Chapter Two: “Go Into All the World”
My first positive argument is that Christianity has attracted more believers from more ethnic and cultural groups than any other religion. So if the OTF shows anything, it shows that all things being equal, the Christian faith is more likely to be true. But can this simplest and most direct form of the OTF really demonstrate anything beyond blind luck or vulgar popularity? In fact, I think that while hardly decisive, the global test Christianity has undergone over the past two millennia does indeed lend the Christian faith extra credibility.
The first Christians were Jews, a people who had been on the defensive against aggressive pagan powers for centuries, and were seldom looked to for insights by the proud heirs of Homer and Socrates. So the initial shock is the boldness with which Christians began pushing their Jewish ideology and savior into the pagan market of ideas – even in the literal marketplace of Athens, the storied Agora. And then the next and greater shock is that the proud Greeks took a long, hard look at these strangers with their “Jewish” religion, and began converting in droves.
News of Jesus arrived in the cultural capital of the Greco-Roman civilization in the person of Paul, a Jew from the Hellenized city of Tarsus on the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey. His legs no doubt stiff from several days on the grain ships that sometimes gave passage between ports in the eastern Mediterranean, Paul strolled about and surveyed the city’s religious sites. Athens overflowed with Greek, but also Egyptian deities and shrines to Roman emperors. A column in the Temples of Ares honored Gaius Caesar, the “new Ares”. Paul may have even found mention of the tyrant Nero, since a shrine dedicated to him and to the “city council” at Mars Hill was set up about the time of his visit.
Paul found himself in debate with followers of Zeno and Epicurus in the city market, where Zeno had gathered disciples and founded the popular Stoic school three centuries earlier. Paul was accused of “marketing foreign gods” and of “babbling:” to Zeno’s exacting ears, barbarism meant “use of words contrary to that in vogue among well-educated Greeks.” Missionaries around the world would face these same two problems: the Outsider Test would begin with linguistic and cultural barriers to faith set not by cool reason, but by universal suspicion of foreigners and their ways, coupled with the normal difficulties of travel and discourse in a world ethnically and linguistically compartmentalized. Luke recognized Paul’s dialogue with Greek philosophers as a highlight of early Christian history, and no doubt saw it as a model for later missionaries, as it would prove. So it is fascinating to observe how Paul met this first “outsider test.”
Paul was invited to the quieter environs of Mars Hill to explain his message. It proved a shocker. In effect, this intense, driven Jewish visitor revealed that Jesus was a Jew whose acts challenged the traditions of Greece and even the conventional wisdom on which Mars Hill itself had been founded. Yet in a deeper sense the Gospel passed the “Outsider Test” by fulfilling the deepest truths of “Gentile” traditions. (As we shall see in later chapters.) The philosophers who heard him out did not all immediately jump to their feet and ask, “What must we do to be saved?”, like the frightened jailer Paul had met in the previous chapter. Instant mass conversion in response to mere verbal persuasion would itself have itself been a miracle in light of human nature “because in social science we have no knowledge of such phenomena,” as the eminent sociologist of religion Rodney Stark remarked. But Paul’s message did capture some hearts for reasons we shall explore when we revisit this story from the “inside.”
Ripples of response to this message spread around the Mediterranean world. Beginning with a wandering band in Galilee, much like our hunter-gatherer ancestors (they were mostly fishermen), by the time of Constantine about one tenth of Greco-Romans were followers of Jesus. By the time of Theodosius I (A.D. 347-395), most Greco-Romans claimed to be Christian. And within two millennia, the message Paul preached had helped transform the dark woods of northern Europe into the world’s greatest civilization, sprinkling cathedrals, universities, and hospitals like monopoly hotels across dozens of new cities, then spreading across the Americas (which had been depopulated by plague), to hundreds of tribes in African and Australia, and bringing needed reform, as we shall see, to the ancient civilizations of Asia.
Nor has modernity halted its progress. A hundred years ago, there were few Christians in sub-Saharan Africa: now there are more than 400 million. A century ago, most Latin Americans belonged to a syncretistic "Christo-paganism." Today tens of millions of evangelicals live in South America, and many Catholics have become more pious and orthodox. In the past twenty years, some 70-90 million Chinese, and millions of Indians, have taken the Outsider Test, found that Christianity passed, and converted. This has been after colonial powers, who did much to impede that conversion (as we shall see, contrary to conventional assumptions), retreated. Most other Asians have probably not yet really considered Christianity, or been reluctant to convert for non-rational reasons -- cultural inertia, vestiges of persecution, love of money or the illicit thrills of the rich in newly industrialized societies, unexamined secularist propaganda, or continued anger over 19th Century "Christian" imperialism. Several million contemporary Muslims have also prayed to Jesus, despite frequent dangers, and despite rivalry with the (post) “Christian” West and natural attachment to their own customs.
