Pavlovs Gods

New Dawn #95

New Dawn #95

The persecution of the ancient Christians by the Roman Empire ended 16 centuries ago, but its influence lingers on. Even today, many wealthy and powerful Americans Christians (who should know better) continue to see themselves as members of an oppressed minority.

Consider televangelist Pat Robertson’s famous complaint that “liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians” exactly what “Nazi Germany did to the Jews”:

It’s no different. It is the same thing. It is happening all over again. It is the Democratic Congress, the liberal-based media and the homosexuals who want to destroy the Christians. Wholesale abuse and discrimination and the worst bigotry directed toward any group in America today. More terrible than anything suffered by any minority in history. [1]

But is being made fun of really the same as genocide? In a country where 90% of the population defines itself as Christian, millionaire political candidates like Robertson are hardly in danger of being sent to concentration camps; if anything, they are probably more likely to be bullies themselves (many gays and some journalists might agree)!

Martyr See, Martyr Do

Robertson’s persecution complex may have no basis in present-day reality, but its historical roots are deep and gore-drenched. Two millennia ago, Christians were routinely set on fire and put to the sword as casually as you I might light a cigarette.

The Christian response to imperial oppression might have been coherent if Christianity had been a monolithic movement, but it wasn’t. Instead it was a seething Petri dish comprised of dozens of different beliefs systems, all competing for influence against a backdrop of state violence.

For reasons which we shall explore, a Christian faction called the “Orthodox” movement not only survived but flourished under persecution, eventually merging with the Holy Roman Empire and turning the apparatus of the imperial military against rival Christian groups.

Chief among the targets of the ascendant Orthodox faction were the Gnostic Christians, secretive mystics who had stridently opposed persecution and martyrdom all along. In short, the Gnostics refused to play the political power game and were rewarded with extermination.

Fast-forward 16 centuries. Most Christians today attribute the sudden disappearance of the Gnostic schools to flaws inherent in the Gnostic worldview. We are told that the Gnostics were privy to forbidden mysteries; that they “deserved to lose” [2] because their teachings were “exclusive, elitist” and (worst of all) “esoteric.” [3]

Read between the lines of the Gnostic scriptures, however, and an amazing, alternate history stands revealed.

The Gnostics stood aloof from history because not because they were cowards but because they were wise. Even though they knew that they would lose their chance to gain power in the short run, they got to keep something even more important – their souls.

Theological Lycanthropy

The Gnostics, you see, had learned a terrible secret, a secret so shattering that the Church – once in power – would go to any lengths to conceal it.

As the centuries passed and Christianity grew in influence, the Gnostics discovered – to their horror – that Orthodox Christians who had participated in persecution (first as victims, later a victimizers) were being traumatized and conditioned by the Romans to become animalistic killers themselves.

Seeking political influence they had traded free will and rational thought for the blind, reactive consciousness of beasts.

As conscientious objectors to the savage world of Roman politics, the Gnostic had good reason to notice this cultural shift – they were usually on the receiving end of it:

“… we were hated and persecuted, not only by the pagans, but also by [Orthodox Christians who act] like dumb animals… O unseeing ones, why did you not know the mystery rightly?” [4]

The search for the key to this mystery – the mystery of persecution – will lead us on a bizarre and bloody journey marked by cannibalism, blood sacrifice and reincarnation. We will arrive at a dismal charnel house filled with wrenching questions, questions which cry out to be answered with an urgency surpassing the most wild grief:

How could the Orthodox Christians endure unbelievable torments only to seize the reigns of power and inflict torments themselves? What is the dark secret that leads victims to become bullies, that propagates brutality by changing the past and making human beings act like blind, dumb animals, endless repeating vicious crimes and terrible deeds? Why can’t bullies see themselves?

Perhaps it is by looking at how some of the groups in this great historical tragedy did see themselves (and by extension, each other) that we may find the answers to some of these painful paradoxes.

