Chapter 4: Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion

Two major epidemics swept the Roman empire in 165 and 251. Although contemporary Christian writers such as Cyprian (bishop of Carthage), Eusebius, and Dionysius (bishop of Alexandria), and other church fathers, thought that the epidemics made major contributions to the Christian cause, modern Christian historians have ignored these as important factors.

A Crisis of Faith in Troubled Times

Pagan religions, reasoning and philosophy were unable to explain the epidemics, while Christianity offered a more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and projected a hopeful and even enthusiastic portrait of the future.

Crises produced by natural or social disasters have often been translated into crises of faith. The crisis strains the prevailing religion, which is unable to explain why the disaster occurred, and is unable to help remedy the disaster. The latter point is especially important when nonreligious means are also unable to remedy the disaster, and people would like to rely on supernatural help. This is frequently the cause of the growth of a new faith in society. This latter point is addressed further below, when Stark argues that Christians survived at a higher rate than others due to their tightly-knit communities and better cooperation.

A good example of this is the series of messianic movements that swept through the Indians of North America in response to their failures to withstand encroachments by European settlers. There is also a high number of new religious movements in societies undergoing rapid modernization.

Stark argues that the content of beliefs of Christianity are important, even though social scientists often ignore actual ideology and look instead at the material or “real” causes of holding some particular belief (e.g. the belief system allows you access to attractive social networks). People prefer to be able to see meaning behind difficult events. Pagan beliefs and philosophy were (according to Stark) unable to provide reasons. Christianity, on the other hand, taught that those who died were in heaven. Cyprian argued that although the just died alongside the unjust, the just were “called to refreshment,” while “the unjust are carried off to torture.” Death might seem unfair, but it isn’t. Pagan gods, on the other hand, did not offer salvation. They offered only services (in this lifetime) which could be bought through sacrifice and other rituals.

Christians also had tighter-knit communities with a higher emphasis on community solidarity; during disasters they were able to survive at substantially higher rates. Not only did disasters increase their proportion within the population even without any new converts, their survival rate might appear miraculous.

The points of this argument “have a substantial social scientific pedigree as elements in the analysis of ‘revitalization movements’ – the rise of new religions as a response to social crises.” A revitalization movement is so called because it makes positive contributions that “revitalize” the capacity of a culture to deal with its problems. Religions “revitalize” by effectively mobilizing people to attempt collective actions. The messianic movements among the North American Indians revitalized their societies by greatly reducing drunkenness and despair, and provided an effective framework for joining fragmented bands into an organized political unit capable of concerted action.

A Christian social ethic

Thucydides (who contracted a plague in Athens in 431 BCE) notes that once people realized that the disease was contagious, they were afraid to visit one another, and as a result, they died with no one to look after them. We may assume that things would have been similar in the epidemics in 165 and 251. (His description is similar to that of Dionysius’). Many doctors probably fled, as did Galen, now thought of as the greatest physician of the age. In fact, many who had the means to leave probably did.

A century later, the emperor Julian tried to improve the pagan religions. Apparently he was dissatisfied with the way they measured up with the Christians in terms of charity and generosity. He notes that they took care of their own poor, and even took care of pagan poor. He shows, numerous times, that he hated them and suspected ulterior motives for their behavior, but even he affirms their good actions. They probably acted similarly during the plagues.

Judeo-Christian thought brought something new into the world: the linking of a highly social ethical code with religion. It was not new for the supernatural to make behavioral demands on humans (e.g. sacrifice, worship). But what was new was the idea that more than self-interested exchange relations was possible between humans and the supernatural. The Christian teaching that God loves those who love one another was crucial. Pagan gods, on the other hand, did not punish ethical violations because they imposed no ethical demands – humans offended the gods only through neglect or by violation of ritual standards.

Christians helped each other, and this greatly reduced mortality because simple nursing saves lots of lives. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably. Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate from 30% by two-thirds or even more. So Christians may have faced a mortality rate of only 10%.

The sturdy Christian network

In an epidemic that kills a large proportion of society, many pagans will lose some of the bonds to other non-Christians, and because of the higher survival rate of Christians, will replace those bonds with more Christians than they otherwise would have. This will make them more available for conversion. (This is “an application of control theories of conformity.”)

We look here at different types of relationships: Christian-Christian, Christian-pagan, and pagan-pagan. Since we assume Christians had a 0.9 chance of living and pagans had a 0.7 chance of living, C-C bonds had a 0.81 chance of surviving, C-p had 0.63, and p-p had only 0.49 chance of living. Also, Stark includes that many pagans fled, thus cutting their ties. (I, Nicholas, am less convinced of this, since they probably would come back to the city after the epidemic, and if both people in the relationship were still alive, the bond would remain.) Also, if pagans who stayed had relationships with Christians, they would probably have been nursed by the Christians. Since the Christians could not possibly have nursed all the pagans (Stark estimates Christians were only 0.4% or 0.004 of the population at the time), they would likely have nursed pagans who were nearby, or who had relationships with them already. So the C-p relationship would actually have a 0.81 chance of surviving.

If Christians survived at a higher rate due to nursing, and if they continued their practice of ministering pagans as well as Christians, a good many pagans would owe their lives to Christians. When reconstructing relations with other people, pagans would find it easier to make bonds with Christians since it is always easier to join a social network that is largely intact.

Conclusion: Evitable

Finally, it is important not to see the rise of Christianity or the fall of paganism as inevitable. There were many points when things could have gone other ways. Paganism clearly could fulfill some social functions, since it had survived for centuries. It was powerful, and these epidemics may have been two of the stronger strikes against it.


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