|Impossible Faith Non-Parallel #1: Mithraism|
At the suggestion of a reader I have decided to counterpoint our previous piece, The Impossible Faith, with an article that compares Christianity to another ancient religion that got started at about the same time, Mithraism. A lack of data often means we can't make a comparison in some cases, but we will do what we can. This article should only be read in light of and with knowledge of The Impossible Faith.
Factor #1 -- Who Would Buy One Crucified?
Despite the claims of certain mythicists, there is of course no evidence of Mithra being crucified. There is nothing associated at all with Mithra to suggest that he would have been associated with shame or ignominy. His actions of slaying the bull were looked upon as heroic and useful.
Factor #2 -- Neither Here Nor There: Or, A Man from Galilee??
The geography factor isn't much of a problem here. Mithra was a divine being, not a human. He was a god from the Persian area, and the people of the east were enemies of the Romans, but this disadvantage is countered by a Roman fascination with mysterious oriental ideas which would not benefit Christianity preaching its tangible human from Galilee.
Factor #3 -- Getting Physical! The Wrong "Resurrection"
Obviously this is a non-factor as resurrection -- either of Mithra and his followers -- was not taught, except perhaps hundreds of years after Christianity became prominent -- and note as well that it obviously didn't help Mithraism survive.
Factor #4 -- What's New? What's Not Good
Mithraism in its Roman incarnation was a hybrid of an ancient Persian god combined with (if Ulansey is correct) a connection to a more modern, mighty stellar phenomenon. It would be able to pass this test on that basis, though it may not have had to because of the connection to the procession of the equinoxes, and may have appealed to the historical occurrence of the equinoxes as justification for antiquity.
But we also do not have enough knowledge about Mithraic doctrine to say whether it taught anything else new or whether it would be affected by this factor, and the appeal of oriental mysticism and similarities to other ancient mystery rites was a plus in counter.
Factor #5 -- Don't Demand Behavior
Mithraism apparently demanded some ethics, but there is no indication that it went as far as demanding ethical behavior as Judaism and Christianity did, and nothing beyond what an average Greco-Roman person could accept. Note however that Mithraism was most popular among military types who were already disciplined on other grounds.
Factor #6 -- Tolerance is a Virtue
We have no information suggesting that Mithraism was exclusivist or did not permit adherents to take part in other religious rites.
Factor #7 -- Stepping Into History
This is obviously a non-issue since Mithraism did not rely on any historical person or event beyond the procession of the equinoxes.
Factor #8 -- Do Martyrs Matter, and More?
We have no indication that followers of Mithra were persecuted or suffered shame for their beliefs. Indeed it is unlikely that anyone would defy members of the military who could arrange for an arrest. In a sense Mithraism had an advantage of members with power cards.
Factor #9 -- Human vs. Divine: Never the Twain Shall Meet!
This is not a problem for Mithraism, since it had no incarnation. Mithra stayed in the sky.
Factor #10 -- No Class!
Mithraism apparently remained an exclusive club, excluding women, and the military factor would have helped as well, allowing it to have a sort of fraternal and mutually supportive overlap.
Factor #12 -- Don't Rely on Bumpkins, Either!
Neither of these are relevant, since Mithraic belief was not reliant on witnessing of anything, other than the procession.
Factor #13 -- You Can't Keep a Secret!
This factor is only a problem if your religion is not accepted, and Mithraism apparently was accepted.
Factor #14 -- An Ignorant Deity??
This is also a non-factor; Mithra showed no apparent weakness and did exactly what a god ought to have done.
Factor #15 -- A Prophet Without Honor
As noted above, Mithra did nothing that would be thought of as dishonorable.
Mithraism is probably an easy example to counter with here, but this is meant to serve as an experimental template and I would suppose Skeptics might want to suggest other movements. Know that I will expect the Skeptic to work out the details -- not just pick a religious movement ("What about X?") and expect me to do the legwork.
It should also be borne in mind that no comparison is likely to be valid unless it is made within the context of a collectivist, honor-concerned society like ancient Rome or modern Japan. Examples from individualist America or the West cannot be included, or must be justified as parallels.