The Vicar of Bray

Is at it again.

Atheists: the bigots’ friends is the latest from Giles Fraser in the seemingly endless entries in the somewhat tedious battle between religion and atheism in the commentisfree section of The Guardian. I can’t be bothered commenting extensively on Fraser’s piece, but this caught my eye

Ignoring the fact that Christianity invented secularism…

Not the first time I’ve seen this recently. From what I’ve subsequently read, the claim is not really that Christianity invented secularism, but that it permitted it, as if the Pope issued a bull about it back in the 5th century. No matter how closely Christianity was involved with the rulers of Europe, there was always an inherent tension between the religious and secular powers.

The Pope used the fake Donation of Constantine to claim temporal authority. Thomas à Becket was murdered because he fell foul of Henry II. England was a solidly Catholic country until Henry VIII’s codpiece and Catholic doctrine came into conflict. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, put pressure on the Pope to prevent the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragón. Thomas Wolsey came into conflict with the secular authorities of England. Anti-clerical satire was a feature of medieval literature (e.g. Rabelais).

The point is that if the secular authorities were constantly trying to control the church, then the latter was hardly in a position to license anything. If the church had this alleged power, then why weren’t the nations of medieval Europe theocracies? (I know nothing of the actual government of the Papal States in Italy, but I’m not aware of them being regarded as a theocratic state in the same way modern Iran is.) In fact, it’s not until the Protestant Reformation that fundamentalist regimes appear. The Roundheads may have been victorious in the English Civil War against Charles I, but they went out with a wimper. Although religion remained an important part of people’s lives, Europe was always inclined to keep church and state separate. European rulers may have connived with the church, but they weren’t inclined to tolerate it as a rival to their power.

What was the situation before Christianity? Religions were native to the people who practised them and an inherent part of their culture. As far as I know, no European people ever tried to impose their religion on anyone else. The Greeks, for example, might’ve identified the Celtic and Roman gods with the corresponding gods in their own pantheon, but foreigners wouldn’t have been welcome to participate in Greek religious ceremonies, and the Greeks; who were somewhat xenophobic, weren’t inclined to extend their religion to non-Greek peoples. The Romans were tolerant of the religions of the peoples they conquered, and some non-native religions even became popular among them (e.g. Christianity and Mithraism).

The adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine represents a significant shift in the relationship between religion and the state. Christianity instantly became a multinational religion which belonged to no one nation or people; it was dogmatic; and it was intolerant of other religions.

The pre-Christian Roman Empire may not have been secular in the modern sense, but it wasn’t religious either. The emperor was also the pontifex maximus, a title which now belongs to the Pope. Religion sat comfortably in society because the state and the religion weren’t separate entities. The break-up of the Roman Empire must’ve accelerated the separation of church and state, the latter being the only part of the old Empire that remained truly coherent. Because the church was multinational, the non-religious administration of Christian Europe must always have been inherently secular which, as I noted above, resulted in tensions between the state and a non-native church. At the same time, secularism might defined by the existence of Christianity, but the latter didn’t license the former.

Curiously (and a little tangentially), the Reformation and the appearance of Protestant churches restore the ancient status quo with national churches instead of a multinational one under the control of a single person. It’s still Christianity, but national concerns about the church remain national matters.


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