Should not this vast movement of hearts and minds over centuries and continents, be regarded as a more objective test of the Christian faith than the abstract mental exercise of an Indiana skeptic?
Loftus compares choosing a religion to the scene in Cinderella in which the prince looks for the girl he danced with, out of “45,000” (it is unclear from what obscure Fairyland census he derived this figure) who claim to have lost the glass slipper. “We would need to be skeptical of each claim and demand an empirical shoe fit before we should believe.” Of course one should ask tough questions about religious beliefs. Christians do claim to have found a fair “empirical shoe fit” between the claims of the Gospel and the real world. But in the Cinderella analogy, just one prince tracks down his beloved. By contrast, billions of people claim to have found Christ.
Shouldn’t some point arrive at which success in persuading rational adults to believe should add to a movement’s credibility? (And if you respond, as skeptics sometimes do, “But people are not rational!” Why should we count you the sole exception?) Do not peer review, footnotes, blurbs, and recommendations from teachers, show that the whole world recognizes that it is sensible to “let the other kids check your homework” in some such manner?
So at the least, we should narrow the test down from the tens of thousands of beliefs Loftus imagines, and concentrate our inquiry on religions that have already passed the Outsider Test, not as a Fairyland exercise, but on the proving grounds of many cultures over long centuries. We must include Secular Humanism along with Christianity in this contest. Assuming a broad definition of religion (as an “Ultimate Concern”), on the surface five faiths seem to have met that challenge to a greater or lesser extent. In historical order, those five are Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Marxism-Leninism, and Secular Humanism.
The OTF and the History of Religions
Islam and Communism spread mostly by violent conquest. Like Star-Trek’s Borg, what Islam conquered, it mostly assimilated, its conquests being geographically contingent on the range of camels. (Aside from merchant vessels [baghlahs or “mules”] that brought Islam to the islands and peninsulas of Southeast Asia.) Having cajoled and conquered (or murdered or driven out) three Jewish tribes of Medina, Mohammed defeated his enemies at Mecca, then browbeat or just beat other tribes of the Arabian peninsula, sucking up followers (as conquerors generally do) who wished to stand on the winning side of history, or sit with the victorious raiding party when it counted the loot. His successors then easily defeated Persia, swarmed through Egypt and North Africa and across Gibraltar all the way to Tours in France, conquered India in waves, and finally defeated Byzantium, taking its Eastern European hinterland as spoil. Higher tax rates for “dhimmis” (Jews and Christians) and other discriminatory measures, including pogroms, made conversion to Islam a useful career move. If a Muslim converted back, said Mohammed, he should die.
Stalin and Mao also spread their faiths violently, and were infamously unkind to apostates.
Yet there was an element of persuasion even in jihad: some peoples had tired of their Persian or Byzantine lords. The success of Islam and Marxism-Leninism does therefore demonstrate the inherent credibility of their deepest claims: that God is one (on the one hand), and the call for justice to the poor (on the other). It is also possible, as Muslim apologists argue, that the reason Islam succeeded was because God willed that success, and that He willed Mohammed success because his revelation was true. Of course that argument works even better for Christianity, since it has won even more people to its cause.
Buddhism and Secular Humanism, by contrast, spread mostly through persuasion. Buddhism is considered a great missionary faith, and it did, in some sense, capture the hearts of South and East Asians. But the forms of Buddhism that proved most popular (at least in China, Japan and Korea) owed little to the austere, self-help philosophy of the Indian Buddha. What most caught on was the aesthetic of Chinese and Japanese Zen, “in the chopping of firewood and the hauling of water, therein lies the wonderful Tao”–which also built on the cheerful wit of the laid-back philosopher, Zhuang Zi. Pure Land Buddhism, which even in its Indian form frankly sought a savior (“If you think of the power of Avalokitsvara, the ship will not be sunk by waves,” as the Lotus Sutra puts it), proved even more popular across East Asia. Even so, by modern times few Chinese were serious Buddhists. Buddhism had almost died in northern China, there being, according to statistics cited by Holmes Welch, “thirty to fifty times as many devotees in central China as in the north,” a trend beginning as early as the Ming (1368-1644). Welch could only optimistically claim that “at least 10 percent” of pre-revolutionary monks were educated and devout. The faith repudiated family and Chinese dining customs (don’t eat meat!). And rather than promoting social justice and science, even before the communist revolution, the great scholar Hu Shi complained that Buddhism “made Chinese society a tragedy” by encouraging contempt for human life. In particular, he complained about monks who made a spectacle by publicly immolating themselves – something ancient Confucian society would have been aghast at.
