Christianity is the world's largest and most widely-believed faith. Islam is second. How did they get that way? Many suppose they both spread by conquest and force.
This is true of Islam, but not of Christianity.
I initially posted my analysis in response to a claim by Richard Carrier, on another web site. Since the question is of perennial interest, I've now adapted that article for this site, to make it more easily available to readers.
Perhaps in late 2008, a young atheist and philosopher who read my book, The TruthBehind the New Atheism, challenged me to read and respond to the work of
Richard Carrier. He felt Carrier, editor-in-chief of the “Internet infidels,” who holds a doctorate from Columbia in Roman history, offered a more
substantial atheist critique of Christianity than the likes of Richard Dawkins and
I bought a copy of Carrier’s book, Sense & Goodness Without God,
and began reading. I later posted a mostly critical, but courteous, review on Amazon.
pointed out fourteen errors in Sense & Goodness, including Carrier's claim
that Christianity usually “spread by the sword,” only thrived when it could wipe
out other religions by force, and was (with Islam) the bloodiest and most
intolerant religion known to man.
Carrier responded with pique, calling me a “liar,” among other things. (The
accusation only slightly surprised me, since he had told me in a personal e-mail
that his debate partners generally turned out to be dishonest. Who am I to be the exception? He reverted to this style more recently in response to my comments on the Amazon forum for On the Historicity of Jesus.) After arguing back and forth several rounds, Carrier posted an attack on me on
his web site, focusing on the issue of biogenesis.
Several other people joined the conversation at times, including three
philosophers, who had been taking part in the Amazon discussion already, and two
scientists, who weighed in (at my request) on the state of the evidence on the origin
of life, which was another issue on which Carrier had offered strong views.
While the tone of Carrier’s attacks is often discreditable, his claims are popular
enough that they merit response.
Here, I’ll post our arguments on whether or not
Christianity mostly “Spread by the Sword.”
Richard Carrier, from Sense & Goodness Without God:
"Most people in
ancient times believed it was proper to respect the gods of other peoples. This changed on a global scale when Christianity was spread, quite literally,
by the sword. Those who attempted to assert their religious differences
were harassed, tortured, robbed of their land and belongings, even killed. Before it achieved political power, Christianity was a small sect, a heresy
against the Jewish faith, that had to accept equality among all the other
religions of the Roman Empire. Yet it was the first religion to openly attack
the religions of other people as false (the Jews, at least, were a little more
tactful). Needless to say, 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, and in an
environment where it was widely accepted, it not the only thing accepted, it
spread and planted itself among subjugated peoples. As kids grew up taking
Christian ideas for granted, they often did not realize that only a few
generations ago those ideas were entirely alien.”
“Colonization of the world, more often than not by robbery and warfare,
spread Christianity into the Americas and other corners of the earth, just as
Islam was spread throughout Asia and Africa. It is not a coincidence that
the two most widespread religions in the world today are the most warlike
and intolerant religions in history. Before the rise of Christianity, religious
tolerance, including a large degree of religious freedom, was not only
custom but in many ways law under the Roman and Persian empires . . .
Indeed, Christians were persecuted for denying that the popular gods
existed – not for following a different religion. In other words, Christians
were persecuted for being intolerant." (264)
David Marshall, from review on Amazon.com: "Finally, from another section of the book, there's this jumbled thicket of
confused revisionism " . . ."
"To begin at the end, if it is "intolerant" to deny that popular gods exist,
what is Richard Carrier? He denies not only the Greco-Roman gods, but
Christian, Muslim, Confucian, Aussie, and every other vision of God as well!
"In fact Christianity mostly did NOT spread by the sword. Constantine
adopted the faith because it had already become the strongest spiritual force
in Roman society already -- by caring for the sick, treating women well, and
showing courage in the face of death, as Rodney Stark shows in The Rise of
"Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversion tells the rest of
the story for Europe, others for the rest of the world -- force was the
exception, not the rule.
"Christianity has always been strongest in a free market of faiths -- as in
modern America, Korea, and even modern China. Here Carrier badly needs
to read Stark's other studies.
