Invasive Religion: Effects on Society

Reynold Spector

Left: Emperor Julian on a bronze coin, ca. 360 C. E..

Invasive Religion: Effects on Society

Reynold Spector


In my view, the three principal threats to American society are nuclear weapons and annihilation, dysfunctional government, and invasive religion. Religion becomes invasive when its institutions seek in a premeditated but camouflaged way to infiltrate a society and alter its structure and leadership. As many have noted, such schemes resemble the action of viruses that infiltrate cells and convert the cells’ machinery to manufacture and release more viruses. In some cases, they have been highly effective.

This article describes two well-documented historical examples in which the danger of invasive religion was properly perceived and understood, and efforts to stop the invasion were instituted. The first case occurred in the fourth century CE when the Arian Christian Roman Emperor Constantine and his son Constantius began a “Christianization” of the empire. (Arian Christians believed that God created Jesus out of a different substance than himself, in contrast to later Catholic teaching that God and Jesus are of the same substance.) The subsequent Emperor Julian (known as the “Apostate”) grasped the danger of the Christian invasion and attempted to reverse it but unfortunately was killed (perhaps assassinated) after only two years as emperor.

The second example is the attempt by Portuguese Jesuits to infiltrate Japan in the late sixteenth century. This attempt failed because the unifiers of Japan (Hideyoshi and the subsequent Tokugawa shoguns) understood the threat and stymied the invasion.

These two examples are cautionary tales for contemporary America.

Julian the Apostate

Julian was the nephew of the second Christian emperor, Constantius. When he became emperor, Constantius fabricated a document that accused his half-brother (Julian’s father) of being part of a conspiracy that poisoned their father, the Emperor Constantine. In the subsequent egregious purge, Julian’s father was executed, but Julian, aged five, and his brother Gallus, aged eight, were spared. For his first twenty years, Julian was closely observed by Constantius’s agents de res (spies) and was brought up a Christian. Passively, Julian watched the Christian clerics dismantle pagan temples; Constantius favored the clerics and gave vast sums of money to the Christian churches.

However, Julian was a voracious reader and had increasing reservations about Christianity, which he gradually concluded was corrupt and untrue. In his early twenties, when his brother Gallus temporarily became Caesar (assistant to the Emperor Constantius), Julian was able to pursue his education (paideia) in Ephesus and Athens. In his heart, he was a pagan, but he pretended to be a Christian for his well-being.

In 353 CE, Constantius executed Gallus for his erratic behavior. In 355, at age twenty-five, Constantius made Julian Caesar, then a title equivalent to “associate emperor.” In 361, Constantius died and Julian became emperor. From the start, Julian wrote copiously; many of his essays and letters are extant today. Julian’s first act as emperor was to declare freedom of religion, disavowing Christianity as the state religion. Thomas Jefferson would have applauded.

To understand Julian’s religious views and his subsequent actions, we must understand his intellectual beliefs about Christianity and why he thought that it was destroying the state. Only then can we understand what he did before he was killed in 363 CE. In his essay Against the Galileans, Julian summarizes his views: “I discovered beyond any doubt that the stories of the Galileans are the inventions of deceivers and tricksters. For these men seduce people into thinking their gruesome story is the truth by appealing to the part of the soul that loves what is simple and childish.” Some of Julian’s specific beliefs were clear: he thought the virgin birth was ludicrous and the story of Christ’s resurrection an abomination. More important for my argument are Julian’s beliefs that Christianity undercut the proper functioning of the state. First, Julian thought that offering unconditional forgiveness for wrongdoing (confession and absolution) without emphasizing moral responsibility and punishment was folly and undermined discipline in society. Second, Julian chafed at Bishop Athanasius’s position that the emperor’s authority was subsumed under that of the Christian bishops. Third, Julian was disgusted by the constant fighting between the various branches of Christendom, which involved rival bishops and churches in the same locale. This “war” was sustained because Constantius was an Arian and Pope Liberius a Catholic. The bitterness grew so great that Constantius exiled Liberius to Greece in 355 CE and appointed a more malleable pope, who became the notorious anti–Pope Felix. On purely practical grounds, Julian later recognized that “the Christian clergy advocated rebellion against us because we have taken away their privileges . . . they are leading the community into chaos.”