Secular Humanism does prize science and what it views as social progress. One could argue that this is because like Islam and Communism, it is simplified Christianity, a weed that grows in fields plowed by the Gospel. For instance, as the quote from my son’s history text shows, the “Enlightenment” is often credited for the growth of science in Europe. But the Scientific Revolution actually began centuries before the alleged Enlightenment, at the hands of pious pioneers like Roger Bacon, Robert Boyle, Jean Buridan, Nicholas Copernicus, Robert Grosseteste, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton. Aside from its Marxist offshoot, Humanism has so far shown limited appeal outside the West.
So even on a simple, historical level – the level of choices by billions of passionate, intellectually-engaged people, not meme-numbed robots – Christianity is one of just a few belief systems that can be said to have passed the OTF, and has done so more spectacularly and thoroughly than its rivals. Furthermore, in the face of natural hostility, it has been found credible by many of the “old, wise and skillful” of those civilizations. (We shall hear from some of them in later chapters.) So really, the glass slipper is on the other foot. The real intellectual challenge is, how do skeptics explain the unique success of the Gospel in winning “outsiders?”
The first problem that the OTF presents for skeptics is thus empirical, not just theoretical. Put crudely, religions have played a three thousand year game of “Survivor” on a planetary scale, and Christianity has been voted onto the island of the human soul not once, but billions of times. Why have the promises of a powerless, penniless first century rabbi, preaching from a boat on an inland lake in what is now a dead language, on the ethnic margins of a glorious but now long-extinguished empire, been so spectacularly fulfilled?
Explaining (away) Christian Success
Skeptics have offered three explanations for Christian success that defame the rationality of Christian conversion.
First, some suppose that in the pre-modern world, people were gullible, and selling a new religion was therefore easy, regardless of how incredible that religion was.
Christianity did not succeed because conversion is easy, though. It is not, and never has been! A former imam studying for his doctorate in Law at one of the world’s great universities told me how he became a Christian. He was leader of a mosque in a Muslim country and a successful Islamic legal scholar. But one day, at his mosque, he says he heard the audible voice of God calling him to believe in Jesus. I asked if he, as a scholar of Islamic law, “would have approved of applying the death penalty to Muslims who converted to Christianity?” “Of course!” He replied. Muslims find it hard to denounce the death penalty for infidels, because Mohammed himself approved and carried it out. Yet millions of Muslims have swum against that strong current in recent years, to become followers of Jesus.
When I lived in Japan, our family often soaked in a mountain hot spring. Nearby gurgled a series of pools, “hells” (jigoku) as they call them in Japanese, where Catholic Christians were once boiled alive. Christianity spread rapidly in Japan in the 16th Century, an “outsider test” that Japanese authorities ended not with friendly persuasion, but torture and mass murder.
Skeptics may reply that Christianity also often spread “by the sword” as well. Some Christians, like the Inquisitors, did use force to prevent the spread of competing beliefs. And of course churches themselves are powerful socializing institutions that make it hard for members to leave, whatever they think. But as we shall see, Christianity initially spread overwhelmingly by persuasion.
More subtle pressure is also effective. A Japanese friend once told me (before she became a Christian, then later my wife): “I feel I would be betraying my family, my culture, and my country” to convert. Even in a country that has had religious liberty for more than a century, tradition remains a powerful disincentive against conversion.
Sociologists recognize that people are usually reluctant to convert to other religions. We like to “preserve our religious capital,” as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke put it, stating as a general principle: “Under normal circumstances, most people will neither convert nor reaffiliate”. Simple social inertia explains why less than one percent of Japanese, Burmese, and Thais have chosen to become Christians.
Ancient peoples also often had powerful added incentives to reject Christianity. The story of Jesus often challenged things sacred to the ancients: Homer, Isis, the idol industry, fights in the Coliseum, state monopolies on ultimate allegiance, the subservient status of women, which as we shall see, Jesus strongly challenged. Most Greco-Romans did not want to convert to Judaism, an ethnically exclusive sect to which Christianity at first appeared to belong. Later, by contrast, the Gospel was often wed to a threatening culture. Charlemagne cut down the Sacred Ash and killed Saxons who would not convert. French Crusaders “glorified God” by massacring the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Spanish conquistadors exported the “Us vs. Them” psychology of eight centuries of Iberian conflict to the New World.