"To say even Islam is the most intolerant or warlike religion in history
reveals gross ignorance. Has he never heard of the Aztecs? The Tai Pings? Yanomamo shamanism? Jim Jones? Or (to stretch the term "religion"
slightly) Vladimir Lenin? Adolf Hitler?
"The tolerance of the Greco-Romans was punctuated by episodes of
persecution, bigotry, witch-hunting, and murder. Elsewhere in the same
book, Carrier admits that one sect began their rituals with the shout, "Away
with the Epicureans! Away with the Christians! . . . this hostility could come
to slander and violence. Challenging a popular legend might start a riot,
even get you killed." In fact you didn't even have to go that far -- Socrates was not the only one
to get officially killed for unorthodoxy.
(Note: Here I quote only Carrier’s response to this one issue. For the rest of that part of our
conversation, see the discussion under my review of his book on
Amazon.com, linked twice above.)
Carrier: As I show in Not the Impossible Faith (chapter 18), Marshall is
misusing Rodney Stark in his attempt to claim that Christianity became the
dominant religion peacefully. 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 Carolingian
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.
Marshall: What did Carrier mean by saying that Christianity "spread by
the sword?" The comment is rather ambiguous. From the context, in which Carrier talks
first about the spread of Christianity in ancient Rome, then in the world in
general, it is clear he is referring to the overall history of Christianity. And
given the rest of his comments, it is clear he is, at minimum, referring to the
most normal method of proselytism. He is not saying that Christianity has
SOMETIMES employed force, but at the least, that it has USUALLY (if not
ALWAYS) employed force.
What does "by the sword" mean? I will not require that it mean most
converts had actual metal pressed against their throats (though the adverb
"literally" is, as often, misused here.) I take "by the sword" to refer to
bringing people to faith under military or police compulsion.
I do insist, however, that conversion involve direct physical violence, or the
threat of violence, against the potential convert, to count in favor of Carrier's
claim. It cannot even mean that mob violence was occasionally employed, or
even that Christians occasionally persecuted people of other religions. This
for the simple reason that Carrier is comparing "intolerant" Christianity with
"tolerant" paganism in this passage. ("It was the first religion to openly
attack the religions of other people.") Yet he admits there was persecution of
Christians (and other sects) in pagan Rome, along with mob violence against
them. Clearly the phrase "spread by the sword" must mean something
above and beyond what Christians experienced at the hands of the pagans,
to justify the contrast Carrier is drawing.
Finally, what might Carrier mean by "spread?" Should it refer to
transmission of faith to new lands, cultures, or individuals?
We can probably rule geography out. It would be unreasonable to count the
spread of faith among Eskimos in Alaska as more significant than among
some tribe in Rwanda, just because more territory is involved.
Spread to individuals seems more likely at first. If this is what Carrier meant,
however, his claim may be too obviously absurd. The vast majority of
Christians have accepted faith from parents or teachers, through education,
not the threat of death. Furthermore, most Christians have probably lived
over the past 200 years. (By my back of the envelope calculation, about
40% of all people who have lived in the last 2000 years, have lived in the
last 200. Towards the beginning of that period, the percent of Christians in
world population increased dramatically.) Over the past 200 years, only a
tiny minority of believers converted on pain of death. Neither, of course, did
most Christians in the Middle Ages.
So the only plausible meaning of "spread," and the meaning most likely
intended, is "transmitted into a new politico-cultural sphere, so as to be
adopted by a significant portion of the populace."
Now we can analyze the accuracy of Carrier's claims about the history of
Christianity. I'll look at twelve great population groups, to which the vast majority of
Christians belong. I'll begin from the first days of Christianity.
(1) Roman-European Christians, 33-600 AD
According to Rodney Stark, by
the time of Constantine's conversion and the Edict of Milan in 313,
proclaiming religious tolerance, about 10% of the entire Roman empire had
become Christian. Obviously, before this time Christianity was NOT spread
by military compulsion. In fact, it spread in the face of often severe
Furthermore, according to Stark, Christianity was growing by
about 40% per decade at this time. By that natural growth rate (similar to
that later traced by Mormons), Stark argues, the success of Christianity was
already a fate accompli:
"In fact, Constantine's conversion was, in part, the response of a politically
astute man to what was soon to be an accomplished fact - the exponential
wave of Christian growth had gathered immense height and weight by the
time Constantine contended for the throne (One True God, 61)."
Capturing 10% of the "market" shows that a religion has "arrived." We know
that before this time, Christianity had spread to almost all of the empire - without force of any kind, but in the face of force. By the natural growth pattern it had already established, even without state
support, one could expect Christianity to surpass 50% of the population in
the latter half of the 4th Century.
While Christians did take matters into their own hands by forcibly destroying
temples at times, for the most part conversion to Christianity during the 4th
Century was by free will, not compulsion. (Read Augustine's Confessions, for
example - St. Augustine converted as late as 386, in apparent freedom,
having freely chosen among contemporary beliefs.) Occasional mob violence
or state sanction do not constitute "conversion by the sword" on Carrier's
own terms, as we have seen that he praises the ancient Romans, who
engaged in both, for being quite different than and superior to Christians.
Theodosius I established "Catholic" Christianity as the state religion in 380. In the 5th Century, the conformity of all, apart from Jews, was mandated
and enforced. As we will see when I address Carrier's second claim, Stark
and I agree that the vital impulse of Christianity largely died in this period.
Several of the most prominent 4th Century Christians were born into a
Christian family: Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzus, (his father was converted not
by the sword, but by his wife), Basil the Great and his many siblings, Jerome. This is consistent with Stark's thesis that like Mormons today, much of the
Christian increase came through larger families and better health care. Others, like Augustine, came from a partially pagan background, and were
converted after dallying with pagan philosophies: Theodore the Interpreter
and John Chrysostom were both educated under the pagan Libanius and
then chose the Christian faith -- again, not at the point of a sword. Nor do
their biographies seem to involve anyone who converted that way, as far as
Sketchy as this is, this empirical evidence, from various parts of the empire,
tells against the claim that the great numerical increase in Christians over
the 4th Century came about primarily through military force. It agrees fully,
however, with Stark's arguments.
In any case, what happened in the 4th Century is best described as
"consolidation," not "spread" as we defined it. As I pointed out,
"spread" must refer to the transmission of a religion to a new politico-cultural
entity, not to individual conversions, or consolidation.
If we count
individual conversions, then the early Christians will count for very little,
compared to the billions of Christians in the modern world, and Carrier's
argument will be rendered even less plausible!
(2) North African, West Asian Christians, 600-2016
In the first centuries
after Christ, as in European Rome, Christianity spread through missions,
voluntarily. Some consolidating force was employed late in the Imperial era.
After the Islamic conquest, for the next 1400 years, Christianity in the
Middle East was mostly transmitted from parents to children, rather than by
military force. Millions of Muslims become Christians today (especially in
Algeria, Iran, Egypt, and in parts of black Africa), not only of their own free will, but in the face of often
(3) Chinese Christians, 624-2016
Christianity spread to China in four main
waves, and one or two smaller ones - all without military or police
compulsion on anyone to convert.
Nestorian Christianity spread peacefully,
with some minor support at first, and some persecution later, from Chinese
Catholicism spread peacefully, with some persecution from the
government, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, until there were about 300,000
Catholics in China. In this case, European meddling and Chinese strong-arm
tactics combined to undermine Christianity, keeping it from growing much
after the "Rites Controversy" erupted in 1705.
In the 19th Century, Protestants entered China as a correlate of European
imperialistic action against a weak Qing government. Missionaries did not,
however, use force; in fact imperialism was a strong disincentive to
conversion, making "yang jiao" or "foreign religion" very unpopular. It was in
the face of persecution (most famously by the Boxers, who killed tens of thousands of
Christians in 1900, but all through the 19th Century at a lesser level) that Christianity spread.
In the 20th Century, both under the Nationalists, and far more under the
Communists, Christianity was officially discouraged. It has been under
persecution that the number of Christians in China has grown to some 70
million not "gua ming" or nominal Christians, but largely highly committed
believers - the second largest number of any country, after the US.
(4) European Christians, 600-1800
The grassroots missions impulse having
mostly died within Latin Christianity, the faith did however spread to
northern Europe, and was then consolidated as the official religion. (And
later, as dueling Catholic and Protestant official religions.) Mass forcible conversions did occur during this period, including of the
Saxons under Charlemagne, in the 8th Century.
