No matter what the teachings of the various religious prophets- Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Buddha- history shows that the spread of the world’s most successful religions was often assisted through support from powerful or rich friends of the religion and through military conquest.
Moses is regarded as a leading prophet for the Jewish religion and is also accepted as an important prophet in Christianity and Islam.
Moses is believed to have received the ten commandments from God. These are regarded as guides to moral behaviour in both Judaism and Christianity and there are broad equivalents to the commandments in Islam.
But as well as being a prophet Moses was a military leader who engaged in war and conquest and committed terrible massacres.
Under Moses’s leadership, most of the land east of the Jordan was conquered by him and given to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe.
Moses conducted a merciless holy war against the Midianites. He became angry at the officers of his army when they returned from battle because they had allowed Midianite women and boys to live. He instructed them to return and kill all the boys and the women who were not virgins. They were instructed to save the virgins for themselves.
One of the Ten Commandments is often translated as “Thou shalt not kill”. How could Moses have believed in this Commandment yet still have engaged in war and massacre?
The reason is that the translation of the Commandment as “thou shalt not kill” is mistranslation. The correct translation is “Thus shalt not murder”. Moses clearly did not regard the ethnic cleansing of the largely pagan Midianites as murder. And the penalty for breaching most of the Ten Commandments, even working on the Sabbath day, is death.
Jesus, on the other hand, preached against violence and there is no suggestion that he ever acted violently to anybody.
But the successful spread of Christianity was greatly bolstered by the biggest and most important friend of Christianity in history- the Roman emperor Constantine (272 CE – 337 CE). This big and powerful friend took no notice whatsoever of Christ’s preaching against violence. He was a successful military figure and a cold blooded murderer.
Constantine came to power in the Western part of the Roman Empire in 305 CE. At this time the empire was divided into four parts, two parts in the west and two parts in the east, with each part under the control of a different emperor, of which Constantine was one.
The story is that Constantine converted to Christianity on the eve his battle against Maxentius for control in the West. It is claimed that on the eve of the decisive battle at the Milvian bridge he saw a fiery cross in the sky, together with the words “By this sign you will conquer”.
Whether or not Constantine really saw any such sign, he certainly saw tolerance of Christianity as a useful means of undermining his enemies and of consolidating himself as the sole ruler of a unified Roman empire.
At the time of Constantine, Christian numbers were higher in the East than in the Western part of the Empire. And after defeating Maxentius in the West, it was in the East that Constantine now sought to extend his rule.
Constantine entered into an alliance with Licinius, one of the two Roman emperor’s in the East. He had his half- sister Constantia marry Licinius to seal his deal. Constantine convinced Licinius that tolerating Christianity would assist in the war against their mutual enemy Daia.
Licinius and Constantine succeeded defeating Daia. But Constantine was not interested in sharing rule of the Roman Empire with Licinius. They fell into conflict.
Licinius surrendered to Constantine upon agreement with Constantine, negotiated by Constantia, that he would spare his life. But Constantine reneged on this agreement and had his henchmen kill Licinius as well as Licinius’s son- Constantine’s own nephew. Nevertheless Constantia returned to live at her brother’s court.
Thus, through the murder of his brother in law and nephew, by 324CE, the Christine tolerating Constantine had consolidated his control over the entire Roman Empire.
After gaining control of the entire empire, Constantine played an important role in the further development of Christianity. He supported the Church financially and gave it tax concessions as well as building grand churches and promoting Christians to high positions. He also had fifty Bibles transcribed and sent to Christian foundations throughout the empire.
Constantine also encouraged unification of Christian beliefs. He was concerned that divisions within the Church over doctrinal issues were not consistent with a unified Roman Empire. And so he convened meetings of Bishops from across the empire. This led to finalization of disputes over chapters that should form part of the Bible and to the Nicene creed. The Nicene creed holds that Jesus and God are of “one substance”. This aimed to end the spiritual controversy over whether Jesus was God’s equal or was merely the Son of God, with God remaining the higher in authority.
From this time on, the official position of the Church was that the Christian God consisted of a “three in one” God- known as the Trinity- consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Today the Church regards the sign Constantine claimed to have seen on the eve of his first great victory battle as a miracle inspired by God. A monument, the Triumphal Arch, built to honour Constantine, still stands in Rome today. It attributes Constantine’s success to divine intervention from the one true God.
With the reign of Constantine, Christianity extended further and the power of the Pope was centralized in Rome. The Church received more favorable treatment. Christianity was promoted with pagans by replacing well known pagan rituals with Christian ones on the same dates. Christmas day corresponds to the birth of the pagan sun god. Easter corresponds to a pagan spring festival. Christmas day celebrates Christ’s birth and Easter his resurrection. But the truth is that we have no idea at all of the actual dates of Jesus’s birth or death.
Constantine’s successor Julian tried to turn back Christianity in favour of Rome’s old pagan religion. But he did not succeed.
Later, in 380CE, Theodosius I, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Pagans, not Christians, then came to be the ones who were persecuted by the Roman State.
Islam and Buddhism
Muhammad himself was a successful military figure who conquered Mecca and all of Southern Arabia. His successors, Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattab were also successful soldiers who conquered Northern Africa and Spain, spreading Islam along the way.
Buddhism spread more widely across Asia when the Indian emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC) converted to Buddhism after having been shaken by a horrific battle, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest.
And Buddhism’s spread into Japan was assisted by the conversion of the emperor Shomu after his country was hit by a smallpox epidemic.
Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism spread partly because their teachings had appeal to their followers. Nevertheless for religion, as for many other ideas in history, it helps to have strong and powerful helpers and to engage in military conquest.
The existence of these strong and powerful helpers in a particular region is the most obvious reason why people in that region end up following a particular religion.
The popularity of a particular religion in a particular region is almost always the result of a strong and powerful helper having spread that religion in the country or region at some point in its history.
Christianity for example, spread through Africa, the Philippines and Latin America due to the process of colonization of those countries by European powers. Islam remains strong in the regions that were conquered by Muhammad and his successors.
The spread of religion is not always the result of foreign conquest. In Indonesia for example, Islam was spread through the influence of Muslim traders visiting there and interacting with the local population