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Before the institution of Christianity and the evolution of Buddhism into Mahayana Buddhism, people never felt quite so strongly about religion. Suddenly, people feel ready to die for it and die trying to convert others, or even persecute others because of a different belief. What changed? This question mainly relates to the time period in the question, but I have a feeling that the answer will lend some insights into the present situation in the Middle East.

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This might fall more under psychology than history. I'm not sure that pre-christians weren't willing to die for their religion - Mesoamerica is full of examples. We have (biased) records of the druids that indicate that they were willing to kill for their religion, and Sleipnir has extra legs because the Norse were happy to kill for theirs. The Roman wars against the Persians were all consecrated to Mars.... I just think your thesis is flawed. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 10 at 23:18
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Thank you for your participation, your questions, and your civil enthusiasm. Sometimes we forget to thank the people who play by the rules. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 10 at 23:19
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Does this even have to be just about religion? What about things like the French Revolution(s), where people were willing to die for a change in government types? Or the leadup to the Meiji Restoration, with the fighting between forces for the Emperor and the Shogunate? The person generally considered the first Christian martyr is Stephen, who would have died in the first century AD/CE. –  Clockwork-Muse Aug 10 at 23:25
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This could be a cultural history / history of ideas question that is very answerable. I'm just not sure about the thesis in the question. –  Samuel Russell Aug 11 at 0:13
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Late antiquity had well defined monotheistic religions other than Christianity which had immediately proven their willingness to die for a cause (Judaism). Treating pre-late-antiquity annihilations and displacements as dying for religion is also viable. Maybe you're actually asking "When did Religion become separate from Society in General."? –  Samuel Russell Aug 11 at 1:53

2 Answers 2

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Religion is a great cultural differentiator. People have been killing each other for many millenia, with a preference for targeting other people who belong to a distinct "culture", a rather loose term. From the outside, the god(s) people worship are quite easy to work out; if they are not the same as yours, then these people are "foreigners".

Historically, religion began to be a concept distinct from its host culture around 400 BC, at the time when true monotheism was invented. Before that period, there was no real difference, in the minds of people, between "your god is weaker than mine" and "your god does not exist"; early "monotheisms" such as Zoroastrianism and Mosaic Judaism were more properly defined as monolatrisms. The invention of the concept of monotheism came with the equally novel notion of your religion being something else than your ethnicity or culture; at that point, it became possible to die and kill for strictly religious reasons.

However, for persecutions to begin in earnest, it still required another ingredient: proselytism. In the Roman Empire, Jews were a troublesome component: conquest of Judea by Rome was not easy, and plagued by regular rebellions; but they were a people and their unrest was more political than religious. They did not try to expand their religion to other inhabitants of the Empire (especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD: Judaism then restructured itself around the concept of orthodoxy, which de facto excluded the previously active non-mainstream branches which did try a bit of proselytism).

When Christianism appeared, it added the new component of proselytism, not only among Jews but also for all other humans (seemingly impulsed by the newly converted Paul of Tarse, against the advice of James the Just). Due to the exclusive nature of Christian worship, this lead to tensions with the Roman power, then persecution; and since the Christians were not defined by anything else than their religion (they were otherwise indistinguishable Roman citizens or slaves), the persecution was, necessarily, of a religious nature. Compounding the effect was the promise of an afterlife, with bonus granted in case of death when bearing witness of the new religion: that's what is called martyrdom. There is no martyr for Apollo or Jupiter, because when you die in the name of such deities, well, you still die, and you get no specific after-death benefit for it. With Jesus, martyrdom scores a VIP seat.

To sum up, you may get religious persecutions when all of the following hold:

  • The concept of religion distinct from culture and ethnicity has emerged.
  • A proselyte religion is active, leading to followers who are not distinguishable in a cultural way from the non-followers.
  • Dying in the name of the religion grants benefits which make it worth.

In the Mediterranean area, these elements were all present with the advent of Christianism. You also find them in the case of Buddhism at the time of the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution (9th century AD in China).


In earlier times, people already felt strongly about religion; but no situation arose where the religion alone could possibly serve as justification for mass killing. For instance, during the Third Punic War, the alleged practice of human sacrifices by Carthaginian was a recurrent theme of Roman propaganda, and Romans found it abhorrent. However, since Carthage was a distinct polity from Rome, its destruction is not described as religious persecution, even though the cessation of the practice of human sacrifice was one of the goals of the endeavour. (Whether the practice was real in the first place is an orthogonal issue.)

From a conceptual point of view, people tend to define themselves relatively to some absolute notions which can be religion, ethnicity, social class... and will fight each other based on their respective stance with regards to these notions. Your feeling that people "did not fell strongly about religion" prior to Christian times may be an illusion due to the fact that religion had not previously achieved, by itself, the status of a war-fuelling absolute.

