Monday, June 25, 2012

Guest post - is Christianity without merit? Daniel Rodger

I like to consider myself a skeptic first and an atheist second. I feel I have more in common with a rational Christian than a Raelian believing atheist, and because of my rather unusual hobby I have often encountered theists who impress me with wide reading, openness to other world views, and rational approach to discussions of faith.

On the flip side, I have encountered some (thankfully few) atheists with irrational beliefs, thinking that all Muslims are plotting a violent overthrow of the West, that atheists are immune to sexism, and that Christianity is without a single redeeming feature.

It is the final point I've wanted to address for some time. Even the most hardline of my godless compatriots would be forced to admit we have Christianity to thank for freeing us of some more odious religions that promoted such beliefs as child sacrifice and mutilations. But this is setting the bar rather low, and I had hoped to instead write on how Christianity took Jewish opposition to Jewish infanticide and made it a universal concept in the Roman empire. Beginning by rescuing and raising infants left to die by disinterested parents, they used their initial influence to change inheritance laws to benefit those abandoned, and finally succeeded in outlawing the practice.

This undeniably positive development is documented beyond contestation and no rational person could know of it and maintain that Christianity is without a redeeming feature. Still, with much on my potential blogging list it seemed unlikely I would find the time to raise this point.

Luckily for me, Daniel Rodger (pictured) has done a rather good job of tackling the subject. He's given me permission to use his work, and I include a brief sample below. (Naturally, I cite my sources.)
"It was Christian love that compelled the early Christians to rescue children who were abandoned to die by their parents, Frederic Farrar noted that ‘infanticide was infamously universal’ in Greek and Roman culture in the early years of Christianity. It was so prevalent that it led Polybius to conclude that the population decline in ancient Greece was due to the practice [3]. Infanticide and abandonment was so ingrained in Greek and Roman culture that even some of their mythology stemmed from its reality. The founders of Rome were allegedly Romulus and Remus, two boys who had themselves been left to die. In Greek culture, there is Oedipus who was abandoned to die as a child by king Laius of Thebes, as-well as Poseidon and Paris, famous for his part in the Trojan war [4].
It took Christians to actively oppose the practice through appealing to our universal value and worth through creation in the image of God, rescuing children and arguing that infanticide was no different to murder. Lactantius, one of the early church fathers said that ‘it is as wicked to expose as it is to kill’ [5]. It was Christian love that drove the early Christians to rescue and bring up and adopting the abandoned children of prostitutes, prisoners, thieves and runaway slaves even in spite of daily persecution just for being Christians and failing to worship the Roman pantheon. This hard work eventually resulted in the Roman emperor Valentinian outlawing infanticide in AD 374 and making it a criminal offence to abandon your child."
As a Christian Daniel develops the point a little differently than I would but I endorse his research on infanticide. I encourage you to read the full article. Drop him a comment, I've had interesting conversations with the chap.


Ronald said...

Interesting topic. The subject of infanticide and Judaism/Early Christianity recently came to my attention while reading the Didache (and a commentary on it). For some reason, I was surprised by the Didache's strong language against abortion/infanticide (2:2 & 5:1-2), considering how early the writing was and how there didn't appear to be any admonition against infanticide in the NT.

Turns out, just about every Jewish and Christian writer surrounding (but not including) the canon of the NT spoke out openly against abortion and infanticide. Philo, Josephus, Epistle of Barnabas, Tertullian - even the Apocalypse of Peter paints an ugly ending for those who have killed an un/newborn.

I thought the Hermeneia's commentary on the relevant verses in the Didache were interesting, especially the last sentence:

"This passage . . . offers the oldest explicit Christian instance of the prohibition of abortion. But it is certain that from the beginning, Christians, following Old Testament and Jewish custom, rejected abortion. That there is no specific prohibition of it in the New Testament is accidental."

Geoff said...

Ronnie, your skull must literally be buckling under the weight of all this knowledge. I'm not sure what your career plans are, but if a letter of sterling recommendation from an atheist would ever hold any benefit for you, do let me know.

Daniel, I suggest you ask nicely about borrowing that quote. Don't forget to cite :-)

failedatheist said...

Yeah great quote, I recently got a copy of the didache it's extremely interesting and the condemnation of both abortion and infanticide that early is fascinating.

Ronald said...

Geoff, as always, you're too kind. I suppose part of what I know comes from spending less and less time on Facebook - the other part comes from just copying from commentaries. I can't even imagine what would happen to my brain if I could read as fast as you can :)

Daniel, the Didache IS extremely interesting! Just wanted to echo that...

failedatheist said...

Ronald, what commentaries would you recommend that are must haves for these sorts of areas? On the non-commentary side 'Early Christian Writings' is fascinating and you could probably pick it up for a dollar off Amazon.

Ronald said...

Daniel, thanks for the recommendation.

As far as full-fledge commentaries on the Didache go, I’m afraid I’m not so familiar with the document to be picky about which commentaries I use. Beyond that, they tend to be fairly expensive. I only dabbled around with the Hermeneia one, and it was very informative for my purposes (and fairly cheap, in comparison to others). Aside from that, I have tons of journal articles on the Didache that I’ve procured from my school’s database that I’m still working through. It’s definitely a document that needs much more work produced on it (the supposed Eucharist liturgy possibly being a Jewish aftermeal blessing especially needs more attention).

If you’re a student and have access to its database, I’d just recommend starting there, simply because I see more work being done on the Didache in journals than elsewhere. In any event, I’ve dedicated this year’s studying to the Talmud and Early Christian writings, so maybe hit me up next year. :)

Ronald said...

Just read something you gents (Geoff and Daniel), and others interested in the subject of infanticide/abortion in the 1st century. David Instone-Brewer has an article “Infanticide and the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15.” Of relevance here is the first four pages which provide quite a bit of background for pagan practices of infantice/abortion, and Judaism and Early Christianity’s vehement rejection of those practices. Instone-Brewer then moves beyond this and attempts to carefully show that the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15:20 includes a prohibition on infanticide. He manages to show some interpretive problems with Acts 15:20, but when his argument then offers to try and show that the decree (ambiguously) forbids infanticide, the arguments falls apart a bit, and I’m pretty unconvinced by it. But again, I’m recommending it based on the first couple pages which include quite a bit of useful information. For instance, while I knew Jews refused to kill a child if it were an inconvenience (such as a girl instead of a boy), I didn’t know they also refused to kill a baby who was physically challenged, deaf-mute, a hermaphrodite or some kind of sexually uncertain child. Anyway, here’s a link to the pre-pub version,

If anyone wants to cite it or use it for some formal purpose, e-mail me, as I have the published version (I believe the content is the same, but I suspect the pagination might be slightly off).