You have probably noticed that we are no longer in the fourth century. In that century, the great rival of Christianity was paganism—the worship of the old gods, still worshipped by much of the population, a few of whom were powerful and well-heeled. Some scholars estimate that when Constantine declared himself on the side of the Christians early in that century, only 10% of the population were actually Christian. The rest (apart from a small slice of Jewish population) were pagan. Some of these pagans were wealthy, well-connected, and not planning to go anywhere. Obviously Constantine was taking a risk in “coming out” as a Christian. But the risk paid off.
It is often said that as soon as the Emperor Constantine declared himself on the side of the Christians, Christianity became the state religion. Real historians tell us this was not the case, and that most people in Constantine’s day, Christians included, expected Constantine’s Christian “thing” would end up being a flash in the pan, and that subsequent emperors would return to paganism (i.e. to the status quo) as they had done for years. The pagan declarations of Emperor Julian later in that century seemed to confirm this expectation. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.
As it turned out, Julian (known to later Christian history as “Julian the Apostate”) was the flash in the pan, and the future of the empire belonged to the Christians. But in the fourth century, paganism was the real rival to Christianity and its obvious alternative. The temples to the gods were everywhere. All education was based on pagan literature, with its stories of the gods’ exploits, and the gods celebrated in that literature were not merely figures in mythology, but real gods, able to save or destroy, and their temples and altars could be found in pretty much in every house. The Christians’ neighbours worshipped those gods, and considered that the Christians were impious and dangerous fools for not doing so. It is important to recognize that for Christians in the fourth century, the worship of the old gods was the faith of the majority. Most people on the block acknowledged those gods, and thought that public acknowledgement of them was what made the Empire safe.
We must remember this when we look at what we call “the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great” and find such petitions in the anaphora as “pacify the ragings of the pagans.” We also find phrases in that anaphora praising God for delivering us through Christ from “the delusions of idolatry.” This idea reappears in the prayer for the setting apart of catechumens in our baptismal service, when the priest prays, “remove far from him [the catechumen] his former delusion.” What is this “delusion?” The delusion was idolatry—the pagan religion which the catechumen formerly embraced, the religion of everybody else in fourth century society. What most of society considered as religion and piety, the Christians considered to be delusion, and those entering the Church were required liturgically to solemnly renounce the faith of society’s majority. No wonder pagans accused Christians of being “haters of humanity” and atheists. When the fourth century Christians prayed in their Liturgy that God would “pacify the ragings of the pagans,” they were taking a public stand against the majority of the world around them.
So, who are the pagans today? When we pray this Liturgy during Great Lent and on other occasions during the year and ask that God pacify and save us from the raging opposition of the pagans, who are who talking about? Clearly, not the worshippers of Zeus, Aphrodite, and Apollo, for no one now worships these gods. Today the majority of society worships other deities—those of money (“Mammon” in the Biblical terms), success, fame, and health. The majority around us now no longer worship the old gods of Rome and Greece. They are secularists, not pagans. The number of true pagans living today is infinitesimal: the so-called Wiccans, who claim to worship the goddess and the old deities scarcely count as true pagans. If one could resurrect an old pagan from the fourth century and ask his opinion of the Wiccans, I have no doubt he would renounce them as having no real pagan piety at all, and would opine that Wiccans worship not the old gods but rather themselves. No: the real alternative, the modern pagans, are not the Wiccans, but the secularists. Secularism, not paganism, is the true rival to contemporary Christianity. It is well that our Liturgy of Saint Basil should offer a petition against them. They are certainly raging against us. Those entering the Church through holy baptism need to recognize this and know which delusions they are renouncing.