Once he became emperor in 361, Julian acted decisively. First, as noted above, he proclaimed freedom of religion. Next, he stopped the state’s huge contributions (literally tons of gold yearly) to the Christian clergy for church construction, clerical salaries, charities, and other uses. He no longer allowed the Christian clergy to evade civic responsibilities. Moreover, he prohibited the clergy from using the imperial transport or mail systems. In accord with his policy of freedom of religion, he allowed both Arian and Catholic bishops, some of whom were in exile, to return to their home cities—an action that in some cases exacerbated intra-Christian friction. He forced those Christians who had carried off pagan temple stone and marble to build their own churches to return it or pay restitution. To the horror of the Christian clergy, he decided to help the Jews rebuild their temple in Jerusalem—anathema to the Christians because, in the New Testament, Jesus said that could never happen. Furthermore, Julian decreed that teachers in state-supported schools must be certified by local city councils. Teachers were forbidden to disparage or undercut the great classics of the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and logic—and writers including Homer, Virgil, and Cicero. If Christian teachers didn’t believe they could teach the material objectively, they must leave the schools to teach their dogma in the Christian churches. In consequence, many Christian teachers lost their sinecure jobs. By these measures, Julian hoped to eliminate Christian religious teaching in the public schools and prevent the Christian virus from infecting Roman youth.

On a separate note, Julian decided to rebuild paganism to compete more effectively with Christianity. Julian noted that the Christian clerical organization was powerful and effective and decided to copy it with himself as Pontifex Maximus and a hierarchical system of pagan bishops, priests, and deacons (who would preside over the pagan ceremonies) beneath him. They would also give succor to the sick and poor. Essentially, this was an affirmative-action program for paganism, which had been suppressed for decades.

Of course, the Christian clergy despised Julian—especially because he instituted his reforms without violence or persecution; he had a policy of no martyrs. He did, of course, punish lawbreakers, as when he determined that Christians burned down the magnificent temple of Apollo at Daphne outside Antioch. Because Julian could not find the specific Christian miscreants and he eschewed torture, he simply closed the huge hexagonal Christian church in Antioch and confiscated its wealth, including its famous gold vessels.

Unfortunately, while leading a huge Roman army against the Persians, Julian was killed under murky circumstances outside the Persian capital in June 363 CE. In the skirmish in which Julian was fatally wounded, it was never determined who had killed him. If he did die by treachery, possible culprits included the Christian hierarchy, Roman military officers, laid-off palace eunuchs, humbled Persians, disaffected Jews, and unemployed Christian educators. (See Who Killed Apollo and Julian Augustus for my take on this.)

In any event, Julian was succeeded by a series of weak Christian emperors who resumed kowtowing to the bishops. Finally, the pusillanimous Theodosius outlawed paganism in 391 CE, closing the pagan temples and prohibiting sacrifice to the Roman gods. His successor closed the Jewish Patriarchate, ending state tolerance of Jews.

Forty years after Julian was killed, the barbarians sacked Rome. In 529 CE, the illiterate but devout Roman Emperor Justinian closed the thousand-year-old universities in Athens, including Plato’s Academy. It was the end of free inquiry in the West and the beginning of the Dark Ages, as Julian had foreseen, marked by constant schisms, wars, and disharmony caused in large part by religion. If Julian had lived for thirty more years, who knows how history might have been different?

Julian the Apostate exemplifies a leader who saw the dangers of invasive religion and initiated reasonable measures to foil it, but failed—with devastating consequences that persist to this day. Similarly, in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Japan, the unifiers of that nation saw a similar threat. How they handled it is instructive.

The Portuguese Invasion of Japan

In Deus Destroyed (1988), George Ellison gives a balanced account of the unsuccessful attempt of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to infiltrate Japan in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. (The title echoes that of a seventeenth-century anti-Christian tract authored by the Japanese Christian apostate Fabian Fucan.) The Portuguese arrived just as Japan was moving out of three centuries of disorder and civil war. The shoguns Oda Nobunaga (assassinated 1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (died 1598), and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun (died 1614), would unify Japan, bringing peace and stability to the great relief of the peasant and merchant classes. But first they would have to deal with the Portuguese—and their church.

The first Portuguese Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1543 with a clear objective: to convert the Japanese to Catholicism as they (or the Spaniards) had done in Central and South America, the Philippines, India (Goa), and Macao (China). They used trade as a powerful incentive. Initially, Nobunaga was receptive to the Jesuits because they brought trade, Western knowledge, and weapons. In addition, they helped him complete the conquest of Kyushu, the large Southern island of Japan proper. However, Nobunaga had had trouble with the Pure Land Buddhists—as had Tokugawa Ieyasu when he was a young governor. Overwhelming force was required to bring these Buddhists under control. The shogunate was thus sensitized to be cautious about religious infiltration into politics. During Hideyoshi’s shogunate, the numbers of Christian converts swelled to well over one hundred thousand; Hideyoshi and then Tokugawa Ieyasu recognized this as a serious problem, in part because the Jesuits taught that the “absolute allegiance” to the sovereign was cancelled out by one’s higher allegiance to the Deus (God). Christians believed they enjoyed the right to revolt over religious concerns. Outrageously, in 1580 Governor Ōmura Sumitada, a Christian convert, tried to “donate” the coastal city of Nagasaki in perpetuity to the Jesuit padres.