Prolonged Persecution : A Short History

The persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire lasted from 64 A.D., when Nero took power, to 313 A.D. when the Emperor Constantine passed his “Edict of Toleration”. Over a period of two hundred and fifty years almost two thousand Christians died for the faith – an average of eight Christians martyrs a year. [5]

Though sporadic and uneven, persecution was often quite brutal; some emperors tolerated Christians uneasily, while others hounded them mercilessly, punishing them with fines, second-class status, flogging, burning, beheading, crucifixion, and death in the arena.

Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers

Imperial motivations for the persecution of the Christians were twofold. First, most Christians refused to pray for the Roman emperor or make offerings to the Roman gods. For this refusal they were seen as subversive “atheists” bent on undermining the political health of the Roman state. Second, Christians often met secretly at night, called each other “brother” and “sister” as they bestowed the “kiss of peace,” and were supposed to eat Jesus’ “flesh” and “blood.” These latter practices led to widespread rumors of incest, nocturnal orgies, cannibalism and other obscene practices:

“This abominable congregation [the Christians] should be rooted out… a religion of lust and fornication. They reverence the head of an ass… some say that the objects of their worship include a man who suffered death as a criminal, as well as the wretched wood of his cross; these are fitting altars for such depraved people, and they worship what they deserve… Also, during initiations they slay and dismember an infant and drink its blood… ” [6]

The belief that underground groups of evildoers conspire to worship strange gods, kill children and drink blood is called the “blood libel”.

Originally launched at Christians by the Romans during times of civil crisis (grain shortages, floods, fires), the blood libel was revived by the Catholic Church for deployment against the Jews a thousand years later, fueling anti-Semitic riots all over medieval Europe. [7]

Onolatry is Ass-Worship

The belief that Christians practiced ass-worship (or “onolatry”) also goes back to the very beginning of Christianity, and is based on a similar misunderstanding – a confusion of Iao, a Hebrew name for God, with Yao, the Coptic word for donkey. [8] It is probably for this reason that the earliest known image of the crucifixion (a first century graffito from the Roman city of Palatine) depicts Christ with the head of an ass.

Nasty Nero

When the Emperor Nero took office, most people looked at Christianity with a mixture of hostility and suspicion; Roman historian Soetonius calls Christianity a “new and mischievous religious belief,” and notes with approval that Nero had begun punishing believers as a public nuisance. [9]

Christian life in Rome took a turn for the worse when a disastrous fire threatened to destroy the capital and Nero fell under suspicion of arson. The emperor soon found the perfect scapegoat – who better to blame than those sinister cultists, the Christians?

“… to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace…” [10]

Nero had “vast numbers” of Christians arrested, convicted, and put to death; like the demented ringmaster of some infernal circus, he even provided his own fairgrounds:

“…ridicule accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs, or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed, were burned to serve as torches by night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle…” [11]

In fact, so vigorous was Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome that it may have earned him a place in Christian scripture, immortalized as the lion-mouthed “Beast” of Revelations. [12]

666, the Number of the Beast

If Nero was really the “Beast,” he certainly deserved the title. Most Roman emperors were ceremonially deified, but Nero actually seemed to believe himself a god of some sort, dressing up in animal skins and subjecting helpless prisoners to grueling tests of sexual and psychological endurance:

“Nero practiced every kind of obscenity, and after defiling almost every part of his body finally invented a novel game: he was released from a cage dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes. After working up sufficient excitement by this means, he was dispatched – shall we say? – by his freedman Doryphorus. Doryphorus now married him…and on the wedding night he imitated the screams and moans of a girl being deflowered. According to my informants he was convinced that nobody could remain chaste or pure in any part of his body, but that most people concealed their secret vices; hence, if anyone confessed to obscene practices, Nero forgave him all his other crimes.” [13]

Nero’s outrageous activities bear a strong resemblance to the traditional rites of indigenous witchdoctors but did they have some sort of magical purpose?

