Thursday, February 02, 2006

Faith and Human Sacrifice

A recent article in Newsweek told of efforts in evangelical schools to win college debate competitions. To these schools, debate is more than just another school sport. It is a part of their mission -- to convert people to their view, and to score points for their cause. They take this sport seriously.

According to the article, many of these participants are preparing to become politicians and lawyers. They want to enter fields in which they can set social policy. In the words of one freshman debater, "I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans' godly heritage."

When I read that quote, my mind formed an image of an Aztec priest-in-training learning the rituals of human sacrifice. I imagined a young man eager to give his life meaning and significance by cutting the beating hearts out of his sacrificial victims in an effort to inspire his God to smile upon his community.

Before I go to deeply in this analogy, I want to say that I recognize that there are some complications in applying this analogy to the issue of abortion. However, if my arguments in “Abortion (and Infanticide)” Part I and Part II are sound, then the analogy is valid.

It also applies to the sacrifice of the victims of injury and illness when the young priests devote their lives to interfering with the medical research that would benefit these people.

There are no qualifications possible in applying this analogy to sacrificing the interests of homosexuals on religious altars in an effort to please some God.

My imagination did not create an image of a vicious and angry young man out to do harm. Rather, it was of a young man, as I said, seeking meaning and purpose for his life, and finding it in rituals of human sacrifice.

I noticed that the student quoted in the article did not express an interest in using his skill to coax others into giving more food and medicine to the poor. He wanted to focus instead on making sure that those he targeted would be undergo the sacrifice that he thought that his God demanded. He wanted to do a good job arguing for laws that did harm to his fellow humans, just as the Aztec priest did harm to his victims -- in the name of God.

Granted, contemporary evangelicals are not actually cutting the beating hearts out of their victims. However, there is more than one way to harm a person.

Take a child from almost any parent and torture or kill the child. The child is not the only one harmed by this action. It also harms the parent. We can see this in the fact that most parents would choose to have their heart ripped out of their own chest to having their children tortured or killed. Their choice tells us that they having their children tortured or killed is a greater harm than having their hearts cut from them in a religious sacrifice.

This example shows us that it is possible to do worse harms to a person than the Aztec priest causes his victims without even touching that person. All we need to do is to sacrifice the objects of his affection.

We can do even more damage, inflict even greater harm, and force an even sacrifice with a law than we can with a dagger.

I have no doubt that the Aztec priest had great pride in his work and carried out his actions without a hint of doubt that he was doing the right thing. If he imagined himself doing something else -- if he imagined a life in which he was not a priest, and in which he did not lead these rituals -- he imagined his life being meaningless. Through these rituals, he was bring his community into closer harmony with God; nothing could possibly be more important.

If God required that he sacrifice other humans, well, he certainly was in no position to argue. He likely believed that arguing and doubt were, themselves, evil.

Besides, he no doubt told himself that he was protecting his people from hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, fire, tornadoes, plague, and other natural disasters. Or he was enticing God into provide a bountiful harvest and to turn aside the evil hand of his nation's enemies.

He thinks of himself as a good person doing what must be done.

Nor do I imagine that today's advocates of human sacrifice hunger for an opportunity to do harm. They see themselves as saving New Orleans and Florida from another hurricane or San Francisco from an earthquake. Or they think that they are enticing God to provide the country with a prosperous economy and to defend it against its enemies. They are good people.

They think of themselves as good people doing what must be done.

Though the Aztec priest sought to do good deeds, his ignorance and superstition caused him to harm others. When his work was done, he had a stack of victims that he had sacrificed, and nothing good came of it. Volcanoes erupted and plaques struck as they would have struck. People suffered and died as they would have died. However, in addition to all of the damage that nature inflicted, some people also suffered the harms that the priests inflicted.

The human tragedy, then, applies not only to the victims of religious sacrifice, but also to the priest. He wanted to do good deeds. He wanted a life of meaning and significance. He ended up with a life in which he added one more source of misery and death to all of the causes of misery and death found in nature. He wanted to help his people -- to protect them from hurricanes and enemy attack. He ended up being just one more threat to their lives and well-being.

If not for the fact that the priest had been misled into a tragic error, he would have probably done good deeds. If he had devoted himself to bringing food to the hungry and medicine to the poor, and to allowing his neighbors to live in peace with those that they actually loved, he would have reached his goal of being a source of benefit rather than a source of harm.

Of course, if a person growing up in a society sees that there are two groups of people -- those who stand at the top of the pyramid with daggers in hand (whether they be daggers of steel or daggers of law), and those who the man with the dagger will sacrifice -- it makes sense for him to strive to be the person holding the dagger. Those options make his choice understandable. It cannot make that choice right.

This ritual of human sacrifice is still just one more source of misery and death. It’s time to put those daggers away.

I know. I hear the claims every time something bad happens. God visits this evil upon us because he demands that we sacrifice our neighbors, and we are not doing what God demands. As a result, God forces us to suffer from plague, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. When our enemies attack he turns away, claiming that since we abandon Him, He will protect us. We show our devotion to God by our willingness to sacrifice our neighbors. When we put our neighbors above God, we should expect His wrath. Or so we are told.

I want to suggest that we give it a shot.

If somebody wants to pray for rain, or for another person's health after doing everything he physically can to help another, then there is no reason to complain. If he wants to perform a human sacrifice to purchase God's good will . . . well . . . let’s try to put those rituals behind us.

Besides, it is never the job of those who would be sacrificed to prove that they have a right not to be. It is the duty of those who would sacrifice them to prove that it is necessary. When it comes to sacrificing humans to God, faith alone is simply not a good enough reason.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff. In my mind, this brings up the question of exactly what role logistics should play in a system of morality--e.g. what the difference from an ethical standpoint would be if human sacrifice were an effective way of securing the safety of other people. This is relevant in a contemporary sense in evaluating ticking-bomb type situations, but it's more interesting to me in a general principle sense, as a way of conceptualizing moral decision-making. I suppose this is also part of why morality only works when it's based on reason, since reason is the only thing that's particularly responsive to changes in our understanding of reality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I hold that those who would sacrifice to their God owe those who would be sacrificed a more compelling defense of the necessity of their sacrifice than you have provided here.

Anonymous said...

Good point. A potential sacrifice victim has no obligation to "prove" he has a right to life; all obligation is on the would-be sacrificer to prove that it's necessary. Hopefully, everyone will live by that. Most people will munch a steak for dinner, never giving a thought to whether the cow's sacrifice is "necessary," and I've never heard anyone suggest that it is. Plenty of people enjoy shooting deer for sport, and none have ever proven that it's "necessary," beyond saying that it's one of many ways to correct previous human error. You have agreed that interests extend beyond humans; perhaps another post could ask people to apply moral values to *everyone?*