Paganism has a wider influence on our lives than we might care to think
Even the word 'Christian' was coined by Pagans.
The first followers of Christ borrowed Jewish terms to describe themselves, such as 'believers' and 'disciples' (but in Hebrew, of course). Two of the early missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, went to work spreading the Gospel in the Pagan metropolis of Antioch, where the locals derisively called them 'Christians'.2
Paul and Barnabas would certainly not dispute that they were indeed Christans and would have been quite pleased that the Romans made it the official name.
Many of today's customs used in the Church can be traced back to the 4th century, when Constantine began the process of converting the official Pagan religion of the Roman Empire to Christianity.
Note the word 'converting'. It's a lot easier, quicker and cheaper to change the sign on the door than to change the whole building. Christianity was modelled on many customs that were familiar and acceptable to Jews and Pagans at that time, when religion and belief were intertwined with superstition.
This contrasts with today's norm – at least in economically advanced countries – where people now have greater access to education and science, and base their religious belief on reasoning rather than superstition. (See also Isn't religion simply glorified superstition?)
Don't misunderstand the use of the word 'converting; the birth of Christianity was not merely a recycle job, yet there is little doubt that early Christians adopted well-known customs to develop their religion and doctrine. To suggest otherwise is to say that the seeds sown by God for earlier faiths was a mistake.
By definition, God does not make mistakes.
Over-emphasizing the relevance and importance of religious symbols can lead to conflict. Consider the tensions raised in France during 2004/5, following the banning conspicuous religious symbols that didn't blend into secular state schools3. The 'headscarf issue' resulted in just a handful of school expulsions but more damagingly generated ill-feeling, divided the country and achieved nothing positive.4
This was exacerbated in July 2010 by the French government Assembly overwhelmingly approving a bill banning burqas and niqabs in any public place. Syria also bans the niqab at universities, headscarves are banned at Turkish universities and several other European and Middle Eastern countries are considering introducing laws that make walking around naked a less punishable offence than walking around fully clothed.
Setting the law is, of course, the right of governments, and as with many laws, people get upset when they feel restrictions offend their particular cultural traditions. But far from being an example of a 'Clash of Civilizations', this could be more accurately described as an ignorance of civilizations5, where too much emphasis has been placed on religious symbols, to the point that they are used as excuses for prejudicial, negative (or positive) discrimination.
To quote Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997), "where there are few species, like at the South Pole, the ecosystem is fragile. The greater the number of species; the stronger the ecosystem. And the same applies to culture: Monoculture is fragile. If cultural diversity6 is lost, the human species will become extinct."
And if we look into the origin of many symbols, we see they often have a shaky basis for being considered religious at all. The veil is just one example.
The Origin of the Symbols
In his 1878 Essay on the Development of the Christian Doctrine John H. Newman wrote:
"The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps, and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water; asylums; holy days and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields, sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the east, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison7, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church."
It is interesting to note that John Newman was a Catholic prelate – this was not yet more Catholic-bashing by a Protestant. Perhaps many customs and symbols came into Christianity via Judaism, rather than directly from Paganism. Nevertheless, let's consider what John Newman meant by 'origin':
The word 'holy' may have been derived from the Old English hālig, which means 'wholeness', or the Old High German hulis, meaning 'holly', which was considered a sacred plant to Pagans.
From the sprinkling of blood on the altar.
Our way of measuring time (hours, minutes and seconds) is based on an early Babylonian system, and our modern calendar is based on Pagan practices, astrology and mythology.
But whether we are 'religious' or not, we do not think of the calendar as a religious thing; it's merely a means to measure time, using things called days and months. If someone believes a particular date (Easter, for example) has some mystical power, it is the value that person has placed on it. The same goes for the Bible, the cross, and all the other items adopted by Christians that have a Pagan origin.
Sometimes called the 'Jesus Fish' because of its link to the ancient Greek Ichthys. Currently vogue, the curious fish symbol is not as widely recognised as the cross. It means nothing to most non-Christians and so is largely known only 'in-house'.
