A Deal With Government

Column by Jim Davies.

Exclusive to STR

World history was radically changed, in the small Turkish town presently known as Iznik. It affected a vast range of human activities during the last 17 centuries; it housed an event more significant than Rome itself with its claim to dominate Christendom, than Paris with its thousand years of prominence in trade and culture, than Florence or Venice with their launching of the Renaissance six centuries ago, than London as the heart of an empire that spanned the whole world but lasted a mere 200 years, and certainly more than Washington, which has dominated world events for only 60 years. What happened in what was then Nicea, in 325 AD, was that the Christian Church got its act together and made a deal with the state--the Roman one, led by Emperor Constantine.

Thanks to the conference held there that year at his bidding, Christianity changed from a spontaneous religion growing rather fast from bottom upwards, as each member introduced his friends to his faith, into one subsidized by the state to grow by central management. Christians changed from being a generally despised and persecuted minority, into leaders of the official state religion. That was an amazing transformation that the bishops accepted, and the only price was that they made it a uniform faith and honored the Emperor. So heretics were defined and excluded from then on. A declaration of belief was formed and published, consisting of the central doctrines of the religion, and the Nicene Creed still serves as a well crafted summary of what the New Testament is all about. Some recite it verbatim, and all denominations accept it, sometimes with minor word changes. A little extra wording was added for clarity later in the Fourth Century.

Was the deal a sell-out, or a fair bargain? Although I pick the former, the latter could be argued. Suddenly, there was a massive boost to the spread of the faith. State-sponsored missionaries were sent to the remotest corners of the Empire, to preach and convert. Roman influence in Britain was about to end, so for those islands the deal came in the nick of time. All Europe, North Africa and the mid-East was Christianized, and no price was imposed, other than the stated conditions of loyalty and uniformity. But the hitherto remarkable spontaneous growth, person to person, was no longer the main way it grew.

Constantine's motive was simple enough: The Empire was so vast that squabbles were constant and he desperately needed some factor to improve unity. There were dozens of religions, all of them tolerated (except, previously and ironically, those that insisted on exclusivity and refused to acknowledge the Emperor as supreme), but by 325, the largest single one was Christianity. So Constantine got his unifying factor. It didn't work (because as shown in A Denarius for Your Thoughts, there was no free market) but it might have done. It was a smart thing for him to try.

In the event, the Empire lasted only another century. The religion he helped spread has lasted 17.

Nicea was not far from one of the two key cities of the Empire, and was and is a pleasant lakeside town among the hills. Probably it was a kind of resort for prominent bureaucrats, maybe with a Winn's and a Flamingo and certainly a Caesar's Palace. So it was a good choice to get a bunch of bishops to confer and bang their heads together.

Ever since Nicea played host to them, this religion has been Established. It sprinkled the state (everywhere) with the illusion of morality, while the state continues to endow it with privileges and favors, like tax exemption and the suppression of competitors. Each wins. The losers are those who wish not to embrace or support either myth, Church or state.

Undoubtedly the state has done well out of the deal that began in Nicea, and continues to this day. Most American churches display the state flag in their place of worship and actively support the war machine the state operates, praying for soldiers and honoring them without criticism. Such support makes a big difference to its ability to maintain and extend its empire. But has the church done so well out of the state?

While not an “insider,” I suggest it has not. Tax exemption is valuable, but it comes at a price; preachers are not allowed to criticize certain of the state's practices, on pain of losing a huge amount of revenue that comes thanks to “501(c)(3)” status. One principled group of ministers makes this explicit on a web site called Hush Money.

Second, the advantage of state support from Rome in the years after 325 did help rapid expansion, but the church was expanding quite fast anyway. Check the numbers. Between AD 33 and 325 – three centuries, say -- membership had grown without state help (in spite of its persecution, in fact) from 12 to about 6 million, or 10% of the Empire's population. That growth came by one-to-one introduction to the faith and averaged 4.4% per year. Imagine the Nicean offer had been rejected and all future growth had continued at just the same rate. Over the next 1,700 years (to 2025, say) church membership would have grown to far in excess of the actual world population today. That is, except for hard cases like me, virtually the whole human population would be Christian instead of only one-third of it.

Clearly, therefore, in the long run church membership growth has been hindered by its close ties to the state, not helped; and the bishops at Nicea might reasonably have expected that, given the success of the first three centuries of which they well knew.

Nicea was a sell-out. Bargains with the state don't work.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"


mjackso6's picture

"Imagine the Nicean offer had been rejected and all future growth had continued at just the same rate. Over the next 1,700 years (to 2025, say) church membership would have grown to far in excess of the actual world population today."

The problem with that, Jim, is that they weren't growing in a vacuum. Granted, Islam didn't even exist at that time, and probably never would have under those circumstances, but Christianity could only have expanded so far before it butted up against Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto and any number of smaller religions. Granted, it might have 'absorbed' or even 'merged' with some of those, but I doubt that it would simply have kept expanding like a lone culture in a petri dish.

Jim Davies's picture

Very good point, mjack; we don't know how well it would have grown virally outside the Roman Empire.
All we have to go on, I think, is however the 4.4% annual rate over the first three centuries - and notice, that was achieved in a very hostile environment. Judaism bitterly opposed them, and there was a large miscellany of religions in the Graeco-Roman world each of which had to be overcome in the minds of adherents, and then there was systematic persecution by the (Roman) goverrnment including death in contest with lions for the entertainment of the public. Could the Eastern religions have given them much more trouble than all that?
Islam as you say didn't appear for another 400 years, during which time the Christians might well have expanded into Arabia and forestalled it.
Finally that 4.4% rate has a great deal of headroom, over 1700 years. The 6 million of AD 325  would theoretically have grown to 3.7 x 10^32 by our day, which is 22 orders of magnitude greater than the world population. So I'd say they'd have had a pretty fair chance.

