Faith or Economy? Why Pagan Religions Lost Their Position in Europe
Even though there are hundreds of thousands of followers of pagan religions, the old beliefs haven't survived enough to be included in the group of the five major religions of the world. Officially, these religions are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Most of the globe is dominated by Christianity and Islam, but European cultural roots are called ''the Christian ones''. It is impossible to describe all the cases in one article, so the author has decided to focus on the European example. How did Christianity dominate the continent and reduce the importance of pre-Christian beliefs?
The Economy Is the Base of Everything
Civilizations were collapsing due to one of a few reasons. Sometimes it was connected with changes in the climate and environment, but usually it happened for political and economic reasons. Most of the great and impressive civilizations transformed into new ones due to the failure of major rulers which dictated the vision of society. In the case of the European civilization of the Roman Empire, the end began from the overwhelming needs of Roman Emperors, their vanity, and not caring about the needs of their people.
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The disaster started in Rome. The Roman Emperors cost the society of the empire more than people could stand. The differences between the elite and the lower classes of society became too much. The taxes put on people to fill the budget of the Emperor became too high, so many rich Romans started to leave the city. They migrated to the provinces, where the Emperor couldn't control them so much, and the taxes were lower.
Only the poorest citizens of the capital of the Empire had to stay, and they suffered due to the unsatisfying level of life. During those times, the students of the rising religious sect were teaching in the catacombs about their Lord Jesus and God, who was said to help all the poor and mistreated people.
Clandestine and secret Christian communities existed in the Pagan Rus' long before its final Christianization. First Christians in Kiev by Vasily Perov. ( Public Domain )
The Christian structure was well organized and could be given to people in a simple way. However, the new religion had to adapt lots of symbols of the ancient gods to become more familiar to the potential followers. The change of the domination of religion didn't start just like that, it was a long process, connected with many unpleasant events. But it also involved a change of organization of the territories influenced by the new religion. Moreover, Christianity adopted many buildings and symbols related to the power of the Roman Empire. According to Carlos Machado:
''The Roman senate was, by the late fifth century, a Christian institution. Roman aristocrats were not only devout followers of the teachings of the Church, but also actively engaged in its political and dailylife. It is interesting, in this sense, that the rebuilding of such an important space of the Curia was celebrated through the restoration of the statue of the pagan goddess Minerva.''
Mosaic of the Minerva of Peace in the Library of Congress. ( Public Domain )
During the first centuries of Christianity there were five “popes.” At that time “pope” meant “the bishop,” who was located in an important center of the cult. The most important ones were located in Alexandria, Rome, Aachen, Avignon, and Constantinople. With time, two of them stayed the most influential – the Roman and Alexandrian.
How to Get New Followers?
Humanity always follows what seems to give more stability. The new religion was full of promises about the equal rights of the people and of a good God who would protect them. Moreover, humans were not created to live separately, so as more people followed Christianity, others wanted to join too. Of course, many people were forced by fire and torture as well, but the truth is that several decided to secretly follow the old beliefs, but officially joined the new religion because it seemed to be a very beneficial decision.
According to many researchers, the Christianizing of Europe took longer than it's officially described. For example, the baptism of Poland took place in 966, but almost three centuries later, when the Teutonic Order arrived to these lands, they still had lots of people to convert.
Contemporary mural in Gniezno commemorating the baptism of Poland. ( Public Domain )
It is impossible to find out when people left their old religions. The question actually is - did they really do it? European symbolism is still full of ancient aspects; many stories are related to the so-called pagan beliefs. Until at least the 8th century AD, young women near the Mediterranean Sea liked to have a coin with Alexander the Great during their wedding day. Although they were Christians, they still believed that the ancient king would bring happiness to their marriages.
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Two Sides of the Same Story
History is usually not black and white. Topics like converting to a new religion are always very sensitive themes which are difficult to describe. However, it seems that pagan followers began supporting the new religion not only because of cruel acts, but also because they wanted to find stability. With the growing power of the Christian priests, many priests of pagan beliefs joined the new church. Others were usually killed, like for example Druid or Egyptian priests from the Philae temple.
Panoramic view at the Philae Temple, at its current location on Agilkia Island. ( Public Domain )
The less people could speak and teach about the old religions, the more people started to follow the new faith. Along with destruction, Christianity conversely brought to Europeans a hope for stability, a new quality of rulers, and faith in forgotten values.
Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Christianity also gave people faith that the new God would protect them from the vanity of kings, emperors, and all that seemed to be unfair for the lowest classes of society. However, this was only the beginning of what has become 2,000 years of history of the “new” religion.
Top image: Introduction of Christianity in Poland, by Jan Matejko, 1888–89, National Museum, Warsaw. ( Public Domain )
Religion as Antiquarianism: Pagan dedications in late antique Rome (2009) by Carlos Machado, available at:
Presentation on Gaia Hypothesis: Science or a Neo-Pagan Religion? By M. Rubaiat Islam, available at:
Beyond Categorisation. "Pagan monotheism" and the study of ancient religion, Common Knowledge by Peter Van Nuffelen, available at:
Could paganism make a comeback? It's not as crazy as it sounds by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, available at: