Some atheists like to claim that Christianity is simply an outgrowth of paganism—or that Christianity is, if you like, just warmed-up paganism.
Furthermore, they say, since paganism is obviously nothing but a silly collection of myths and superstition, Christianity must also be nothing more than a tissue of esoteric rituals combined with myths and superstitious practices.
Do similarities between pagan religions and Christianity disprove the Christian claims?
To understand the relationship between pagan religions and Christianity it’s important to understand the Catholic idea of the ‘development of doctrine.’ This was first set out by fifth-century theologian Vincent of Lerins. In this excerpt from his writings he explains how truth develops within the Church.
This is based in Christ’s statements that he has other things that he cannot tell his disciples now, and his promise that the Holy Spirit would come and would ‘lead them into all truth’. Therefore, truth is something which unfolds gradually over time. The truth doesn’t change, but humanity’s understanding of the truth grows and multiplies. So Vincent of Lerins writes:
Is there to be no development of religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly, there is to be development and on the largest scale… But it must truly be development of the faith, not alteration of the faith. Development means that each thing expands to be itself, while alteration means that a thing is changed from one thing into another.
The understanding, knowledge and wisdom of one and all, of individuals as well as of the whole Church, ought then to make great and vigorous progress with the passing of the ages and the centuries, but only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import. The religion of souls should follow the law of development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of the years, they always remain what they were. There is a great difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young. Though the condition and appearance of one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person…
Whatever develops at a later age was already present in seminal form; there is nothing new in old age that was not already latent in childhood. There is no doubt, then, that the legitimate and correct rule of development, the established and wonderful order of growth, is this: in older people the fullness of years always brings to completion those members and forms that the wisdom of the Creator fashioned beforehand in their earlier years.
If, however, the human form were to turn into some shape that did not belong to its own nature, or even if something were added to the sum of its members or subtracted from it, the whole body would necessarily perish or become grotesque or at least be enfeebled.
In the same way, the doctrine of the Christian religion should properly follow these laws of development, that is, by becoming firmer over the years, more ample in the course of time, more exalted as it advances in age.
We see this process in the development of doctrine in the Christian Church, but this principle of the development of truth is also evident in the development of religion throughout history. The most primitive form of religion is animism—in which people sense the divine presence within the forces of nature, and they consider the divine presence to be manifested in the natural objects. So they worship the spirits of trees or rivers, or they worship the sun god or the moon goddess. This is not completely wrong. It is instead an understandable first step. It is the infant stage of religious consciousness.
It is true that the Divine Presence is evident in the works of creation. In a sense it is also true that the Divine Presence is present within the works of creation. However, in recognizing the immanence of God in creation the animist sometimes misses the transcendence of God.
Animism develops into polytheism, in which the many manifestations of the Divine Presence become individual gods themselves. This is a sort of offshoot of animism. The gods and goddesses take on a life of their own, but these demigods are rarely mistaken for the one God. Behind and beneath most forms of polytheism is an implicit (if not conscious) monotheism.
Things are coming into focus. The reality of multiple god-like beings is recognized and affirmed. What these beings are and what they do and what their relationship to the one Divine Being are is still out of focus. Nevertheless, there is continuity with animism. The religious idea is growing and developing and maturing.
In the ancient Middle East, in Arabian tribes and in the neo-Babylonian empire polytheism began to develop. The idea grew that there was one God above, and greater than, all the other gods. This is called “emergent montheism” and is a development from animism and polytheism.
The monotheism of the Hebrews is a startling development, and a fascinating next step. Suddenly, in the midst of the polytheistic paganism of the ancient Middle East, the Hebrew God reveals himself as the one God who is over all and in all and who created all. He is the great ‘I AM’—‘JAHWEH,’ the One Who Is, the Source of Being Itself. This monotheism, along with the idea of the one God being a lawgiver and the one who enters into a covenant with his people sealed with a blood sacrifice, is a novel step forward in human religious consciousness. However, it is not discontinuous. It follows the principles of proper development and growth—there is a new maturity and a new consciousness developing.
That this one God, the Lawgiver and Covenant-Maker, then comes into human history in human form is the next great leap forward. The way had been prepared by the pagan myths of the Divine Man—the resurrected one, the Son of a Virgin Mother, a Son of God. Just as there had been whisperings and hints of monotheism within animism, so there were whisperings and hints of the Incarnation of God within the various pagan mythologies and mysteries. The Catholic therefore sees and recognizes the connections between the ancient pagan religions and Christianity, but understands them not as disproving the Christian claims, but on the contrary, as validating them.
The pagan religions were the testing ground. They were the early stages of what came naturally from them. The continuity therefore with earlier religious forms shows first Judaism, and then Christianity as being growth in maturity, and finally a full flowering of the religious consciousness and understanding.
So, did Christianity develop from paganism? Yes and no. It developed from paganism as a flower grows from a seed. The growth and development process from animism through paganism to Christianity can be traced logically. That this growth and flowering continues within the history and development of the Catholic faith follows logically.