Samarami's picture

You've made a good case, Jim, for the opinion (or historical certainty) that "church and state" are indeed inseparable -- an all-pervasive symbiosis. It is an egregious co-seduction of the minds of the unwashed masses into slavery. If you can keep 'em "praising the L-rd" and "loving Our Country" simultaneously you can capture an extremely large portion of the productive capacity.

This would almost seem a covert argument in favor of "atheism" -- were "belief" and "religion" to be equated in the mind of the critical thinker (can't happen). Not that I have any disfavor toward one who professes "atheism". My observation, however, is that professing "atheists" are rejecting religion -- not "belief" (whatever "belief" might be to you). Most atheists admit that.

A few of them -- not too many, as atheists lean toward free thinking which would reject rudeness -- often play the clumsy "superstition" card. Those types tend to nay-say those who see in observable Creation and Sustenance a "Supremeness beyond human comprehension" -- and lump that into a "religion" category of philosophy.

But that's what discussion is all about, and you've opened a good launch pad.


GeoffreyTransom's picture

I absolutely disagree, despite your sophomoric attempt to pre-empt debate by pretending that "critical thinkers" don't find belief in supernatural agencies stupid and superstitious. That sort of middle-school debating technique has not place in adult discourse: it's transparent.

In direct contradiction of your assertion, it is not possible to be a genuinely critical thinker and ACCEPT **any** gibberish about supernatural explanators for the physical world (or for morality).

There is no requirement for supernatural explanators of the emergence of physical phenomena, and so belief in such explanators is belief in things that are (a) not required for a sensible explanation of life; and (b) not required for a sensible explanation of why 'good' is 'good'. They can be dispensed with without loss of explanatory power.

Also, atheists are not required to "be nice" when someone is spouting twaddle about magical figures in the sky who are the 'sine qua non' of the physical world (but require no maker themselves). Atheism is out of the box, and nobody who is not indoctrinated as a child believes in the nonsense of external supernatural extemporal creative forces - religion is just a secondary layer that exploits stupid superstition: the belief itself is the stupidity that gets exploited.

Most atheists (of which I am most assuredly one) are indifferent to the means of expression of the ludicrous primitive need to believe in an external moral or creative agency: the need to believe in such balderdash is, of itself, a shortcoming in the believer's psychological makeup since it implies a deep-seated distrust (and ignorance) of the physical world and its inhabitants.

On the 'world' side of things, "believers" see the physical world as being incapable of self-organisation ex nihilo: they require a third party agency to at least start things and be the 'blind watchmaker' (but the third party does not require a watchmaker itself, oddly: "God requires no Creator").

On the 'personal' side, "believers" have absolutely no faith whatsoever in their fellow man, as - by and large - they believe that people won't behave themselves without some external agency that promises eternal bliss for compliance (and/or threatens eternal torment for non-compliance).

BOTH positions are irrational.

Furthermore: let's say for the sake of argument that there exist entities which are so powerful (relative to we naked apes) that they may as well be called gods.

EVEN IF that's the case, and EVEN IF one of them had a hand in the propagation of life on our unimportant ball of rock orbiting an unremarkable star in a non-descript galaxy... it is absolutely clear that if they comport themselves like the genocidal capricious foreskin-loving jerk detailed in the Old Testament, then they should be OPPOSED.

That's straying into the territory of religion rather than belief, but by and large there is no 'belief' in supernatural creators that does not express itself in some form of requirement to thank, obey, worship or revere the creator/creative force (even if only by being a 'good custodian' or some other such falderol).

I don't care what by form the 'need to believe' expresses itself: religion, patriotism, nationalism, racism... all of them stem from the same withered rotten root: a failure to (in fact a desire NOT to) think rationally.

If there's some important bit of a "believer"'s existence that they don't understand, they just fob it off to some nonsense, content-free (in terms of explanatory power) fairy tale rather than applying the scientific method to work out what's what... and of course that has historically ALWAYS involved the requisite slaughter of anybody who **does** see the need to seek better explanations from within the physical universe.

And that's because just like the State, the hierarchies of all sufficiently-powerful organisations based solely on belief will eventually be populated by opportunistic megalomaniacal sociopaths who will turn ANY belief system into a depraved 'correct line' tyranny.

Lastly (for now): if there are such entities, and those entities interact with people from time to time, why have they NEVER given an accurate explanation of the physical world? EVERY creation myth is patently at odds with observable physical phenomena - wrong time scales (days, not billions of years), wrong physical characteristics (two firmaments, four pillars, turtles all the way down, etc), and significant omitted variables (no dinosaurs in Eden).

The famous trilemma attributed (perhaps wrongly) to Epicurus applies - but with additional requirement for "critical thinking": if there is a "god" who is omniscient, then every aspect of the behaviour of every entity in the universe - ALONG ITS ENTIRE TIMELINE - was known before creation, and therefore every choice we face has an outcome that is known, ex ante, to this "god" (this is the standard argument against free will).

If the (or a) god is NOT omniscient, then the **set of things the god does not know** is itself a set of unknown size. This precludes his ability to make infallible statements, and we're left with some humans who grovel at the feet of raw power... and others who refuse to.

(inb4 the "God knows one step ahead" argument... for any system of even moderate non-linearity, that still reduces the information set of the 'creator' to one that is insufficient for quasi-omnipotence)

Samarami's picture

In my attempt to ascertain if your comments were in response to my post, I suspect they are. If so you've made your point.

Thank you.