“Shamans, or medicine-men, in prehistoric times as today, customarily dressed themselves in an animal skin, taking on the animal’s power to fortify their magic, and there were special totem ceremonials in which the whole tribe took part, mimicking the animals with grunts, howls or roars.” [14]

The historical record doesn’t point to any Christians thus mistreated, but given Nero’s appetite for ritualistic role-playing it seems likely some were. We can even recognize the first, tentative emergence of what would eventually become an important Roman Catholic ritual, the confession – a sacrament which remains associated with accusations of sexual abuse even today:

“When Phil Saviano was a young boy and went to confession at St. Dennis Church in the tiny town of East Douglas, he’d whisper his transgressions through a screen to the Rev. David Holley.

He’d lied to his mother, he would say, or he yelled at a boy in school. “And you know the rest,” he always finished.

The rest, Saviano said, were the sex acts the priest forced the 11-year-old to perform…” [15]

Vatican records show that priestly pedophiles have been misusing the spiritual authority of their offices since at least the fourth century [16], so perhaps Nero’s bizarre brand of sadistic shamanism was more influential than is generally recognized (more on this later).

Bureaucratic Biogotry

Where the early persecutions were irrational and absurd, later emperors favored a formal, bureaucratic approach. These were motivated, not by the rumor-panics which had so inflamed the Roman citizens of Nero’s time, but by patriotism, piety, and a desire for political stability.

As previously noted, many Christians refused to pray for the emperors or make offerings to the Roman gods. While the Romans never cared what their citizens actually believed, they did expect them to acknowledge the divine foundations of the Empire and the Christian refusal to do so presented an unacceptable challenge to the political status quo.

Actions taken by the emperor Trajan (117-125 AD) are typical of the imperial response to Christianity in the post-Neronic era. Christians were “not to be sought out,” Trajan ordered, but when they were “accused and convicted” they had to be executed. Anyone who denied being a Christian and lit some incense to the Roman gods would be pardoned and released, “however suspicious his past conduct may be.” [17]

Persecution varied in intensity and scope in the centuries which followed, but the ordinary Christians (i.e., non-clergy) caught up in it were usually given a choice: they could pretend to worship the emperor and preserve their lives, or they could stand up for their beliefs and punished as enemies of the state.

Martyrdom Mania

From the first century onward, criminals were brought to Rome from throughout the empire to be slaughtered in public. Large, costly and bloody mass executions were timed to coincide with the emperor’s lunch hour; senators and aristocrats were beheaded, while lower-class criminals (i.e., slaves and Christians) were crucified or thrown to the beasts. Some emperors singled Christians out for special humiliation, forcing them to run laps around the arena with insulting signs on their backs as starving wild animals were released to attack them. [18]

Clash of the Titans

Gory in the extreme, public executions in ancient Rome could also be spectacular dramas. Many were even based on famous themes from Roman mythology!

In one notorious incident, the Emperor Nero had a condemned woman stuffed into a wooden cow and then raped by a bull in a re-enactment of the myth of the Minotaur. A century later, the Emperor Commodus gathered together vast numbers of crippled convicts and forced them to wear serpent-shaped shin-guards. Armed with sponges cut to resemble boulders, the unfortunate “Titans” were clubbed to death by the Emperor in a re-enactment of Zeus’ battle with mythical giants. [19]

The Christian Stress Test

The impact of these horrific events on the Christian psyche can scarcely be overstated; even those whose lives were eventually spared endured betrayals and deprivations almost beyond our capacity to imagine:

“Prisoners were subjected to violence or the threat of violence. Torture, or the threat of it, created constant stress. That stress was heightened by isolation. Not only were the prisoners isolated from old friends and values, they were frequently moved from one place to another. given little sleep and a poor diet. their captors. ridiculed their captives’ beliefs.”  [20]

Two Christianities

While ancient Christianity was very diverse, two prominent factions were especially competitive – two parallel movements with very different beliefs about God, man and the nature of the universe. The values implied by their contrasting worldviews in turn informed how many Christians responded to the threat of persecution.

The first major strain of Christianity was called “Orthodoxy,” a dogmatic mass movement whose members valued hierarchy, suffering and obedience. These Christians held that Jesus’ death had been a sacrifice to the Hebrew creator deity Yahweh. By obediently shedding His blood on the cross, Jesus won forgiveness for the descendants of Adam and Eve.

