Heretics R Us

In 325 A.D., the emperor Constantine arranged a conference among the Roman world’s Christian bishops. Accounts vary, but about 300 bishops traveled from near and far to the city of Nicaea, in what is now Turkey. Constantine paid for their travel and lodgings, and showed up himself to lead the first session.

This was an event of great historic importance. The bishops issued a document now known as the Nicene Creed, whose purpose was to codify Christian doctrine, and which (in a slightly altered form issued 50 or 60 years later) provided a firm foundation for the Christian religion throughout antiquity and, among Catholics, down to the present day.

But the bishops didn’t know what would happen in the future. They gathered together for reasons that seemed cogent to them at that time. And in fact one of the heresies that they were troubled to stamp out, Arianism, was favored by a couple of Constantine’s heirs. Things might have gone quite differently.

The question that interests me is, why did the bishops think it was worthwhile to travel hundreds of miles in order to participate in this conference? Travel in the ancient world was common enough, but it was slow and sometimes difficult. What did they think they were trying to accomplish?

On a conscious level, they were trying to set forth the truths of Christian doctrine because they were certain that adherence to the truth was somehow a matter of importance to individual believers, who might all too easily be led astray, thereby causing irreparable damage to their precious eternal souls or whatever. But that explanation simply won’t wash. Given that the entire doctrine of Christianity, in all of its variants and offshoots, was nothing but a free-floating fantasy, with not a shred of evidence to anchor it, a sociologist from Mars would have to wonder, what are these people really up to?

This is a question that can’t quite be asked from within the cultural framework of Christianity — not even from within modern Christianity, and certainly not from anything in European/American culture prior to the 20th century. Only an atheist can see the real sociological issue. If you think Christian doctrine has even a speck of actual relevance to you and other people, you won’t be able to ask the question in an intelligible way.

The bishops were men of power and prestige. And like men (yes, it’s mostly men) of power and prestige throughout history, they wanted to solidify and if possible augment the basis of their power and prestige. Yet the entire basis of their power and prestige was (and remains) a gimcrack fantasy. A flimsy, floppy fairy tale. There being no truth in it, insisting on a unified “truth” was all the more important! We can’t have people thinking God is a glowing pillar of unicorn farts, can we?

If everybody was free to have their own variety of Christian belief, free to reject any idea that they didn’t find personally appealing, it would be all too easy for dissenters to just tell their local bishop to go fly a kite. What was at stake was the bishops’ reputations as men of importance, men whom you had better pay close attention to if you knew what was good for you.

They voted on what it meant for Christ to be the Son of God. There were two prevailing theories about this. One held that, like a human son, Christ had been created by God. That was the Arian heresy. The orthodox view, on the other hand, was that Christ had always existed. A perplexing question, I suppose, but if there had been any such entity as God, the bishops wouldn’t have needed to vote, would they? The true answer to the question would have been made apparent to them somehow — and to everybody else, including the Arians. An actual God, about whom facts could be known, would not have been so sloppy as to leave the question open to debate.

No, the bishops weren’t trying to nail down a religious truth. Truth wasn’t even on the table, though of course they thought it was. What they were really doing was creating a big baseball bat with which to hammer dissenters, because dissenters, if tolerated, would soon decimate their flocks. People would all go their own way! The bishops would have to go back to being shoemakers or something equally unattractive.

The entire strategy of monotheism is to squash dissent. By violence, if nothing less will avail. The sin of Adam and Eve was to think for themselves rather than obeying orders.

This isn’t the only reason why the human species is a dreadful failure. It isn’t even the biggest reason. But it’s very, very sad.

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