Many Christians claim that ancient people were not that superstitious compared to our own age. They do this in order to help bolster the purportedly historical claims of their faith. The longest chapter in my book takes the Bible at face value and asks what it says about the beliefs of ancient people. That is, if the Bible is true, and it says ancient people were superstitious, then they were, period.
What I found was that Biblical people were superstitious to the core. Now someone might argue that there were literate and skeptical people in the ancient world, and there most certainly were. But the people who were reached by the message of Christianity, the masses for the most part, can be overwhelmingly described as superstitious.
Here's just one example of many many I could offer:
Acts 19:23-41: The Riot in Ephesus.
23 “About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the craftsmen. 25 He called them together, along with the workmen in related trades, and said: “Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
While it's probably an exaggeration to say that this goddess "is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world," certainly most all people in and around Ephesus did. There were undoubtedly many people throughout the known world who did also.
Who is Artemis, anyway? From Microsoft Encarta: “Artemis, in Greek mythology, is one of the principal goddesses, counterpart of the Roman goddess Diana. She was the daughter of the god Zeus and Leto and the twin sister of the god Apollo. She was chief hunter to the gods and goddess of hunting and of wild animals, especially bears. Artemis was also the goddess of childbirth, of nature, and of the harvest. As the moon goddess, she was sometimes identified with the goddesses Selene and Hecate.”
“Although traditionally the friend and protector of youth, especially young women, Artemis prevented the Greeks from sailing to Troy during the Trojan War until they sacrificed a maiden to her. According to some accounts, just before the sacrifice, she rescued the victim, Iphigenia. Like Apollo, Artemis was armed with a bow and arrows, which she often used to punish mortals who angered her. In other legends, she is praised for giving young women who died in childbirth a swift and painless death.”
Now Christian...tell me this, do you think there is any evidence for the existence of Artemis? Any? Then why did these ancient people believe in Artemis? Because it was a good story, it explained some things, and they were polytheistic people. No evidence. Just a good story to help them through life.....right?
28 “When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theater. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.”
Even though the text attributes financial motive to Demetrius, the overwhelming reaction is that the initial crowd overwhelmingly believed in Artemis.
32 “The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews pushed Alexander to the front, and some of the crowd shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34 But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”
Even if some of these Ephesians hadn't known why they were there, they did know what they believed--with fanaticism! Two hours! Artemis! Artemis! Artemis! It would seem as if they were in a pep rally or something. Did they try to reason with Paul? No! They shouted. It kinda reminds me of Militant Muslims with their guns in the air and shooting off round after round. Fanaticism. Mythology.
35 “The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Men of Ephesus, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash. 37 You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38 If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 40 As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” 41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.”
Here's a pragmatic clerk in the midst of fanaticism. But can you imagine any town clerk in America dealing with the same problem...and admitting the things he did: "these facts are undeniable." That's the difference between them and us today, I think. These people were definitely overwhelmingly superstitious, and had no evidence for the existence of Artemis, except religious experiences which can be interpreted according to their own beliefs. These people would believe any good story if told sincerely, wouldn't they? And so, the competition between religious truth claims would be in who had the best story, wouldn't it, even if old beliefs die hard, like in Ephesus.
But the Christian gospel story had to win, because it couldn't be topped--about a God who died for the world's sins! And Paul established a church there.
My question is whether there is any evidence for the Christian story too. It didn't require any in the ancient past, but it does now. And if that's the case, then why should I believe in any of these religious stories of the past...any of them. I have more rigorous scientific and philosophical standards, as do all educated modern people today.