Orthodoxy spread faster as persecution spread, in large part because the Church had promised that martyrs who “imitated Christ” by confessing their faith to the Roman authorities would be raised from the grave at the end of time.

“It is clear that no one can terrify or subdue us who believe in Jesus Christ, throughout the whole world. For it is clear that though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to the wild beasts, in chains, in fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession…” [21]

Many Orthodox Christians were eager to be publicly slaughtered, eventually coming to believe that this won them a direct ticket to Heaven:

“Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become pure bread of Christ… Let there come upon me fire, and the cross, and struggle with wild beasts, cutting and tearing apart, racking of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body… may I but attain to Jesus Christ!” [22]

In the Orthodox view, Jesus’ death served as an example to follow: The more Christians sacrificed themselves for the cause, the greater Yahweh’s pleasure and the faster their beliefs would spread. Or, as influential Church father Tertullian boasted to the Romans: “The more you mow us down, the more we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” [23]

Gnostic Christianity

The second strain of Christianity to achieve widespread influence was Gnosticism, a loosely knit movement of spiritual anarchists who valued secrecy, scholarship and individual freedom. These Christians held that Christ had only appeared to suffer and die on the cross.

In this view (called “docetism”), Christ was just visiting our world from a higher dimension. At death, He shed his biological vehicle like a butterfly breaking out of its cocoon and continued His teachings from the spiritual plane.

Closely related to docetism was the idea of the “Demiurge,” or “half-maker,” a bumbling fallen angel who built the Earth as a sort of prison. {josquote}The Gnostics identified the Demiurge with Yahweh, the wrathful creator god of the Old Testament. According to Gnostic legend, this “blind idiot god” roams the afterworld with seven animal-headed angels called “archons” looking for souls to devour and digest.

As a result of these beliefs, Gnostics were reluctant to confront Roman authority figures and risk imprisonment or worse. Why feed the machinery of death when Jesus Himself hadn’t suffered at all?

Some Gnostics tried to warn their Orthodox brethren against public professions of belief, comparing Roman magistrates to agents of the Demiurge:

“…when they (i.e., orthodox Christians) are “perfected” with a martyr’s death, this is the thought that they have within them: “If we deliver ourselves over to death for the sake of the Name we will be saved.” These matters are not settled in this way… they have delivered themselves to the Authorities.” [24]

From the Gnostic perspective, there was almost no difference between the god of the Old Testament and the depraved Roman emperors – both were predatory impostors who claimed divine status while treating their followers like food:

“God is a man-eater. For this reason men are sacrificed to him. Before men were sacrificed animals were being sacrificed, since those to whom they were sacrificed were not gods.” [25]

March of the Archons

If Yahweh and his angels weren’t “gods,” then what were they? Gnostic myth calls these malign spiritual beings “Authorities” or “Rulers” – terrestrial spirits with bestial faces who keep the souls of the ignorant trapped in the cycle of death and rebirth:

“There are seven angels, who stand on both sides of the soul set free from the body; and there are other angels of light who are called Archontics. the [leader] of the Archontics is the accursed god of the [Old Testament], who makes the rain and thunder.

Of the seven archontic demons, the first [six take the forms of various pests and predators] and the seventh, that of an ass named Thaphabaoth or Onoel. Some persons return to the archontic forms so that they become lions or bulls or serpents or eagles or bears or dogs.” [26]

The Gnostics posited a mechanism for this horrific metamorphosis, likening the afterworld to an eerie laboratory where the “parasitic appendages” of “alien spirits” create “illusions” in the “rational mind,” bestowing upon it the drives and desires of “a wolf, an ape, a lion, [or] a goat.” [27]

These souls return to the world to live again, human still, but somehow changed. As one Gnostic texts warns: “There are many animals in the world which are in human form.” [28]