Admittedly, occasionally such naked displays of aggression did aid in converting people. But often, in addition to the inherent difficulty of accepting beliefs brought by heavily-accented, odd-smelling strangers, officious European power raised a series of new barriers to Asians, Africans, and Native Americans who might otherwise have considered the words of Jesus. Many non-westerners protected their cultures by stigmatizing or even killing believers. “One more Christian, one fewer Chinese” not only expressed the common feeling that to convert meant betraying one’s nation, but also that conversion required a kind of de-culturalization – drinking English whiskey, eating English beef and going about “in European clothes, including a hat” at Mohandas Gandhi put it. Converts seemed to some to be spitting on the graves of their ancestors. That is why Christianity has never surpassed a “glass ceiling” of about one percent in countries like Thailand, Japan, Tibet, and in parts of India and Burma.
So no, Christianity did not spread because the world was full of people eager to get baptized and wear top hats. The Gospel crossed deserts, oceans, swamps, steppes, and mountains, but more impressively barriers of language, clothing, custom, racial hostility, and intense loyalty to ancient traditions of elders whose sacred words defined what it meant to have a home. Where Christianity failed to spread, one finds numerous non-rational impediments that more than adequately that result -- “stony ground” or an excess of hungry birds, as Jesus already anticipated.
A second explanation for Christian success is offered by historian Richard Carrier, who suggests that like Islam, Christianity generally “was spread, quite literally, by the sword.”
“Christianity only truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition – when it had the full support of Rome’s Emperors after 313 A.D., and when, in 395 A. D., every religion other than Christianity was actually outlawed. Through force and decree Christianity as immersed in the cultural surroundings of lands near and far . . . it spread and planted itself among subjugated peoples.” (my emphasis -- DM)
When I questioned these claims, Carrier made it clear he meant them literally:
“Stark argues (as do all other modern experts) that Christianity was still a small minority religion even in the time of Constantine. And beginning with his conversion, force was used to support it: already in his reign pagan temples were robbed of their wealth by force, being given to Christian churches instead, while by the end of the same century paganism was actually outlawed, and over subsequent centuries gruesome displays of force were used to terrify the disobedient into compliance (see Not the Impossible Faith pp. 21-23). Likewise, no one reading the history of the Christianization of the Americas can possibly believe ‘force was the exception, not the rule.’ The history of the European Middle Ages is likewise just as bloody (simply read The Carolignian Chronicles for the Christians' own account of what they did). Indeed, actual force was often not necessary precisely because the threat of it was enough (as I discuss on p. 265 of Sense and Goodness without God). Since I cite abundant scholarship confirming everything I say (pp. 267-68), again, Marshall is the revisionist here.”
Carrier is not a “revisionist” here, he is simply wrong. He is wrong in part because despite his claim to “abundant scholarship,” in fact his focus is way too narrow. “The Carolignian Chronicles” presumably covers, not the “Middle Ages,” but the reign of Charlemagne. As Medieval historian Joseph Fletcher notes, Charlemagne was unusual in his use of state violence to impose Christianity: “Such tactics had never before been essayed in a Christian missionary context”. Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel had used the sword to prevent Islamic conquest of France, so one can’t say fighting never works. But his adviser (later Saint) Alcuin tried to stay the great ruler’s heavy hand, and seems ultimately to have had some success in doing so.
As for Carrier’s argument in Not the Impossible Faith, in fact there he admits that by the 3rd Century, when it had no power at all, Christianity had already become the largest sect in the Roman Empire. Yet it was only in 391, a century later, that laws against pagan practice were passed. By that time (see below), most of the Roman Empire was already at least nominally Christian. So for the most part, Christianity could not possibly have spread by the sword in the ancient Roman empire, since it spread far and wide before it was able to wield any swords.
But to respond more systematically to Carrier’s claims, I considered twelve great regions and periods in which Christianity spread most dramatically: ancient Rome, the Nestorian Middle East, China from the early Tang Dynasty to the present, Medieval Europe, Latin American Catholicism, Modern Europe, North America, sub-Saharan Africa, India, Korea, the recent spread of evangelical Christianity in Latin America, and hundreds of relatively isolated tribes around the world that have adopted Christianity.
