith should be discarded and replaced with Christianity. His decree extended also to the islands of Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe.

When news of Norway's conversion reached Iceland, it was received by many with great anger. "It is monstrous," they said, "to forsake our ancient beliefs."

But Njal, a respected leader known for his ability to foresee the future, replied, "I support the new faith. I believe that Christianity is a better religion than our old one. Those who accept it will be happy."

King Olaf of Norway made preparations to convert Iceland. To this end he sent Thangbrand, son of Count Willibald of Saxony, on a mission to Iceland. Accompanied by the Icelander Gudleif Arason, a renowned warrior, Thangbrand set sail for Iceland aboard a ship named The Bison. They landed in the eastern fjords at a place called Gautavik. They were met there with hostility. Most Icelanders of that district refused to sell them provisions or to trade with them, but Hall of Sida opened his house to them and offered them hospitality.

One morning -- it was an important feast day -- Thangbrand sang mass, and Hall asked him, "In whose honor is this ceremony?"

"In honor of the angel Michael," answered Thangbrand.

"Does he have great power?" asked Hall.

"Yes, he has great power," replied Thangbrand, then continued, "The angel Michael will be your friend and guardian if you will promise yourself to him in God's name."

"That I shall do," promised Hall, and a short time afterward he and his entire household were baptized.

The next spring Thangbrand, accompanied by the warrior Gudleif and the new convert Hall, preached Christianity throughout the land.

At Stafafell a farmer named Thorkel challenged Thangbrand to a duel. Thangbrand accepted the challenge and went to battle using a crucifix for a shield. Victory went to Thangbrand, and he killed Thorkel. Then Thangbrand and his companions continued to travel from district to district, converting many prominent families to the new faith.

Frightened at the Christians' success, the heathens at Kerlingardale hired a sorcerer named Hedin to kill their leader Thangbrand. The sorcerer accordingly went to the Arnarstakk Heath where he conducted a great sacrifice. At the time Thangbrand was riding westwards, and the ground suddenly opened up beneath his horse. The horse disappeared into the earth, but Thangbrand miraculously pulled himself to safety.

Thangbrand's companion Gudleif searched out Hedin the sorcerer and killed him with a spear.

Next they preached the new faith at Fljotshlid, where they met great opposition from Vetrlidi the Poet, so they killed him. From there they went to Bergthorsknoll, where Njal and his entire household were baptized.

At Grimsness Thorvald the Ailing had gathered a large band of Icelanders against the missionaries. They attempted to ambush the Christians, but one of their number warned the missionary group. Forewarned, Thangbrand, Gudleif, and their followers rushed the would-be ambushers. Thangbrand threw a spear through Thorvald, then Gudleif cut off his arm, and Thorvald died.

The missionaries then rode on to the Althing. Thorvald's kinsmen had assembled there to avenge the death of their relative, but Njal kept the two warring groups apart.

At the Althing Hjalti Skeggjason, a new convert to Christianity, composed a poem that stated in verse:
I dare mock the gods.
I believe that Freyja is a bitch,
And that Odin in a dog,
Or else the other way around.
Later that summer Thangbrand's ship, The Bison, was wrecked. It is not stated whether Thangbrand himself was aboard at the time, but in any event, he continued his missionary activities. This shipwreck caused some heathens to claim that their god Thor's giant-killing hammer had struck dead the Christian bison, thus proving that Christ was powerless to confront a challenge from Thor.

To this Thangbrand replied, "Thor lives only at the will of the Christian God. Without my God's permission, Thor would be nothing but dust and ashes."

At Hagi a man named Gest Oddleifsson held a feast for Thangbrand and sixty of his followers. Some two hundred heathens had gathered there as well. They expected to be joined by a berserk named Otrygg. It was said that Otrygg feared neither fire nor sword.

Thangbrand declared that he would use the berserk to test the power of Christianity over that of the old religion. "We shall light three fires," he proposed. "I shall bless the first one, you heathens shall bless the second one, and the third one shall remain without a blessing. If the berserk walks through your fire unharmed, but is afraid of my fire, then you must accept Christianity."

Gest, the leader of the heathens, believing that the fearless berserk would walk through all the fires, accepted this challenge.

When Otrygg the berserk was seen approaching the house, the three fires were lit, and two of them were blessed according to plan. Without hesitating, the berserk walked through the fire blessed by the heathens, but he stopped at the Christian-blessed fire. Agonizing with unknown pain, Otrygg raised his sword to strike out at his foes, but as he swung the sword upward, it caught against one of the crossbeams of the house. Thangbrand struck him on the arm with a crucifix, causing Otrygg's sword to fall to the ground, and then ran a sword into the berserk's chest. Gudleif attacked him as well, cutting off Otrygg's arm. Others entered the fray and helped to kill the heathen berserk.

Having thus seen the power of Christianity, many leading households were now baptized.
Talk about inculturation, this is clearly the kind of priest that Icelanders could understand.


TheOFloinn said...

Amusing to see the slaughter of the Saxons on the list. Does anyone suppose, given the history of Saxon depredations on the Frankish realm, that a pagan Frank king would have behaved any differently?

The problem with such lists is that they are shorn of context. They also assume that a Frankish king has somehow become less Frankish simply because he has been sprinkled.

Darwin said...

Which reminds me: HBO really needs to make one of their high class sex-and-violence series based on Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks. Hoo boy.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I love Njall's saga. I'll have to reread it; it's been too long.

Foxfier said...

Didn't they have the whole "exploding beer kegs" miracles, too? (IIRC, a group was going to give a keg or two of beer to a pagan god, a saint was around, pronounced that wasn't gonna happen, and BOOM the keg exploded?)

Maiki said...

Maybe the person should read "City of God" -- of course it is biased, but St. Augustine was writing to a pagan audience, so they would have noticed if he were outright lying. In general, he spoke how Christian barbarians held themselves to a higher standard -- respecting rules of not attacking people who sought sanctuary in churches, whether the individuals were Christian or Pagans, while the pagans did not do likewise.

Anonymous said...

One could write a similar posting about the Muslim conversion of North Africa. It wasn't just about swords.