The Three Brains

How can animals exist “in human form”? According to the “triune brain” model proposed by Dr. Paul MacClean, the human brain is made up of three separate “biological computers” which have evolved over time to work together. [29]

  1. The outer layer of the brain is the neocortex or “rational brain,” responsible for abstract thinking, language and planning for the future. All primates possess a neocortex, but only in humans is it so convoluted and so large in proportion to the rest of the brain.
  2. The next layer down is the “limbic system or “animal brain,” responsible for emotions, sexuality, smell and the “fight or flight” reaction. We share this structure with our warm-blooded cousins in the tree of life: lions, bulls, bears, dogs, etc.
  3. Beneath these lie the oldest brain of all, the primitive reptilian brain, or “R complex,” which corresponds to the brains of cold-blooded vertebrates such as eagles and serpents. This part of the human brain is very ancient, consisting of little more than a stem, and controls heartbeat, breathing, territoriality and aggression.

The Animal Brain and Persecution

While the Gnostics couldn’t possibly have understood the complex mechanisms by which the animal brain exerts its influence over higher cognitive functions, they do seem to have intuitively grasped its role in the regulation of psychic functions related to trauma, stress and memory.

This intuitive knowledge was incorporated by the Gnostics into a series of extremely psychologically sophisticated myths, myths which seem to show how the deep-seated habits of the animal brain may have informed the Christian response to persecution. Of these “habits,” four are especially relevant:

  1. Amnesia & Disassociation
  2. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  3. False Memories
  4. Pavlovian Conditioning

Amnesia and Disassociation

Psychologists tell us that when people are subjected to events that couple extreme fear and terror with social betrayal (e.g., prison rape, torture, religious persecution), images of trauma lodge themselves in the animal brain.

If the trauma is severe enough, the brain may “protect” itself by introducing symptoms of amnesia and disassociation (victim experiences sensations of leaving the body). In other words, trauma can actually inflict wounds so deep that victims are robbed of memory, identity, and even physicality.

As a result of such involuntary distancing devices, Christians who had been tortured would have had an extremely difficult time articulating their experiences. Instead, descriptions of their ordeals would have emerged gradually and symbolically as jokes, dreams and even myths – which may also explain the prevalence of these same themes (i.e., amnesia and disassociation) in many Gnostic accounts of the afterworld:

“After the soul leaves the body, she is handed over to the authorities who have come into being through the first ruler. They bind her with chains, throw her into prison, and abuse her, until finally she emerges from forgetfulness…” [30]

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Because the animal brain is preverbal it processes traumatic stress directly through the body (a process known as “somatization”). When the subject later encounter cues associated with the original trauma, the animal brain will “hijack” the higher thinking center and begin sending signals (e.g., fear, anger) directly to the autonomic nervous system, causing the hyper-aroused victim to “relive” its emotional impact – often without fully understanding why.

“Ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger flashbacks or intrusive images. A flashback may make the person lose touch with reality and reenact the event for a period of seconds or hours or, very rarely, days. A person having a flashback, which can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again.” [31]

For an example of this phenomenon, consider the Vietnam vet who shakes uncontrollably when he hears a car backfire, or the rape victim who becomes claustrophobic whenever she smells certain colognes.

In a very similar way, the anxious, hostile environment of ancient Rome would have been an especially fertile breeding ground for flashbacks and other PTSD-related disorders among the persecuted Christians.

Could this be why so many Gnostic teachers considered the waking nightmare of the traumatic flashback to be the default state of consciousness for most people?

“It is as if they were fast asleep and found themselves a prey to troubled dreams. Either they are involved in inflicting blows, or they themselves receive bruises. Either they are falling from high places [or]. it is as if certain people were trying to kill them, even though there is no one pursuing them…” [32]

False (Recovered) Memories

Disorienting episodes of “Post-traumatic stress disorder” are common to veterans, rape victims, and prisoners, but what about alien abductees?

Harvard psychologist Richard McNally studied 10 people who claimed that they had been kidnapped and sexually abused by space aliens. He found that when they discussed their memories of the supposed UFO attacks, the “victims” perspired heavily and their heart rates accelerated. Three of the ten even displayed PTSD symptoms “at least as great” as those observed in the survivors of violent crimes and natural disasters!