As Stark shows (and Carrier notes), by the time Christianity was legalized by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD, about ten percent of Romans had already become Christian, in the face of 300 years of persecution. Had Christianity simply continued to follow the same upward growth path (as in fact it did – here Carrier neglects to further cite Stark’s argument) the Roman Empire would have become mostly Christian by mid-century, even without the political advantages Carrier complains about. And as Carrier admits himself, pagans suffered mainly from the end of the 4th Century, after Christianity had already won a large majority of the Roman population.
Force was an important factor in the success of Christianity during only two of twelve periods: occasionally in Medieval Europe (for example when Charlemagne “converted” the Saxons after defeating them in battle, killing 4,500 captives, and setting the death penalty for eating meat at Lent, among other things – which Carrier refers to), and the original, often superficial conversion of Latin America. Christianity may have been opposed by force more often than it has been spread that way: by Jewish leaders in its infancy, then intermittently by Roman emperors, in Japan (where thousands were tortured to death), China, Korea, parts of Africa, across the Muslim world, and under communism in many countries. During many of those periods, Christianity grew, sometimes rapidly. So this “explanation” simply does not hold water: the vast majority of converts have believed because they wanted to, not to keep from having their heads lopped off.
In The Religious Virus, Craig James offers a somewhat more subtle explanation. Having evolved in a competitive religious environment, like a successful invasive species – say, rats, milfoil, or blackberries (fruit or phone, take your pick) – Christianity acquired a set of adaptive traits, including the prestige and power of western science, that made it a stronger competitor in local intellectual marketplaces:
“Christianity was a highly evolved set of memes, filtered and improved by ten thousand or more years of the harshest meme competition in the history of the world. The aboriginal religions of places like the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand never had a chance.”
But the environment in which beliefs flourish or fade is the human mind. Like all forms of what C. S. Lewis called “Bulverism,” patronizing and reductionistic talk about how other peoples’ thinking is dependent on irrational “brain processes” can just as easily be turned against skeptics: you are not people who think about ideas, accepting some and rejecting others because you find them valid or fallacious, you are unwitting “hosts” to “memes,” like body-snatching pods. But what filters ideas is reason in many forms and permutations: pragmatic appraisal (does this work? Is it socially useful? Will it make life better?), formal and informal logic, historical and scientific inference, weighing of sources (Can I trust Mrs. Peachtree when she says Austin is the capital of Texas?), and other methods of kicking tires and taking ideas for a spin around the block.
So the advantage Christianity has accrued through its success need hardly be an unfair one, or unrelated to its intellectual value. (Need one explain this to people fond of throwing around phrases like “survival of the fittest?”)
This is not “proof,” but it is not just a gush of Ad Populum, either. If you think of buying a house, opening a business, getting married, buying a book on Amazon, or even eating out at a new restaurant, you are wise to listen to and weigh advice. So why not get advice from so wide a swath of humanity, when seeking answers to life’s greatest questions?
All things being equal, then, the intellectual success of Christianity, after being tested by the “old, wise and skillful” of many places and times, renders the Gospel far more credible. The message of Jesus has run a ruthless gauntlet of criticism and abuse down the centuries and across continents, and not merely survived, but flourished. Did Jesus betray his Jewish (or our Greek, Indian, German, Chinese, or Zulu) heritage? Or was he too obnoxiously and narrowly Jewish? Was the Christian message otherworldly or crudely material? Too vicious, or too naïve? Sexually wanton, or anti-family? Coldly academic, or sentimental and irrational? In the process of running these checkpoints, Christianity pulled ahead in the “harshest meme competition in the history of the world,” as James aptly put it.
This does not prove Christianity is true. But it does suggest, if we are wise enough to give weight to the opinions of others, that there is something highly credible at the core of the Christian faith. It is reasonable to lean tentatively on so many strands of human tradition, the “faith of our fathers,” just as we believe the scientific findings of our tradition, precisely because they have survived intense competition.
That is the first way in which Christianity passes the Outsider Test for Faith. The next two forms of the OTF have to do with the promises of God.
 Eckhard Schnabel, “Contextualizing Paul in Athens: The Proclamation of the Gospel before Pagan Audiences in the Graeco-Roman World,” Religion and Theology, 12 /2 (2005) 173
 Bruce Winter, “Introducing the Athenians to God: Paul’s Failed Apologetic in Acts 17?”
 Laertius Life of Zeno. 40
 David Marshall, Faith Seeking Understanding, 138
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 13
 See Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions, and Paul Fregossi, Jihad.
 Holmes Welch, The Buddhist Revival in China, 246-253
 Stark and Finke, Acts of Faith, 119
 Mohandas Gandhi, Autobiography, 30
 Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness Without God, 264
 Joseph Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, 216
 Craig James, The Religion Virus, 169