Joseph Fletcher, Professor
of History at the University of York, notes however in The Barbarian
Conversion, "It is a striking feature of the spread of Christianity to barbarian
Europe that it was, before Saxony, so tranquil a process."
Force was also
employed on later occasions, among some Norse, Slavs, Finnish, and Baltic
peoples. Other methods of transmission that seem to have been more
important, however, were evangelism (St. Patrick, to the Irish) and the
export of Christian wives to pagan kings.
Of course the history of the Middle Ages was bloody, as Carrier remarks - as
are all histories. But the spread of Christianity in Europe can't be reduced to
Charlemagne's religio-political campaigns. As Fletcher shows, the most
common pattern was for a king to marry a Christian bride; the kingdom
generally following his lead.
It's true that there often was an element of compulsion in the subsequent
conversion of nobles and laity (also later, with the spread of Protestantism,
and the Catholic reaction.) But it would be simplistic to say Christianity was
mainly spread "by the sword" to Northern Europe - sometimes it was, more
often it doesn't seem to have been.
Still, this period is probably the second-best case for Carrier's claim. Christianity may have spread into new cultural spheres during this period between one twentieth and one quarter of the time, off the cuff.
(5) Latin American Christo-Catholics, 1492-1900
This period is probably Carrier's
best argument for the "spread by the sword" hypothesis. The conquest of
South and Central America by the Spanish and Portuguese was, beginning
with Christopher Columbus himself, a bloody and terrible affair. What spread
most quickly, though, was germs, wiping out much of the Indian population
before they had the chance to be subjugated by Rome.
I am not a Latin expert, but the history of conversion in Latin America seems complicated.
Conquistadors did make Christianity a tool of oppression and conquest. Colonists sometimes attacked the Jesuits, though, for defending Indians against their own depredations. Slaves were sometimes baptized, perhaps
against their will; at other times prevented from voluntarily becoming
Whether or not Christianity (as opposed to colonialism) spread primarily by
the sword over this region during this period, would require closer study
than I have had the chance to accomplish. But on the surface, Latin America seems like the best case for Carrier's
claim, as clearly it sometimes did.
(6) European Christians, 1800-2016
Ours has been an era of consolidation,
revival, and a neo-pagan and secularist ("Enlightenment") backlash. While often seen a "great following away" credited to the Enlightenment, it was also in the modern period that the Bible itself was translated into most European languages, and printing allowed pietist and other revival movements to spread the influence of the Gospel in a way that it could not in the relatively illiterate Middle Ages.
Christianity spread, to the extent it did in modern Europe, almost entirely by voluntary
conversion. In Eastern Europe, Christianity spread in the face of communist
suppression - most successfully in Poland, but also in other countries. (See,
for example, the works of Richard Wurmbrand, George Weigel, and James Felak.) Solzhenitsyn's story of conversion
was in some ways typical of the era - and was, of course, of his own free will.
(7) North American Christians, 1620-2016
Christianity spread to North
America primarily through immigration, education, and voluntary evangelism. There may have been rare instances of force (mostly in the earliest years of
this period, among small groups, and through schools in 20th Century
Canada), but choice has been the overwhelming pattern.
predominately Christian American and Canada have allowed far more
freedom of conscience than did pagan Rome. Given that the US has had
more Christians than any other country has ever had over the past century
and a half (probably some 900 million self-declared Christians altogether),
the history of his own society should have given Carrier pause.
(8) African Christians, 1800-2016
In 1900, there were only about 9 million
Christians in Africa, including Copts and other small minorities in Muslim
countries. Today there are over 400 million at least nominal Christians. (For
a total approaching perhaps a billion over the past century.) The vast
majority have come to faith of their own free will, in response to missions. (Sometimes in the face of persecution, as in Uganda under Idi Amin,
Ethiopia, and in some tribes.)
(9) Latin Protestants, 1900-2016
The number of Evangelical Christians grew
from negligible in 1900, to some 60 million by 1997. (First Things, Pedro
Morena, June / July 1997)
Few converts seem to have been zealous Catholics; most seem to have been
religiously apathetic, or Christo-pagans. Few, if any, came to Christ "at the
point of the sword," or any other weapon.
