Over at the Jolly Nihilist's blog, I got into a running argument a couple of months ago with a Christian commenter about Christianity. One of his odd arguments was that Christianity must be true because so many people in the world, perhaps a billion, are Christians. If Christianity was false, he reasoned, then someone would have pointed out its mistakes centuries ago and the religion would have died out. Apparently, he never heard of things like the Inquisition, the burnings of heretics and those accused of blasphemy and witchcraft, the extermination of the Cathars, and other policies that were not exactly conducive to a climate of free inquiry in Medieval Europe.
But my main counter-argument to this commenter was to explain an important factor that was responsible for Christianity to break out of its largely European confines* to become the worldwide religion that it is today.
As just about everyone knows, in 1492, the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus, in the service of Spain, set out to find a passage to China by sailing west across the Atlantic. Coming up short in his calculations of the circumference of the Earth, Columbus believed he could provide his patrons with a path to the riches of Asia that would bypass the hostile Muslim powers and the tremendous geographic expanse of Africa. But as we all know, rather than reaching China, Columbus stumbled upon something unexpected, the Americas. And these lands that made up the continents of North and South America were populated by tens of millions of people, many of whom belonged to sophisticated civilizations like the Maya, the Aztecs and the Incas. It was not long before Spanish conquistadors began to descend upon the Americas in search of gold and glory.
In relatively short order, the Spaniards were able to conquer the Aztec and Inca empires. While greatly outnumbered, the Spaniards had important advantages, which included horses, armor, steel weapons, and gun powder. But these factors alone, while important, could not decisively tip the balance in favor of the Spaniards due to the tremendous disparity in numbers between them and their native American enemies. The most devastating weapon in the Spaniards arsenal was one they did not realize they had brought with them - smallpox.
In his book "Guns, Germs, and Steel", Jared Diamond devotes a chapter to livestock and germs. Diamond points out that prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, there was an absence of "lethal crowd epidemics" in the New World. The main reason, he concludes, is that "Eurasian crowd diseases evolved out of Eurasian herd animals that became domesticated." The Americas, on the other hand, were lacking in domesticable animals. Thus, once native Americans became exposed to smallpox and other diseases transmitted to them by Europeans and the African slaves they brought with them, their lack of immunity decimated them.
Diamond cites several examples to demonstrate how catastrophic the spread of disease was to the native peoples of the Americas. Hispaniola, the first largely populated island colonized by the Spaniards and which today consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, saw a decline in its native population "from around 8 million, when Columbus arrived in A.D. 1492, to zero by 1535." In 1520, when the Aztecs were facing off against Hernan Cortes, smallpox "proceeded to kill nearly half [of them], including Emperor Cuitlahuac... By 1618, Mexico's initial population of 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million."
And the devastation was not limited to those unfortunate souls who came into direct contact with the Spaniards. Writes Diamond, "When Hernando de Soto became the first European conquistador to march through the southeastern United States, in 1540, he came across Indian town sites abandoned two years earlier because the inhabitants had died in epidemics. These epidemics had been transmitted from coastal Indians infected by Spaniards visiting the coast. The Spaniards' microbes spread to the interior in advance of the Spaniards themselves." This included the mighty Inca Empire, whose population was similarily stricken in advance of the arrival of Franciso Pizzaro in 1532.
Now, what does this have to do with the spread of Christianity? For starters, thanks to smallpox and other diseases, tens of millions of pagans died. For the fraction of the population that remained, it was not unreasonable for them to conclude that the religion of the Spaniards must be true, because the Spaniards seemed to be immune to the plague that killed off so many of their kin. A decimated population is much easier to conquer and convert.
While it is purely speculative, it is interesting to ponder how history might have turned out differently if you remove the disease factor from the collision between the Spaniards and the Aztec and Inca empires. The Spaniards undoubtedly would have required greater manpower to conquer and control the native populations. But one must remember that events do not happen in a vacuum. While the Spaniards had tremendous resources at their disposal, they would not have been able to bring them all to bear upon the peoples of the Americas. During the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks and their North African proxy states contested the Spaniards for mastery in the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, the rulers of Spain, the Hapsburgs, also controlled important domains in Central Europe and were frequently embroiled in wars on the European continent that taxed its manpower and resources. If the native Americans were not vulnerable to smallpox, might they have been able to fight the Spaniards to a standstill, leaving the latter only in control of some Caribbean islands and coastal settlements?