The fish is an ancient symbol used by other religions, such as Buddhism and Paganism. Our fish symbol page shows how Christians have hooked this symbol.
The cross is a remarkable shape. Usually just two intersecting lines, the symbol is used in mathematics, it stops people parking their cars at the road side, and stops people at international border checkpoints. It's a kiss at the bottom of a love letter and it's a vote for a politician. A death cross in financial terms means a situation where long-term and short-term averages converge. The cross is used extensively in black magic and in innumerable religions.
The Cross - an Emblem of Christianity explains how this simplest of symbols has evolved from its Pagan roots. We explain how it has caused as much grief as it has comforted. A torture instrument, a threat to entire civilizations, and yet used as jewelry and sometimes worshipped. It has associations with illegal psychedelic drugs, BSE and bird flu, Prince Harry, hatred and despair, love, valour and heroism, World War I, World War II, the Crusades, the invasion of Iraq (again), mythology, Satan, and salvation.
Vestments and fancy garb do not make the wearer a priest.
They have always been little more than a symbol of status; a tradition passed down through civilization, and added to along the way. Look at the ecclesiastical finery sported by high churches – those that emphasize formality and resist modernisation.
Some feel such distinction in the church is inappropriate8 but the tradition continues.
Church buildings and Pagan temples
Early Christians worshipped in whatever building was suitable and available: an existing temple, a hillside, river bank, or even somebody's home.9 The early church was dynamic and lively; the actual building design and architecture was unimportant. But like many other things in life, man's urge to enhance and improve things led to more elaborate, 'holy' structures.
Drawing on his knowledge and experience with Pagan worship, it would feel natural for a church building to have a sacred altar on which to place sacrifices. And even though teaching and believing that 'God is all around us', from the early days it was felt necessary and natural to have a central focal point to which everyone would turn and bow. For everyone to show reverence to this focal point would in itself, be a way for the congregation to pool and synergise their worship. The focal point would be to the east, or elevated, believing that heaven was up there, somewhere.
Isn't it strange that Church spires around the world point upwards? Is heaven really up there?
And if so, where exactly?
The point is, a church spire in the northern hemisphere points in a different direction to a church spire in the southern hemisphere. And a church spire on the equator just whizzes 360 degrees at 1,670 kilometres per hour with the earth's rotation every day.10
Of course it's symbolic, but the symbolism reflects the Pagan belief that heaven is physically up there where it's light. Once again we find Christians following the ancients by looking up at the Sun god11, yet they know that heaven is in a completely different dimension.
Early church design was usually in the form of an oblong, a cross or elliptical, like a ship or fish. It was hardly ever circular, since that was the shape favoured by heathen religions12. Nevertheless, the need for a special place for worship was recognised and the design, with some differences, was the osmosis of Pagan structures. Those same basic layouts, well-intentioned though spiritually baseless, remain today.
Icon worship - idolatry and iconolatry
Even today, there are Crusading 'Christians' who kill people, sincerely believing they are doing God's work whilst ignoring a basic Commandment "Thou shalt not kill"13. Consequently it is not surprising that most Christians ignore another: "Thou shalt not make to thee any graven image"14. (Jews and Muslims have similar laws about murder and idolatry.)
This prohibition of idolatry is not usually interpreted literally: the pope hired Michelangelo, Eastern Orthodox churches display icons, Catholic churches contain statues, Protestant churches hang drawings, and they all have one or more crosses.
Since pre-Christian times we have wanted to see our god. But we cannot physically see into a different dimension, so we erect effigies of what we think our god looks like. Often, however, these items become idols in their own right and people start to worship them.15
An idol can be something coveted, like a statue, a cross, a Bible, a stained glass window. It can be a deep green, ecological perspective of the earth; not far removed from Nature Worship. An idol can overtake God in the importance we place on it. Consider the millions of pilgrims, who for decades have touched the spiritual grotto at Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. And since many have physically and spiritually benefitted from the visit, it's hardly surprising that people revere the place.
