There’s been an interesting awakening in the past four years in regards to the public dialog on religion. Back in 2015, it seemed like all boats were rowing in the same direction online and in real life as the New Atheist movement was counting it’s victories and bringing thousands upon thousands of millions into the ranks of secularism.
In the years since, a new life has been found in Christianity that has reinvigorated the strength of it’s defenders. New nominally pro-religious voices like Dr. Jordan Peterson have given permission for people to begin asking spiritual questions again in the wake of atheism’s cultural victories and a new wave of Christian and pro-spiritual intellectuals has taken root online including the likes of Paul Vanderklay, Jonathan Pageau, John Verevaeke and so forth.
As such, some of the older voices on atheism and skepticism have started to have to reframe their approaches to online discourse. While the old guard like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris hold steady to their prior discussions and talking points, some skeptics are starting to sense the change of pace and are toning their material down a bit to spark newer discussions on the role religion plays in evolutionary psychology and human social development (See also the works of Jonathan Haidt and Brett Weinstein).
Barton D. Ehrman sits at an interesting intersection of these different philosophies and movements. Once an Evangelical Christian, he’s since given up his faith and joined the ranks of of secular skeptics and critics of religion. That said, he’s also one of the most well read and interesting historians of Christianity alive. Regardless of his religious views, his knowledge and understanding of life in the early centuries of the religion is impeccable and extensive.
His most recent book The Triumph of Christianity maintains Ehrman’s skeptical credentials but it’s not nearly as hostile as some of his prior work has been to Christians. From what I can tell, there is nothing in this book as controversial has his hot takes in his book Misquoting Jesus, which set the Evangelical world on his bad side when he challenged the inerrancy of the New Testament and claimed it had been rewritten by scripts for various purposes.
Much like books like Tom Holland’s Dominion or Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, The Triumph of Christianity is more interested in being an agnostic exploration in the way Christianity has shaped history and culture than a skeptical analysis of fundamentalist dogma. This newer book is primarily interested in looking at the very practical reasons and on-the-ground logic behind why the primary figures of Christianity rose when they did and how they affected the religion’s rise into the world’s largest religion.
He starts the book out with two short but important biographies: Emperor Constantine and Paul of Tarsus. Ehrman declares that the work of these two men did the most to spread the word of Christianity in the first few centuries more than anyone else at the time.
Ehrman spends a long time exploring what we actually do know about these two men as historical figures and litigating the historicity of his sources. Surprisingly, he doesn’t come to find their stories wanting. While he dismisses the historicity of the Book of Acts in the Bible as a useful source for the life of the real Paul of Tarsus, he very much defends the work Paul did to influence the early church and even starts to explore some of how Paul managed to convince so many Christians across Greece and the Eastern providences to convert.
More interestingly, he actually defends the legend of Constantine’s visionary conversation to Christianity prior to becoming the first Christian Emperor of Rome as having been sincere and likely true. Despite admitting that specific details of the event have been lost to history, he doesn’t find the sources wanting and downplays critics of the story who have long claimed that his conversion was a political convenience meant to solidify his takeover of Rome.
Such a story is important because Constantine’s conversion is what pushed Christianity over the edge and made it’s influence skyrocket once power solidified under the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
Once the two biographies are established, the rest of the book becomes a more standard history text exploring the history of various social movements, cults, statistics and practices that were common to the Roman Empire at the time of the Christianization of the Empire. Much of the time in this section is dedicated to parsing the the differences between what he collectively refers to as Paganism and Christianity. As part of his thesis, he makes the case that one of Christianity’s primary differences that set it apart from Roman theology was it’s exclusivity and all encompassing view of the world. Paganism allowed it’s members to worship multiple Gods without recourse, didn’t consider ethics or philosophy to be related to religion and encouraged and, unlike the other religions, suggested there was an actual afterlife they would survive into.
To the Pagans, Christians were actually atheists denying the right of the pantheon to get their due respect. Thus when Christianity entered an area, Christians suddenly stopped participating in normal cultural practices with the rest of society and totally focused on their new religion. Some in the populace would freak out and claim that disasters were caused in their cities by the rise of these new cults of atheism appearing in their cities that disrespected the Gods. When Christians were martyred for refusing to obey the orders of Roman officials to offer sacrifices to the Gods, it only solidified the public perception of the Christian’s resolve and certainty.
As Christians began to focus on fire and brimstone speeches about the horrors of Hell, it began to create tumult within the populace who suddenly realized that an eternity in Hell was worse than a few hours of Roman torture and humiliation. As time went on and the religion exponentially expanded, more and more people started to fear the possibility of Hell and damnation and approached Christ for redemption.
Much of this doesn’t speak positively to Christianity’s rise and it’s not supposed to. Ehrman bemoans the failure of Christianity to support religious tolerance in the Empire after theologians spend centuries begging their Pagan leaders for tolerance. He also distances himself from whether the rise of Christianity was ultimately the best outcome and doesn’t come to a conclusion of what could’ve been better, if only because he doesn’t think he has much to offer in speculation.
Ehrman can’t help but be impressed though by the utter rise of this tiny Jewish cult into the formal religion of an Empire in just a few centuries. He does seem to think that something radical and unique happened in the Roman empire in the first four centuries AD and the book makes it clear that Christianity’s spread was astonishing. Again though, he doesn’t give much credit to providence of divine intervention in the spread of Christianity. This is a secular history of the rise of Christianity and he’s not interested in litigating that battle in this book. His solutions thus are more interested in the processes of sociological change and political maneuvering involved that caused these rapid evolutions.
While I don’t suspect that The Triumph of Christianity marks some massive change of mind in regards to Ehrman’s approach to metaphysical truth, I do wonder if the book’s coincidental timing does say something about his direction as a religious scholar. The books themes coincide with the direction many in the scientific community are starting to take in regards to their understanding of the role and history of religion in human life. I wouldn’t necessarily say that he’s had a change of heart or that he’s toned down his skepticism for fundamentalist Christianity but I do sense that Christians would probably get a lot out of this book that they might not get out of his more controversial and hostile work.