In fact, since the animal brain doesn’t distinguish between feelings and facts, even a h2ly held delusion can produce all of the same symptoms of post-traumatic shock as memories of an actual event. Notes a contemporary therapist who use hypnotic regression to cure his patients of psychosomatic “injuries”:

“All I do is ask my client ‘What is your pain like?’ In the search for a fitting word to describe it, my client will focus on the embodied complex and find metaphors that swiftly begin to reveal the elements of a story. A pain may be strikingly specific… ‘My arm feels as though it’s being pulled, wrenched’… [a] client said. “What’s pulling it?” I asked. ‘Oh, help! It’s an animal, a lion. I’m in an arena. They are tearing me apart.’ In no time at all the grisly end of a Christian martyr was reenacted with the amazing release and relief of chronic aches and pains…” [33]

Such imaginary scenarios aren’t particularly difficult to suggest; observes Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine psychologist who has conducted over 20,000 “false memory” experiments:

“It is sensory details that people use to distinguish their memories. If you imbue the story with them, you’ll disrupt this memory process. It’s almost a recipe to get people to remember things that aren’t true.” [34]

Pavlovian Conditioning

Those who understand how memory, stress and trauma interact can also use this knowledge to deliberately manipulate their fellow human beings. The use of simple rituals and sensory stimuli to alter or influence perceptions and behavior is called “conditioning.”

Classical conditioning was “discovered” in 1903 when a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov found that dogs who had learned to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of food eventually began to drool as soon as the bell was rung whether food was delivered or not.

In a very similar way, our reflexes can be “conditioned” to associate drives located in the animal brain (fear, hunger, anger) with certain cues or stimuli (e.g., words, sounds, smells):

The most famous example of human fear conditioning [a type of classical conditioning – ed] is the case of Little Albert, an 11 month old infant used in John Watson and Rosalie Rayner’s 1920 study. Like most babies, Albert had a natural fear of extremely loud noises but no aversion to white rats. So Watson and Rayner presented him with a white rat, and when he reached to touch it, they struck a hammer against a steel bar just behind his head. After seven repetitions of seeing the rat and hearing the frightening noise, Albert burst into tears at the mere sight of the rat. [35]

The ancient Gnostics were keenly aware of the dangers posed by these sorts of animal-brain based control mechanisms, urging their initiates to turn “towards the human rather than the animal nature… You will take on the likeness of that part towards which you turn yourself.” [36]

Zecheriah : the Paralyzed Prophet

While each of these strange physiological metaphors probably deserves a thorough investigation in its own right, it would be beyond the scope of this article to do so. Instead we will conclude with an examination of one final Gnostic myth, a searing story that may well hold the key which will allow us to unlock the hidden truth of persecution once and for all.

This legend concerns an Old Testament prophet named “Zecheriah” who was “offering incense” in a temple (something the Romans were also keen to force Christians to do) when he suddenly saw a vision of a monstrous being with the face “of an ass.”

Terrified, Zecheriah rushed outside to warn his friends but was unable to make a sound (a condition known as alixthemia, also a common symptom of severe trauma and abuse):

“And when he went outside… and wanted to say, “Woe unto you! What are you worshiping?” the thing he had seen inside in the temple froze his mouth [with fear], so that he could not speak.” [37]

Angered and confused by Zechereiah’s silent paralysis, his friends stoned him to death and the Demiurge has ordered his priests to wear bells ever since:

“… the reason why the priest was commanded by the lawgiver himself to have bells…was so that whenever he entered to perform priestly duties, the being who was worshiped might hear the noise and hide, lest the imaginary nature of his form be disclosed.” [37]

Manchurian Christians

So what did Zecheriah (Hebrew: “Memory of the Lord”) actually see (or remember) in the depths of the “temple”? Who was this mysterious being with the head of a donkey, strangling speech and hiding in shadows at the tone of a bell?

