Prior to the coming of the mystery cults and Christianity, personal religion hardly developed as an independent institution in the civilized lands of North Africa and Europe; it was more of a family, city-state, political, and imperial affair. The Hellenic Greeks never evolved a centralized worship system; the ritual was local; they had no priesthood and no “sacred book.” Much as the Romans, their religious institutions lacked a powerful driving agency for the preservation of higher moral and spiritual values. While it is true that the institutionalization of religion has usually detracted from its spiritual quality, it is also a fact that no religion has thus far succeeded in surviving without the aid of institutional organization of some degree, greater or lesser.
Occidental religion thus languished until the days of the Skeptics, Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics, but most important of all, until the times of the great contest between Mithraism and Paul’s new religion of Christianity.
During the third century after Christ, Mithraic and Christian churches were very similar both in appearance and in the character of their ritual. A majority of such places of worship were underground, and both contained altars whose backgrounds variously depicted the sufferings of the savior who had brought salvation to a sin-cursed human race.
Always had it been the practice of Mithraic worshipers, on entering the temple, to dip their fingers in holy water. And since in some districts there were those who at one time belonged to both religions, they introduced this custom into the majority of the Christian churches in the vicinity of Rome. Both religions employed baptism and partook of the sacrament of bread and wine. The one great difference between Mithraism and Christianity, aside from the characters of Mithras and Jesus, was that the one encouraged militarism while the other was ultrapacific. Mithraism’s tolerance for other religions (except later Christianity) led to its final undoing. But the deciding factor in the struggle between the two was the admission of women into the full fellowship of the Christian faith.
In the end the nominal Christian faith dominated the Occident. Greek philosophy supplied the concepts of ethical value; Mithraism, the ritual of worship observance; and Christianity, as such, the technique for the conservation of moral and social values.