Christianity is, if nothing else, one of the most successful cultural phenomenons in all of human history, and still powerfully shapes the world. But in many ways, this is happening reactively in much of the secular West, where a major plank of the Enlightenment sought to use history to show that Christianity represented a steep decline in our history.
This anti-Christianity revisionism is basically political propaganda. As George Orwell pointed out so masterfully, you can change how people think if you can change their vocabulary. A term like "the Middle Ages" is meant to imply that a thousand years of European history was basically just an ellipses between antiquity and "the Renaissance," a loaded term if there ever was one, when it was only the "rediscovery" of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy — which had been suppressed by fundamentalist Christians — that enabled the start of a "new age" of "rationality" and "free inquiry." Even if we didn't pay much attention in history class, we're all familiar with this narrative, because it's everywhere. The ancient world, we are told, was tolerant, open-minded, and believed in philosophy and free inquiry, and the advent of Christianity ruined all of that.
You can find this narrative in countless works of popular culture. The latest salvo is a book by the historian Catherine Nixon whose title, The Darkening Age, speaks volumes. As a review in The New York Times puts it, Nixon casts the early Christian church as "a master of anti-intellectualism, iconoclasm, and mortal prejudice."
I hope I don't have to spell out the political advantages that this narrative can have today. Too bad it's wrong.
Take the ancients' supposed open-mindedness and pursuit of rational inquiry, and Christians' supposed anti-intellectualism. The fact of the matter is that in the ancient world educated Christians were just as enamored of scholarship and philosophy as anyone. The early Christian writers spoke of the spoliatio aegyptorum, which meant the use of concepts from pagan philosophy in Christian theology, which they did avidly and gratefully. Stories of early Christian mobs attacking pagan sites are used to portray fanatical Christianity crushing whatever opposed its "dogmas." But pagan mobs attacked Christians too. And let's remember that Christianity was illegal, and that these mobs were often incited and abetted by Roman officials as a convenient way to put down those unruly Christians.
What of scientific inquiry? The idea, again, that ancient society had any sort of commitment to open scientific inquiry and that the Christians did not is false. Most historians today admit that the Romans were pretty much stagnating technologically by the time Christianity came on the scene and that there was very little scientific progress in the intervening centuries. Scientific progress started accelerating in the Middle Ages. Building a cathedral would have been just as out of reach of the Roman Empire at is height as building a moon rocket.
And what of the supposed open-mindedness of pagans when it comes to sex, which contrasts with Christians' much-mocked prudishness? I think this one takes the cake. Did the pagans have orgies? You bet they did. But people typically forget to point out that in those merry occasions depicted in Roman art, the women would typically be slaves. Indeed, buying, selling, and renting slaves for sex was absolutely legal, and not even frowned upon — including that of children — and was therefore done on an industrial scale, in a society with permanently skewed sex ratios due to gender-selective infanticide.
Did Christians "impose their beliefs" when they got into power? Yes. For example, one of their first acts was to ban the use of slaves for sex. As a Christian, somehow, I don't feel shame about that. Did Christian mobs deface pagan statues and monuments? Absolutely, yes. In the ancient world, pagan religion represented an entire social order that sanctioned all kinds of terrible things. It's not hard to imagine why someone might want to deface a statue or two. I wish they hadn't, but it's not exactly monstrous that they did.
Remember that early Christianity did an awful lot of good, too. It created the first organized welfare system in all of human history, enabling the poorest and most destitute in Roman society to lead lives with dignity. Christians paid widows pensions, in a society where unmarried women had no rights and widows (of which there were many) were forced to remarry or face destitution. Other notable innovations of the early Christian church included the first schools (for children whose families could not afford private tutors) and the first hospitals (for those who could not afford doctors). They had to build all these things because they believed in serving the poor and pagans did not.
Christianity was indeed a rebellion against a lot that the ancient world stood for, in particular paganism, which suffused through the social order. Society was dominated by the idea that the entire cosmos was essentially a celestial hierarchy, ruled by fate, with the hierarchy of gods, also bound by fate, up top, and free male citizens somewhere in the middle, and everyone else below. And that any violence, any cruelty, in the service of this order, or by those higher up against those lower down, was basically fine.
Did Christianity "destroy the ancient world", as the Times review of Nixey's book has it? My first thought is "not enough." Sadly, Christianity in its early centuries did not destroy cruelty or evil, which would continue to haunt it throughout its history, as we all well know, but instead only the belief, which lay at the heart of pagan philosophy and religion, that cruelty and evil is right and proper. I, for one, don't have a problem with that.