While those of us who are atheists are inclined to be skeptical of religious claims, I submit that it is also important, for the sake of intellectual honesty, to shine that same light of skepticism on arguments and statements put forth by atheists about religion that themselves are ignorant and wrong.
Over the years, one of the claims I have seen repeatedly parroted by fellow atheists about Christianity is that it caused the Roman Empire to fall and was thus responsible for the Dark Ages. But is this really true?
On the surface it would seem so. The Roman Empire achieved the height of its power and territorial extent under pagan emperors during the better part of the 2nd century CE, when Christians formed a largely insignificant minority. Flash forward to the 4th century, and the increase in the numbers of Christians and the increasingly official status of Christianity as the state religion seems to go hand in hand with the decline of the empire. Important events that mark this decline are the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Emperor Valens was killed in battle against the Goths, and the sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths. 66 years later, the Empire came to an end in the West, and as the popular story goes, Western Europe remained mired in ignorance, superstition and backwardness for centuries thereafter.
One popular site among atheists that espouses this view is Jesus Never Existed, which declares that “The Church expropriated the resources – both human and material – which might have defended Roman civilization. While an indolent army of clerics lived on the state, the impoverished legions degenerated into a peasant militia.” The picture painted by the site is one of a Western Europe in which Christianity turned the populace into a collection of ignorant retards, a sort of Idiocracy for the Middle Ages. Take a closer look though, and we see that this is not the case at all.
Jesus Never Existed undermines its own case by admitting that “[t]he empire had almost collapsed during the 3rd century because of military rebellions” during what is called by historians “The Crisis of the Third Century.” From the Wikpedia entry: “By late 274, the Roman Empire was reunited into a single entity, and the frontier troops were back in place. More than a century passed before Rome again lost military ascendancy over its external enemies. However, dozens of formerly thriving cities, especially in the Western Empire, had been ruined, their populations dispersed, and with the breakdown of the economic system, could not be rebuilt.” In other words, the Empire had suffered a near breakdown that had nothing to do with Christianity.
But if one wants to insist that the end of the Western Roman Empire is the fault of Christianity, then that same person has to explain why the Eastern Roman Empire also did not collapse in the 5th century. The Eastern half of the Empire had a larger Christian population than the Western half and for a longer period of time. While paganism had declined greatly in the West by the early 5th century, its influence must have still been strong enough that Augustine felt compelled to write The City of God in part as a rebuke to pagan claims that the sack of Rome in 410 was a punishment for abandoning the pagan gods.
The Eastern Empire did have two important things in its favor. It had a larger population than the Western Empire and it was also wealthier. During the 4th century, rough population estimates have some 22 million people in the Western Empire and about 34 million in the Eastern Empire. The East also had a greater number of cities with large populations.
The Eastern Empire experienced greater military pressure than the Western Empire during the late Empire period without collapsing, even though the catastrophic defeat at Adrianople in 378 took place in the Eastern Empire and the Gothic invaders for a time formed a state within a state in Eastern territory. In the mid-fifth century, Attila the Hun repeatedly ravaged the Balkans, and at one point camped outside of Constantinople itself, before turning his attention to the West. Furthermore, the Eastern Empire had to face a threat that the West did not, for it shared its frontiers with the Persian Sassanid Empire, which was the only other superpower in the region. The Eastern Empire and the Sassanids sparred frequently throughout the 6th century, culminating into a decades long war that raged from the late 6th into the early decades of the 7th century.
Therefore, at least from a military standpoint, it is absurd to blame the rise of Christianity for the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, unless one wants to seriously argue that the emperor Valens would have defeated the Goths at Adrianople in 378 if he were a pagan. However, numerous pagan Roman emperors had been defeated and/or killed in battle against barbarian invaders and Persian armies prior to Adrianople. Valens lost at Adrianople because of bad decisions that had nothing to do with his or his army’s religious beliefs.
If one wants to blame Christianity for the collapse of the Western Empire, then shouldn’t equal credit be given to Christianity for the success of the Eastern Emperor Justinian’s campaigns to recover significant portions of the former Western Empire? Likewise, do we blame Christianity for the defeats suffered by the Eastern Empire at the hands of the invading Arab Muslim armies a century later?
The spread of Christianity did not cause the Roman Empire to “fall”, contrary to the notion held by many critics of the religion. Rather, the growth of the religion can be seen as a symptom of the empire’s decline as the empire’s inhabitants sought spiritual refuge in a world that had, to them, turned upside down in the wake of civil wars, barbarian invasions and a breakdown of the social order.