Hideyoshi had seen enough. In 1587, he decided to banish the Portuguese Jesuit padres but did not ruthlessly enforce this decree. Consequently, Jesuits in many parts of Japan went underground, often abandoning their flowing robes (habits) and dressing like Japanese peasants. Because Hideyoshi remained interested in Portuguese trade, he did not focus on the Jesuit problem at that time. Moreover, beginning in 1592, Hideyoshi became preoccupied with his unsuccessful invasion of Korea (1592–1598), further leading him to ignore the Christian problem. The year 1592 saw a final complication when unruly Spanish friars (who despised the Portuguese Jesuits) arrived and dangled still more trade in front of Hideyoshi and Japanese merchants. For two decades, the Christian problem smoldered. When Ieyasu became shogun in 1600, he also discouraged Christian missionary activity but allowed trade.

Finally, in 1613, after having made firm trade arrangements with the more businesslike Dutch and Chinese, Ieyasu lost all patience with the Portuguese and Spanish. He recognized that they not only wanted to convert the Japanese to Christianity but in effect to take over Japan and expropriate the fabled Japanese gold and silver mines, as they had done in Mexico and other countries. From the Chinese and Dutch traders, Ieyasu had learned what had unfolded in the Philippines and Mexico, Central and South America, Goa, and Macao. He learned that in 1594, Pope Alexander, in the Treaty of Todesillas, had divided the world into the East for Catholic Portugal and the West for Catholic Spain. Clearly, colonization and hegemony were the Europeans’ real objectives, with Christianity the proverbial foot in the door. Moreover, the Catholic religion had reached into Ieyasu’s own household in the person of his favorite consort, the Lady Ōta. She secretly worshipped a crucifix. An angry Ieyasu decided to clamp down on all Christian missionary activity in Japan once and for all. Ordering that trade might flourish but without religion, he deported every Caucasian missionary he could find. By then, however, several hundred thousand Japanese had already been baptized. Moreover, quite a few padres escaped the dragnet and went deep underground. In 1614, Ieyasu ordered the destruction of Christian churches and schools and ordered that converted Japanese Christians should be reconverted wherever possible.

Christianity in Japan was not completely destroyed by these measures. The Japanese initially killed a few captured Caucasian padres who refused to apostatize. But they fairly quickly realized that killing padres was not a sound policy. The Jesuits had taught that martyrdom was a key to heaven, and it was an unbelievably effective message. “Brainwashed” by this teaching, the padres generally would not apostatize even when tortured. So Inoue Chikugo, the very shrewd Japanese aristocrat in charge of the Jesuit problem, decided on a plan of imprisonment and persuasion; only if necessary would Inoue resort to increasingly harsh measures, including torture, to compel padres to apostatize. If possible, there would be no martyrs. In time, some padres apostatized, even signaling their surrender by stomping on crucifixes.

Perhaps Inoue’s greatest triumph was the capture in 1633 of the Mission Superior of Japan (Ferreira), whom Inoue convinced to apostatize. Ferreira from then on cooperated with Inoue in helping others do the same. Ferreira also wrote a powerful anti-Christian tract in Japanese, titled Deceit Disclosed. One of its more colorful statements was “One (big) dog barks a lie, ten thousand take it as truth.”

Jesuits in Portugal and Macao were outraged by Ferreira’s apostasy. They smuggled multiple secret “ambassadors” into Japan to confront Ferreira in hopes of reconverting him, but all attempts failed. The Second Rubino Group consisted of ten “stealth” padres; all ten were captured and “helped” to apostatize by Ferreira himself, the man they had entered the country hoping to save.

During the Shimabara uprising in 1537, residual Japanese Christians took up arms agai
nst the shogunate. One hundred twenty-five thousand troops were required to suppress them. Even so, Portugal and Spain continued smuggling padres into Japan to foment unrest. Disgusted, in 1639 the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, suspended all trade with Portugal and Spain. Fearing the end of their influence in Macao, the Portuguese sent an embassy to Japan to protest, defying Iemitsu’s warning not to make the attempt. Iemitsu executed most of the emissaries and returned the survivors to Macao. The Christian invasion of Japan had been defeated.

In the following centuries, the invasion would become a distant memory, recalled only on old folding silk screens depicting big-nosed, often red-haired padres with the dark skirts of their habits trailing behind them and a picture of a Portuguese black ship entering Nagasaki harbor in the background.