Recall that animal brain processes trauma by:

  • burying and distorting uncomfortable events
  • manipulating the instincts like a puppeteer
  • concealing its functions from conscious inspection

Could the story of Zechereiah have been intended as a heavily allegorized warning against some sort of Roman brainwashing experiment?

If such an interpretation seems a stretch, ask yourself: What if the brutal torments inflicted by some of the Roman emperors on their captives were neither random nor arbitrary, but carefully and deliberately chosen to achieve a specific effect?

As a point of comparison, we might consider modern media reports of “ritual abuse,” a controversial crime whereby underground associations of rich and powerful sadists are supposed to use fear, pain and extreme trauma to break down the minds of kidnapped children, programming them to respond to certain triggers (e.g., sounds, smells, word patterns, etc.):

“Since confinement and isolation is an effective method of psychological conditioning, children often report having been put in a closet or cage with a lion. In reality, these children might have been placed with a large lion-like dog – or perhaps a human dressed in a lion costume. When this experience is combined with the use of sound effects and hallucinogens, the experience seems very real to a child. This deceptive method ensures absolute terror and compliance.” [38]

In like manner, it may be that the Roman strategy was not to exterminate Christianity, but to “house-break,” train or domesticate it. Perhaps the incense and bell in our story are cues (or triggers) and the ass in the temple represents the conditioned animal brain itself.

Stockholm Syndrome

But why would the Roman emperors want to train and condition a group – the Christians – they had been trying to drive underground for almost 300 years?

All along, the Roman emperors had wanted nothing more than to promote social order, and by the end of the 3rd century it had become increasingly obvious they would not be able to control the spread of Christianity by military force alone.

Add to this the fact that the Orthodox Church had become wealthy and well-organized while the Empire was suffering what could charitably be termed a lack of direction and the choice becomes clear: no longer would the Roman emperors persecute Orthodox Christians, but instead, they would pursue a corporate merger.

As this strange alliance unfolded over the course of the 4th century, Orthodox leaders came to look upon the Romans as their protectors or even saviors; like battered wives or abused children, they quickly absorbed and internalized the values of their former oppressors.

The Empire Strikes Back

Consider the case of the emperor Constantine, a cynical political player who converted to Orthodoxy in 312 A.D after winning a military victory over his rival Maxentius. Constantine later claimed that he had seen a vision of the Christian cross in the sky, accompanied by these words: “In this sign, conquer.”

Of course, that’s just the official story of Constantine’s conversion – rumors hint at darker motives. Many pagans claimed that Constantine’s conversion had been motivated by the guilt he experienced after murdering several close relatives – including his own son!

Seeking absolution, Constantine was rebuffed by pagan philosophers, but eventually met with Orthodox bishops who offered to baptize and forgive him on the spot. How could they refuse? Their own god, too, was a narcissistic despot who had engineered the death of his only son, Jesus; surely it would be churlish to reject such a powerful patron on similar grounds! [39]

Constantinian Confusion

Constantine repaid the favor by plunging headfirst into Christian internal politics, appointing clergy, adjudicating doctrinal disputes and even convening a special legislative committee charged with determining which scriptures to include in the Bible!

Within decades, most of the artifacts of Roman paganism – incenses, bells, and statues – had been incorporated and fused into a new hybrid religion called the “Holy Roman Catholic Church” with Constantine as its de facto leader.

Given the traumatic history of early Christianity, we should not be surprised that Roman Christians responded poorly to the sudden influx of symbols and rituals they had previously associated with the compulsory worship of Roman deities – all the suppressed rage, trauma, fear and anger built up over so many generations of legal abuse soon erupted with the force of a hurricane.

Provoked beyond endurance by inassimilable contradictions and incomprehensibly rapid political shifts, Roman Christians began to manifest symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder normally seen only in torture victims and political prisoners: irritability, poor impulse control, paranoia, and even violent outbursts:

“[When] Constantine ordered the replacement of [an] orthodox [official named] Paul. a crowd of Paul’s supporters resisted the soldiery, and three thousand persons lost their lives. Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in these two years ([A.D.] 342-3) than by all the persecutions of Christians by pagans in the history of Rome.” [40]

Before long the Orthodox Christians of Rome were behaving like miniature Roman emperors themselves, banning rival Christian groups, beating heretics to death in mobs and burning down the library at Alexandria.