Now Christians who take their religion seriously will tell you that unless one accepts Jesus Christ as a personal lord and savior that person will not be able to achieve salvation in the afterlife. Christians will also respond to the argument about why God permits bad people to commit horrible atrocities by explaining the doctrine of free will. In short, God cannot be blamed for bad deeds perpetrated by evil people. Fair enough. But here's the thing. First, the Spaniards who sought to conquer the New World for Christ and King did not intentionally kill millions of native Americans with smallpox. Granted, like the native Americans, they must have looked upon this disease driven holocaust as divinely ordained, but it was not a deliberate act. Secondly, the Spaniards were serious about spreading their religion, Roman Catholicism. Millions of pagan native Americans were on the brink of learning about Jesus Christ, but they never heard the message because they died from diseases transmitted to them by the very messengers of the gospel of salvation. It is a tired, worn-out argument to ask why God permits evil in the world. But if belief in Jesus Christ is necessary in order to be saved, then why would God, this "intelligent designer", create a situation whereby the native Americans would be susceptible to diseases carried by the very people who were spreading the message of Christ?
Of course, I can already anticipate one counter-argument. Evangelicals will argue that Catholics are not true Christians. But without getting into the argument about what constitutes a true Christian, suffice it to say that the Spanish Catholics, whatever their flaws, were the instrument by which the message of Christ was being revealed to the peoples of the New World. Whatever Christian denomination a particular Christian belongs to today, that denomination ultimately has its roots in the Protestant Reformation when various groups of Christians detached itself from the authority of the Catholic Church. For centuries in the Christian West, the Catholic Church was Christianity.
The catastrophic death toll that smallpox inflicted on the native Americans also raises problems for Young Earth Creationists who believe, based on the Bible, that the Earth is less than six thousand years old. According to Genesis 1:25, God made "the livestock according to their kinds," meaning that when God made Adam, there were already animals that were available for domestication. Further on, in Genesis 4:2, we are told that "Abel kept flocks". According to a Biblical Literalist, the native Americans are descended from one of the many people who scattered after God confounds everyone's speech in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In order to believe that the Bible is literally true, a Literalist must accept that the ancestors of the native Americans had livestock. But if this were really the case, then it should be reasonable to believe that (1) the native Americans would have brought some livestock with them to the New World, and (2) they should not have been susceptible to diseases carried by the Spaniards, diseases of which the Spaniards were immune because thousands of years ago their ancestors had been exposed to pathogens transmitted to them from livestock.
Once one gets one's head out of the Bible and looks at the evidence, then it becomes clear why the native Americans did not have livestock and were so vulnerable to the diseases carried by the Spaniards such as smallpox. Archaeologists have dated the earliest human settlements in the Americas to approximately 11,000 B.C., during the waning of the last Ice Age. The domestication of animals in Eurasia did not begin until around 8,000 B.C., around the same time that the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent began to take up agriculture. Therefore, the available evidence clearly indicates that the Americas were colonized BEFORE the domestication of livestock and the adoption of farming in Eurasia. The native Americans were geographically and genetically isolated from the civilizations of Asia, Africa and Europe for over ten thousand years.
Thus, in summary, the spread of Christianity in the Americas is indebted to the deaths of millions of native Americans who perished because their ancestors migrated to the Western hemisphere thousands of years before the adoption of agriculture and the domestication of livestock in Eurasia and thousands of years before the Earth was supposed to have been created according to a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis.
* There were of course Christian communities in the Middle East, North Africa, Ethiopia, as well as scattered communities of Nestorian Christians in Central Asia. But with the exception of Ethiopia, Christian kingdoms were confined to Europe, Asia Minor, and the Caucuses.