"Our spiritual peril is the new idolatry - the worship of the God of Bigness and the God of Speed." (Mcilyar H. Lichliter)
The shaven head sported by monks and clerics of certain religious orders for hundreds of years has a simple origin.
Both Egyptians and Romans shaved the head of a slave as a mark of subservience. To proclaim themselves slaves of Christ, early monks began to shave their heads. And although the practice is thinning out (the Catholic Church abolished the practice in 1972) it is still used by some orthodox followers.
(The circular crown of thorns monastic tonsure differs from the transverse tonsure – shaving of the hair in front of a line drawn over the top of the head from ear to ear – as worn by the ancient Celtic Druids.)
Hair is a curious part of the body. With the exception of ear lobes and lunula16, hair is perhaps the only part of the body that has completely lost its original function. No longer is it a head protector, but simply a fashion accessory. Lose control of your hairstyle, and you lose a considerable amount of your desired image. Hence the uniform haircut used today in prisons, boot camps, and anywhere else where a master's authority over a slave is to be indicated.
For the Christian Church, the tonsure has been both a way to control ringworm that was rife in the monks' poor living conditions and also an indication of subservience.
Bachelorhood and celibacy prevented any legitimate heirs to church property, and like celibacy, the tonsure was instituted by the Church as a means to wield power over its priests. Abstinence from drink and tobacco has been used for similar authoritative reasons, although in these more enlightened times, we recognise that such abstinence has proved to be an incredibly wise state.
One other reason was to comply with the old-fashioned idea that women should be veiled in a church (with long hair or a cloth) and men should expose their heads17.
Bridegrooms: Don't worry; you are not required to have a tonsure before your wedding! (See Isa. 61:10)
Vow of Silence
Trappist Monks, famous for their contemplative silence, follow the Scriptures18 so that the voice of the world might be shut out and the voice of God might be heard. But Christian monks didn't invent the idea.
Pythagoreans from around 530 B.C. took the practice of silence seriously; breaking the vow of silence carried the death penalty. And the priestess-guardians of the sacred Roman fire, the Vestal Virgins, lived in silence for years at a time.
Vidar, son of Odin19 was the Norse god of silence and there was a minor Roman goddess of silence called Muta, from which we get the word 'mute'.
Songs in the form of chants, poems, and later as hymns, cantatas, anthems, oratorios or motets, are useful mnemonic methods. Singing makes us feel hearty and that's why we sing; whether it's a chant or any other form. Singing helps us feel young and energetic, even if we're not very proficient. Singing helps relieve tension. Singing is therapeutic. Communal singing turns an audience into participants.
Chanting has never been restricted to Christianity - Pagans used it as part of their worship too. Like the word Glory, chants are not even restricted to religion. They are used by squads of jogging soldiers, team-sports players in training, supporters at a match, cheerleaders (such as the Japanese ouendan), supporters at a political convention, children reciting nursery rhymes and the alphabet song.
One particular type of Christian hymn is called a carol, which is sung at Christmas time; another custom with Pagan roots:
Christmas is one of the biggest events on the Christian calendar, yet the customs we associate with the event are steeped in Paganism.
Prayer posture and words
A prayer is a collection of words spoken aloud or silently, to our god. Man has prayed to the nature gods for millennia; it was certainly not a new invention for Christianity. And it was natural, like all the things listed above, for Christians to adopt this form of communication with their God.
Even Amen, the very last word in the Bible20, most probably has Pagan roots. Yet Christians, Jews and Muslims invariably end their prayers, Scripture readings, and hymns by saying Amen as an expression of concurrence.
We started this page by saying that Paganism has had a wide influence on Christianity and have given examples of rites and regalia that support this assertion. And this raises the question: So what? Christians should be cautious about condemning practices as Pagan, just because of their probable origins.
Indeed, Christians believe that God created all things, including rituals and designs. Some of these we find aesthetically pleasing, such as hymn singing, wedding rings, icons, etc. Their introduction through ancient religious practices are all part of God's plan to prefigure; to prepare humanity for the great sacrifice of Jesus. (See Meaning of the Cross)