Don’t Feed the Christians!

By the time the Emperor Julian ascended to the throne, Orthodox Christians had acquired such a taste for unpredictable and vicious behavior that entire Roman town were endangered; noted the Emperor Julian (himself a pagan): “Many whole communities of heretics have actually been butchered [by Christians]… and many… villages were sacked and destroyed.” [41]

Julian tried to bring the Christian problem back under control by expanding their religious freedoms, but to no avail:

“He ordered the priests of the different Christian sects [to follow their] own beliefs without hindrance or fear. He thought that freedom to argue . would simply deepen their differences, so that he would never be faced by a common, united people. He found from experience that no wild beasts are as hostile to men, as Christians are to each other”! [42]

Theodosian Tyranny

Christianity’s bestial transformation came to an appalling conclusion when the emperor Theodosius made Orthodox Christianity the state religion in 380 A.D. Gnostic Christianity was declared a heresy, its scriptures burned, its followers forbidden to meet in public, its teachers imprisoned and its teachings banned.

There is no little irony in the fact that many of Theodosius’ laws were almost identical to laws that had once been employed against the Orthodox Christians themselves; with their own persecution a distant memory, Orthodox Christians could now fully identify with the aggressor in the form of the Imperial state.

Protected by Roman law, Orthodox Christians were set free to turn all of the same propagandistic fantasies with which they had once been smeared against rival spiritualities – and contemporary accounts hint that conditioning may even have played a role here too.

We recall that “classical conditioning” requires the association of a reflex or instinct with a trigger or cue, but a more sophisticated procedure called “operant” conditioning supplements such training with rewards and punishments. While the degree to which this may have been the result of a deliberate program remains open to question, what little evidence we do have is compelling:

“If they [the Christians] hear of a place with something worth raping away, they immediately claim that someone is making sacrifices there and committing abominations, and pay the place a visit – you can see them scurrying there, these guardians of good order (for that is what they call themselves)… [If] you call them brigands, they are outraged… [The Christians] show pride in their exploits… they believe they deserve rewards!” [43]

From underdogs to guard dogs, Orthodox Christians had indeed undergone a horrifying shift.

Conclusion

So what are we to make of Orthodox Christianity’s strange and violent metamorphosis into a persecuting force to rival even Nero’s organization in viciousness?

Even if we admit that the ancient Christians might have been accidentally (and not deliberately) programmed to attack and kill their rivals by the Romans, we are still left with a rather bleak conclusion:

Because trauma and violence adrenalize the human nervous system, the victims of violent events are especially vulnerable to brainwashing and manipulation. Authoritarian religions and governments are well aware of this phenomenon and so have a vested interest in keeping their own citizens and followers traumatized and afraid.

Consider two of the most iconic images of 2004 : Mel Gibson’s bloody retelling of the Orthodox crucifixion story (“The Passion”) and the hooded, crucified P.O.W. seen in photos released from the Abu Gharib prison scandal.

Given their traumatic history we might expect that Christians would be sympathetic to the tortured POW in the photograph, but this would be to misunderstand the fear and pain-based learning style of the animal brain. In fact, American Christians were unsympathetic to the anonymous Iraqi P.O.W. in that famous photograph not in spite of but because of the resemblance to the death pose adopted by their own savior.

The animal brain and its lizard counterpart are so wholly fixated on ritual, survival, aggressions and revenge that traumatic images stripped from context can be used to justify the punishment of almost any victim, whether or not they had anything to do with the original “crime” – for it is not the actors themselves who persist, but the psychic wounds which accompany certain events.

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4 Comments

  1. This was really damn good.

    I enjoyed this more than anything else I read this week. You went deep and came back with some good food for thought…this was an excellent piece.

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