(10) Indian Christians, 33 AD-2016
Aside from the case of Goa, where
Catholic inquisitors forced the population to adopt Christianity, the vast
majority of converts to Christianity in India came to faith of their free will. Even during British rule, compulsion to Christian faith was seldom if ever
used; some were even persecuted for belief.
Today, there are between 25
and 50 million Christians in India. The free spread of Christianity has worried
some "Hindutva" fanatics to the point of persecution and other pressure on
Indians to abandon Christianity.
(11) Korean Christians, 1900-2016
Again, Korean converts adopted
Christianity freely, not under compulsion. Much of the conversion went on in
the face of communist or Japanese oppression. Some 30% of South Koreans
are Christian today, often extremely zealous.
(12) Tribal Christians, 1900-2016
Taiwan: About 12 tribes (Ami the largest)
converted to Christianity, under no compulsion. China: Lisu, Lahu, Wa,
Jingpo, some Yi, Miao, Bouyi, small groups of Dai, all converted freely, or in
the face of anti-Christian persecution. Southeast Asia: Karen, Kachin, Lisu,
Lahu, Wa, Hmong, all converted freely. India: Naga, Mizo, other tribes in
eastern states, Santal, Kholli mountain tribes, also converted freely. New
Guinea: millions of Christians among the Dani, Yali, and other tribes,
became Christians without being forced to it. Polynesians also adopted
Christianity because they wanted to, not because missionaries threatened to
kill them if they didn't. Tribes in North America have generally either adopted Christianity of their
own free will, or not at all.
Some exceptions may be found among Indian
children who were forced to go to Christian schools during the mid-20th
In summary, Carrier is clearly and badly mistaken. As I said, use of force was clearly
the exception than the rule in the spread of Christianity. Only in some parts
of Latin America, and in some cases in Northern Europe, did Christianity
spread to new people groups primarily by force.
In the vast majority of
cases, peoples adopted Christianity because they wanted to.
The same is even more clearly true if we look at individual conversion,
rather than the conversion of groups.
Furthermore, both of the periods in which force WAS an important means of
"converting" people, occurred (1) long after the initial and defining spread of
Christianity; and (2) after Christianity had become institutionally corrupt, in
part for reasons I will now explore.
Does Christianity only thrive by violently suppressing other faiths?
Carrier: "Marshall falsely claims `Christianity has always been strongest in a
free market of faiths -- as in modern America, Korea, and even modern
China.' Yet it is not "strong" in China or Korea (it is a minority in both
countries), and even in America it claims only about 80% of the population.
Compare that to a rate of 95% and more in much of medieval Europe and all
of early Spanish-controlled America, when one had to be Christian under
pain of death or prison or dispossession or exile, then you'll understand the
difference I am talking about: Christianity was strongest then, not now.
Allowed to compete fairly in a free market, Christianity slowly washes out
into a minority religion, or else must change radically to accommodate
popular desires (which is why Catholicism is a minority now and losing
ground in America, while most Christians are merely nominal, unable even
to name the four Gospels, with nearly half now claiming Christianity is not
the only path to eternal life, while secularism and other minority religions
are growing, as they have done in Europe--slowly reversing the after-effects
of an ages-long era of force and intimidation that really only ended in
America with the demise of the McCarthy witch-hunts barely fifty years
Marshall: Carrier’s arguments here are not just wrong, they are poorly
informed and often bizarre.
Senator Joe McCarthy’s career marked the end
point of Christian “force and intimidation” in America? Can he be serious? Carrier seems to be conflating “Christians” with “everyone I don’t like.”
As Stark shows in “Secularization, RIP,” citing a great deal of primary and
quality secondary data, Medieval Europe was by nothing like "95 %
Christian" in the very sense Carrier defines the term here. ("Most Christians are
merely nominal, unable even to name the four Gospels.") Compare that to Christians, and even the CLERGY, during the Middle Ages:
"In 1551 the Bishop of Gloucester systematically tested his DIOCESAN
CLERGY. Of 311 PASTORS, 171 could not repeat the Ten Commandments,
and 27 did not know the author of the Lord's Prayer." (my emphasis - DM)
"During the middle ages and during the Renaissance, the masses rarely
entered a church, and their private worship was directed toward an array of
spirits and supernatural agencies, only some of them recognizably
"In 1800, only 12 percent of the British population belonged to specific
religious congregation. This rose to 17 percent in 1850 and then stabilized -
the same percentage belonged in 1990."
