Ancient Athens, at the height of its power, commanded an empire of millions, covering most of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nominally, they were the foremost city of an alliance, but in practice, they dominated and extracted tribute from settlements in the Cyclades, Ionia on the west coast of Asia Minor, Italy, Sicily, Cyprus, and various points on the north coast of Africa. They even had a couple of colonies in Spain. This whole maritime empire was held together by the trireme, a 120-foot warship alternately propelled by sails or three banks of rowers, with a vicious battering ram on its tip. I’ve mentioned the trireme before, in my Darkened Ages post. It was a mighty weapon, but it had its limitations; it was strictly a coastal vessel, which had to make landfall every night to restock with food and water. Also, very expensive. At its aforementioned height, Athens could only build three or four triremes per year. Usually this was done by selecting one of the city’s richest citizens for the “honor” of funding it, in the form of a charitable endowment called a liturgy (lit. “work for the people”; also an apt term for our religious service, but one wonders exactly how the term got transferred!).
Anyway, suppose you were to go to one of Athens’s busiest shipyards and tell them that, at some point in the past, a man and his three sons, possibly assisted by their wives, had built a ship three times the length of a trireme, and far wider–a boat the size of a modern American football field. That these men had then loaded down said ship with massive amounts of heavy cargo–live animals, and plenty of fodder–and kept it afloat through forty days of nonstop storm conditions, plus an indeterminate period of calm afterwards.
They would laugh in your face. Because the feat described is, quite frankly, impossible.
You could try your luck further inland, but then you would have to convince the herding types that a large number of animals could spend forty days crammed together, with no fresh food or room to exercise, in a totally unventilated space, urinating and defecating all the while, and not die off in large numbers. The bottom deck would be a deathtrap, and every animal dead would just add to the toxic miasma. This is all assuming they could get giraffes and elephants into a watertight, roofed vessel with ten-foot decks in the first place.
More educated persons would also question the animals-from-all-over-the-earth aspect, because while their exact geography was not up to snuff, they were well aware that the world is huge. Eratosthenes worked out its circumference to within fifty miles of the actual value three or four centuries before Christ. And they knew that many exotic animals lived at the far fringes, because the Romans were forever sending expeditions to the middle of nowhere for weird critters to kill in the arena.
And yet early Christians were able to make converts everywhere, all along the Mediterranean basin, despite strong opposition from all manner of vested interests: the Roman state, the entire pagan religious apparatus, various philosophical schools, competing cults, and people like fortunetellers and sorcerers whose livelihood depended on things the new religion called abominations. They can’t have lacked critics. Nor can this be a matter of people ignoring inconvenient facts out of a desperate desire to believe, or in the face of theocratic pressure to conform; the religion was an illegal, underground movement with no temporal power, and most of the converts were gentiles whose previous exposure to Judaic beliefs was minimal.
We have the same problem today, but assume it’s new, because as I’ve said before, we assume our ancestors were idiots. They were not. In spite of every atheist who claims religion leans on ignorance like a crutch, plenty of educated and intelligent people signed on to new beliefs with their eyes open and their minds awake. There were undoubtedly parts of the new faith they struggled with, bits that didn’t make sense or disagreed with their own experience, but they accepted that struggle, if not outright embraced it. And yes, there were some who weren’t so educated. I’m told there’s a great bit in Augustine, where he bemoans the stupidity of Genesis literalists who make the faith look bad . . .
Skip forward a thousand years and change. This week’s Economist has an article on the growth of religion in China. Christianity is growing faster there than just about anywhere else on earth. Buddhism is booming, too, and even traditional (i.e., preposterously unscientific) Chinese beliefs. The Party’s been fighting all of them for decades, and losing. Not just against rural bumpkins, either; the growth of religion is equally fierce among urban college grads, if not fiercer. Now faith is even starting to invade the Party itself. They’ve basically given up the battle, at this point.
If only those Communists had properly introduced them to atheist materialism! People simply can’t be that irrational! Or can they?