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Very good analysis, but I would point out that something similar also happened around 200 BCE. Hellenistic Greek culture was proselytized by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes onto the people of Judea. There was a division among them between those who wanted to adopt Greek culture and those who wanted to stay true to Judaism (your same culture/different religion paradigm). There were martyrs who were killed by the Syrian Greek leadership for refusing to sacrifice to Greek gods. This is still monotheism based as you described; I am just pushing the origin back by about 350 years. –  Mike Aug 11 at 5:52
    
+1 Really good explation. "Dying in the name of the religion grants benefits which make it worth." - Omg so many people are been screwed... –  N0ir Aug 11 at 20:17
    
I disagree with the contention that the continual Roman issues with the Jews was not religious in nature. There were massive revolts in Cyrene and Egypt in 115AD. Also there were often troubles between Jews and local Greeks resulting in violence in Alexandria in particular. –  Oldcat Aug 11 at 21:51

Christianity is a death cult - its central mystery is death, and transcendence over it. Thus, one can surmise that the proto-Christians felt that dying for their faith was part-and-parcel of the faith, and I imagine that to those who were interested in "suppressing" Christianity (probably the priests and other investees in the status quo state-sponsored religion-du-century) this was probably considered to be quite convenient. Can you imagine the conversation?

High priest: Have they been offered a chance to convert?
Guard:       Yes, oh most odious one!
High priest: And have they recanted their heretical views?
Guard:       Ummm...recanted, m'lord?
High priest: (Oh, gods, give me strength..!) Have they admitted they're wrong,
             and agreed to go back to worshipping the king and the gods...I mean,
             the *other* gods!
Guard:       Nope!
High priest: Nope?
Guard:       Yup!
High priest: Yup?
Guard:       Uh-huh!
High priest: WELL, WHICH IS IT - NOPE OR YUP?!?!?!?!?
Guard:       Ummm...sorry, m'lord, I'm a bit lost here. Could we start over?
High priest: Now, cut that out! Look, ARE THEY GOING TO WORSHIP THE KING
             AND THE (other) GODS?!?!?!?
Guard:       Umm...no, m'lord. Their priest said, and I quote, "We would rather
             die than worship false gods, for we know that Our Lord will welcome us
             to His side, and we shall receive our reward in Heaven!". Finis, finito,
             and end quote, most egregious lord, sir, bwana.
High priest: He said that?
Guard:       Certainly did, oh most escalated one.
High priest: Nice turn of phrase there, eh what?
Guard:       If you say so, most exaltedly high personage.
High priest: And that was all ad lib? Nothing prepared? He wasn't reading from
             stone tablets or anything, was he? Bit of a shame to throw someone 
             who can come up with a speech like that ad libitum, as it were, to
             the lions, eh?
Guard:       Lions are people too, m'lord...
High priest: Yes, I suppose you're right. (+sigh+) Very well - send in the
             Captain Of The Guard!
Captain:     CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD, REPORTING FOR DUTY, OH MOST EMBELLISHED ONE!
High priest: Thank you, captain. And if you'd be so kind, STOP SHOUTING!!!! I have
             a nasty headache...
Captain:     Sorry, your nastiness. Force o' 'abit - you know 'ow it is...
High priest: Quite so. Now, I have a bunch of Christians I want you to take care
             of for me.
Captain:     CHRISTIANS!!! Whoops, sorry - I mean, "Christians", m'lord?
High priest: Yes - deluded followers of some three-headed god that was killed and
             came back to life, or something of that nature. Obviously mad-men
             and heretics who must be put to death!
Captain:     Ah, death - well, I'm your man for that! How many of them are there,
             oh most odiferous one!
High priest: About twenty, I believe.
Captain:     Huh. And what're they armed with? Swords? Pikes? Bows? Arrows? Seige
             weapons? Ballistae? Mangonels? Whips? Chains? Spiked arm bands?
             Thigh-high leather boots, with high heels..? Please..? Oooh, I think
             I'm going to have to go and have a lie-down...
High priest: CAPTAIN! ATTEN-HUT!!!
Captain:     Oh! Sorry, sir - forgot meself there for a moment, Oi did...
High priest: Look, captain, the situation is simple - we have a group of heretical
             mad-men locked up down in the dungeons. I need you and a group of
             your men to take them down to the arena and throw them to the lions.
             These Christians are completely unarmed, and in fact **want** to die
             for the greater glory of their god!
Captain:     Wot? They **want** to die for their god?
High priest: In a nutshell - yes!
Captain:     Worl - I think we can haccomodate them, eh lads..?
Captain &    Hur-hur-hur-hur-hur..!
other guards

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