"French Catholics today participate more willingly and frequently, with far
greater comprehension of what they are doing, than was the case 200 years
(All from Stark, “Secularization, RIP”)
So by Carrier's own criteria, and citing a leading sociologist of religion whom Carrier himself appealed to for demographics, it is balderdash to claim that "95%" of
Europeans were Christian before the Enlightenment, in some more
significant sense than Americans are Christian today. Not even most MONKS
could pass a simple test for biblical literacy in the Middle Ages, let alone
ordinary folks! Church attendance was often quite nominal, with only a tiny
fraction of the populace coming to church even once a year.
In fact, the percent of Americans who belong to a church, and who go to
church, is far higher today than it was in the late 18th Century.
I live in one of the most secularized corner of the United States. Washington
State has had the lowest church attendance rates in the country, and Seattle
is worse. Yet I know some two dozen "mega-churches," vibrant, evangelical
Christian churches with 1800 or more attendees a week, in the Seattle area. And only a fraction of evangelicals go to mega-churches. And there are
other kinds of Christians in the Seattle area, too, of course - Catholics,
Orthodox, liberal Protestants.
To call Christianity "weak" in America, compared to the Middle Ages, is a secularist pipe-dream. And to say
that about South Korea, where thousands meet for fervent prayer in the
morning, or retreat to pray on mountains for days at a time, and has
produced single churches numbering in the hundreds of thousands of
worshipers, defies the imagination.
Christianity is thriving in huge swaths of the world today. Under no
compulsion, tens of millions of Africans and Latin Americans will engage in
fervent worship this coming Sunday. Millions more will meet throughout
China, praying with fervency, singing and bringing friends. Christians will
meet in huge mega-churches in Singapore, then go out to eat in outdoor
food courts, side-by-side with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and "freethinkers,"
as they call them there. The freer the market, the better Christianity does.
In fact, the problem with
Europe is its state religions.
As Stark has
demonstrated through decades of empirical research (see our interview in Faith Seeking Understanding), monopoly religions
lose their fervency:
"Christianity might have been far better served had Constantine's faith been
pretended. For, in doing his best to serve Christianity, Constantine
destroyed its most vital aspect: its dependence on mass volunteerism." (One
True God, 61)
"From a popular mass movement, supported by member donations and run
by amateurs and poorly paid clergy, under Constantine Christianity was
transformed into an elite organization, lavishly funded by the state, and
bestowing wealth and power on the clergy. Thereupon, church offices
became highly sought by well-connected men, whose appointments greatly
reduced the average Christian leader's level of dedication."
"The Christianity that triumphed over Rome was a mass social movement in
a highly competitive environment. The Christianity that subsequently left
most of Europe only nominally converted, at best, was an established,
subsidized, state church that sought to extend itself, not through
missionizing the population, but by baptizing kings . . . corruption and sloth
as well as power struggles and enforced conformity, became prominent
features of the Christian movement . . . Most of the evils associated with
European Christianity since the middle of the 4th Century can be traced to
Stark traces that trend through the history of Europe to the modern day. (To me, he suggested that it is precisely the beginnings of competition
in Europe that offers the most hope that Christianity will revive there.) The atrophy of grass-roots fervor, and the corruption of the clergy by money
and wealth, sent European Christianity into a long decline. There were still
faithful Christians, but they were always a minority. And they tended to
come from the margins of society, like Francis of Assisi, or of the clergy, like
Martin Luther. Most Medieval "Christians" also could not read, the Bible was
prohibited them, and they knew little about their supposed faith.
Thus, Carrier's arguments simply display popular ignorance of the history and sociology of religion. His claim that Christianity has "only
truly flourished when it had the ability to eliminate the competition" is near opposite of the truth. In fact, Christianity thrives best in a free environment, with an open market
of ideas. (Or even under some persecution.) That is how it arose, and that
is how it spread in many cases.
It is no coincidence that the persecuting
church was also a corrupt church, a "Christianity" that had left its moorings, and the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, far behind, in search of money and power.