A meme I created last year has come under fire from the Christian apologists at an apologetic organization ironically called, Come Reason (http://comereason.org/). The offending meme is as follows:
Christianity did not become a major religion by the quality of its truth, but by the quantity of its violence.
Their primary objection centers around the false notion that violence played little to no part in the rise of their religion.
On their blog they state:
“The latest shrill to emerge is a meme from atheist Michael Sherlock and makes the claim “Christianity did not become a major religion by the quality of its truth, but by the quantity of its violence.” Really? I mean, really?? Is Sherlock such a poor detective of history that he can do no investigating at all? There are three areas where this meme goes horribly wrong, each of which is actually a feather in the cap of Christianity. Therefore I’d like to look at all three. I’ll begin with the first, Christianity’s growth during its first centuries.” 
The crux of their argument, for which they resurrect the very superstitious, credulous and venomous apologist, Tertullian, to bolster for them, is that:
Christianity in its formative years did grow during violent times. Unlike what the meme implies, though, the violence was against the Christians themselves. But perhaps such an elementary deduction has eluded Sherlock. Perhaps he had only trained his spyglass on the time after Christianity was established as a world religion.
Despite their erroneous claims, we have records that testify to early Christian Church officials and fathers, encouraging many of their followers to provoke the Roman authorities and submit themselves to the violence of voluntary martyrdom, in the oft times realized hope that they might be martyred in public spectacles and thereby increase the popularity of the early Church.
Take for example, the empty yet manipulative and provocative promises made within the following words of one of the most renowned apostolic fathers, Polycarp, who wrote:
All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God. For it becomes us who profess greater piety than others, to ascribe the authority over all things to God. And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?— who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them.
And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure; things “which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither have entered into the heart of man,” but were revealed by the Lord to them, inasmuch as they were no longer men, but had already become angels.
And so like lambs, a number of the more gullible Christians of the ante-Nicene period, were sent out amongst the wolves to be slaughtered for their leader’s ambitions, with the hope that the fires would be cool to them and that they, as willing martyrs for their unfounded and credulous faith, acting ‘imitatio Christi,’ would be afforded an opportunity to commune with Christ himself and attain a free-ticket into a non-existent heaven.
The contempt for such wanton and theatrical violent martyrdom was expressed by Marcus Aurelius. In Anthony R. Birley’s, ‘Marcus Aurelius: A Biography,’ we gain further insight into why Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher and defender of both the notion and practice of suicide, had such a problem with the Christian martyrs and also, we increase our understanding of the manipulation the early martyrs were subjected to.
Thus Marcus thinks of Christians as ‘lined up unarmed’ for death, as soldiers in battle array: but not as persons who had really made an individual reasoned choice – they were drilled, and trained to die…
This voluntary and deliberate martyrdom became such a problem that it not only led the Roman proconsul, Antoninus to exhort; “Unhappy men! If you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices,”but toward the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria spoke out against what we might call today, the jihadist practice of aggressive and voluntary martyrdom. On this issue, the esteemed Henry Chadwick reported:
Voluntary provocative martyrs were easily engendered by promises of celestial joy. In the 190s Clement of Alexandria deeply disapproved of aggressive voluntary martyrs. Their attitude seemed to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic defender of suicide, ‘theatricality’ in poor taste. Cyprian of Carthage under persecution in 250–8 also united idealized language about the martyr’s crown with express disapproval of voluntary self-destruction.
There is little doubt that voluntary martyrdom helped to jump-start Christianity by drawing large numbers of converts, who saw Christianity as a kind of rebellious, antiestablishment counter-culture, an answer to the overbearing rule of imperial Rome, especially in those lands that had been reluctantly annexed by the Roman Empire.
Referring once again to Henry Chadwick’s, ‘The Church in Ancient Society,’ we read:
From embodying a counter-culture to being seen as a mainly (not invariably) conservative social force was an extraordinary step. The number of martyrs did not need to be very large for their ‘witness’ to be public and ‘newsworthy’. Remarkably soon the Church had recruits in high society, and as early as the middle of the second century was dreaming of a day when the emperor himself would be converted.
Thus, in the ante-Nicene period, prior to its transformation into a dangerous and murderous religion, Christianity was but a violent suicide cult, the aim of which was to spread by way of violent theatrics aimed at inspiring onlookers with the needless spilling of the blood of innocent fools.
NOTE: (Please see that despite the personal attacks launched at me by this group of Christian apologists, I have returned none, for in the words of Plato, “Never mind if someone doth despise thee as a fool, and insult thee, if he hath a mind; let him strike thee, by Zeus, and do thou be of good cheer, and do not mind the insulting blow, for thou wilt never come to any harm in the practice of virtue.”)
- Philip Schaff. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Christian Ethereal Library. (1885).p. 66.
- Anthony R. Birley Marcus Aurelius: A Biography. Routledge. (2000). p. 264.
- Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 2.
William Hallhead. (1781). p. 361.
- Henry Chadwick. The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great. Oxford University Press. (2001). p. 67.
- Ibid. p.1.