To minimize bloodshed, revolt, conspiracy, and unrest, subsequent shoguns banned citizens from possessing any weapons except swords, launching a period of peace and stability that lasted for more than two centuries. All that ended in 1853, when Perry’s American “Black Ship” arrived in Japan. Today, less than 2 percent of Japan’s population is Christian, mainly Protestant.

General Lessons

What lessons can we learn from Julian’s unsuccessful campaign—and Japan’s eventually successful campaigns—to eradicate the virus of invasive religion? As shown in table 1, there are ten lessons, reflected to a greater or lesser extent in both historical situations. First, Julian himself (in Against the Galileans) and the Japanese published effective arguments against the religious invasions. Second, the Japanese used apostates such as Ferreira to help in the process of reconverting captured missionaries. Third, both Julian and, tardily, the Japanese attempted to regain control of youth education. Julian cut off state funding to the Christians for church construction, clergy maintenance, transportation, schools, charity, and the like. Belatedly, the Japanese did the same. Fourth, Julian decided to support Christianity’s competitors, rebuilding the Jewish temple and reinstituting traditional paganism. In a parallel way, the Japanese re-emphasized the role of Confucianism. Fifth, Julian demanded that religious personnel (clergy) no longer be exempt from state service. Sixth, both Julian and the Japanese developed a “no-martyrs” policy, insofar as possible, in order to encourage apostasy among Christians. The Japanese used the apostates to help in reconversion. Finally, since Julian failed, he could not prevent the terrible collapse of Hellenist/Roman paideia (culture and education). Perhaps the worst day in Western civilization was when the devoutly Christian Emperor Justinian closed the millennium-old universities of Athens in 529 CE. The Dark Ages began. In Japan, the overreaction to the Jesuit/Spanish invasion led to the policy of Sakoku: the closure of Japan. Science and medicine were stymied, although there was leakage into Japan of Western knowledge through Dutch contacts—the so-called “Dutch learning.” Of course, once Japan was “opened” after 1853, the Japanese made the most incredible transformation to a modern society.

Table 1. Measures by Julian and the Japanese to combat invasive religion

1. Publish rebuttals.

2. Close or defund state-supported religious (propaganda) schools.

3. Cut off state funding for religious purposes.

4. Support less invasive groups.

5. Demand that religious personnel serve the state.

6. Foster open debate.

7. No martyrs.

8. Encourage apostasy.

9. Use apostates to encourage apostasy.

10. Do not let religious invasion inhibit science and medicine.


Lessons for America

Invasive religious influences continue in America today, even though many of the “truths” of religion have been thoroughly debunked and a constitutional and legal “wall” separates religion from the state. Hence, there is need for continual vigilance; in my view, many of the measures taken by Julian and the Japanese are needed now. The signs of invasive religion in American life included the following:

• unnecessary, unwanted, legally mandated fetal ultrasounds in physicians’ offices, meant to discourage abortion;

• widespread rioting and carnage over cartoons satirizing religious claims;

• attempts by some religious extremists not to work and participate in society—some only wish to study and pray, supported by the state and others plot to destroy the state;

• religious elements want to wear costumes not consistent with regulations and public safely;

• religious institutions demand and receive public money for their own charities;

• religious zealots demand teaching of “nonscience” in science textbooks and classes (creationism/intelligent design);

• a near eight-year period (2002–2008) in which certain types of biological research (embryonic stem cell) were inhibited; and

• physical attacks fostered and encouraged by invasive religion (such as the events of September 11, 2001)—the most worrisome of all.

These are just a few examples of invasive religion in our “secular” society. Julian’s failure—and the shoguns’ eventual success—demonstrate what measures may prove necessary here in order to turn back the invasion.

In summary, as noted above, we must, as a society, solve the resolvable problems of nuclear weapons and war and dysfunctional government, and, finally, continuously combat the pernicious influence of invasive religion. There is no vaccine available for this purpose.



The author wishes to thank Michiko Spector for her aid in the preparation of the manuscript.

Further Reading

Berry, E. Hideyoshi. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Browning, R. The Emperor Julian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Ellison, G. Deus Destroyed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Hoffmann, R. Julian’s Against the Galileans. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004..

Riccioti, G. Julian the Apostate. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1960.

Spector, R. “The Foundation of Ethics and Morals in America.” FREE INQUIRY, August/September 2013.

Spector, R. Who Killed Apollo and Julian Augustus? New York: Lulu Press, 2005.

Thomas, K. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Oxford Uni­versity Press, 1971.

Totman, C. Tokugawa Ieyasu Shogun. Torrance, CA: Heian International, 1983.

Reynold Spector

Reynold Spector is adjunct professor of medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

This article describes two well-documented historical examples in which the danger of invasive religion was properly perceived and understood, and efforts to stop the invasion were instituted.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.