Sunday, March 23, 2008

Washing in Blood, Human Sacrifices, Cannibalism, Groveling in Front of Altars

Constant exposure to Christian mythology has inured us to some profoundly strange practices and backward ideas. And our custom of confusing tolerance of lunacy and uncritical acceptance with religious respect has stifled perfectly reasonable questions and challenges. Christianity is laced with archaic, perverse, and patently false claims about human nature, sin, redemption, atonement, and salvation.

Man, we are told, has an intrinsically corrupt nature that leads him to sin against God. This corruption isn’t just a tendency to be selfish or to hurt others on occasion—it’s an essential, metaphysical facet of human nature. Which means of course that if God is our creator, he put it there. We must struggle continually against our willful desire to transgress God’s law. And our guilt from those violations is not assuaged by the fact that no one seems to be able to get clear on exactly what God’s law is. Whatever it is, we become permanently tainted by our moral crimes against it.

And now the story gets even more bizarre. Ordinarily, if you do something wrong to someone, you might reflect on it, consider their feelings, consider the harm that you have done, then you would apologize to them. Maybe you would try to fix the harm. If it’s particularly bad, you face condemnation and punishment from your fellow citizens.

But the Christian story adds a whole strange layer of metaphysical corruption to the situation. The only way to remove that invisible, intangible, but permanent stain on our souls (also invisible and intangible) is through an elaborate magical sacrificial ceremony. Some living thing, something we own, some physical thing we care about has to be given up and destroyed in order to remove this lingering immaterial contamination. The Old Testament is filled with elaborate translation schemes for exchange of moral transgressions for doves, goats, sheep, cattle, money, gold, and so on. One wonders how much worse off these struggling groups of humans were made by the wanton destruction of the scarce supplies they had of food, crops, livestock, and other necessities. (In Collapse, Jared Diamond details many civilizations, like the Vikings, who squandered necessary goods on frivolous religious pursuits like priests demanding expensive donations. Ultimately they met their demise because of their inability to escape the world-distorting lens of religion and get their social priorities straight.)

But we don’t have to chop the heads off of goats, pour the blood out of cows, and broker those strange deals of tangibles for intangibles any more. Jesus, we are told, represents the ultimate object to be sacrificed for the sins of humanity, a onetime mortgage balloon payment for sin. Since Jesus was the son of God (whatever that means) and so much better than a goat, killing him gets all of our livestock off of the hook. And it is here where Christian beliefs and practices are the goriest and strangest. We are depraved, lowly, and worthy of torment. Jesus’ long and torturous execution amounts to a sort of suffering or punishment by proxy. He takes on all of the suffering that humanity deserves for all the bad things they have ever done and will ever do. Since he suffered and died, we don’t have to, goes the often repeated story. We are washed in the blood of the lamb, they sing. And then by eating of his flesh and blood—juice and crackers—we commune with him. Remember that this is all in order to satisfy the inexplicable demands of the magical being who set the whole thing up from the start.

A great deal is made of this suffering and this sacrifice, despite the fact that Jesus is alleged to be divine himself and have supernatural powers. It’s hard to see why such an act would amount to much hard work for a divine super being. As some Christians argue, it is significant that Jesus loved us so much and freely chose to sacrifice himself for us. At least the notion of sacrificing for someone you love has a little more familiarity (and more sanity) for us, but what’s baffling is that it is God that is demanding the sacrifice and God is perfectly capable of bringing about any state of affairs he wants. So why would an all powerful being set this barbaric exchange of blood for disobedience up in the first place? And why is it that the only thing that will satisfy God’s offended sensibilities is to have someone he loves tortured and executed slowly?

For some reason, God, the ultimate foundation of all reality, the creator of the universe, wants certain things to happen here for which there is no better or more direct path, even if you are all powerful and all knowing. God wants to give us eternal happiness and reward. But he can’t just give it to us despite being the creator of all reality. We have to submit to an elaborate mediation process whereby Jesus comes to Earth, talks to people, gets in trouble with the law, gets executed, and then goes back to God. And now it’s important to the invisible, magical super being before he rewards us that we all adopt a certain mental attitude about Jesus and our place in the world. We are supposed to acknowledge that we are deeply metaphysically tainted with a propensity to not do what we are told. And we must concede that accepting this whole preposterous Iron age mythology about the inherent corruption of humanity is the only way for the creator of the universe to treat us nicely. If we don’t, then we don’t get rewarded—in fact, we will tortured incessantly for eternity. And we will deserve it because of our intrinsically corrupt nature ( that the invisible, magical super being gave us at the outset.)

Another bizarre theme that runs through religious culture is the notion that if you do something wrong, like Adam and Eve did in the Garden, then your children, grandchildren, and all of your descendents will be guilty of the crime too and they will be held accountable and punished. All women are cursed for Eve’s misdeed. Ordinarily, no reasonable person would ever suggest that the grandchildren are responsible for the grandfather’s misdeeds, but in the context of Christianity, those same people seem to be perfectly comfortable with the claim. Do you think that you should have to pay for your parents’ parking tickets? Suppose your great, great grandmother had stolen something a 100 years ago. You should go to jail for that today, right?

Our immersion in a culture where people openly talk about this whole R rated blood atonement process has eroded what would have been reactions of shock and outrage. Even though the whole scheme gives an account of morality, sin, punishment, and salvation that is utterly unlike anything else in our lives, it has become so familiar that no one even raises an eyebrow. It’s stunning that despite the fact that we have cured polio, we fly space shuttles, and we have cell phones in our pockets, no one seems to be even slightly puzzled by this whole bizarre superstitious mythology. Our presidential candidates repeat it all without the slightest hint of irony or insincerity. We elevate professional proponents of the stories to the highest moral and social stations we have. And we hold religious beliefs and practices in the highest reverence. Imagine cutting someone off in traffic and he jumps out of his car and demands that in order to be cleansed of your transgression of the moral law, you must sacrifice a chicken in his honor. Suppose the former chairman of Enron, Kenneth Lay, wishing to express his penitence to the public he had robbed, performed an elaborate public sacrifice of hundreds of cows and used the blood to symbolize his resolve to be a better person. Imagine a serial killer speaking on his own behalf in his trial saying, “All I need to do in order to be cleansed of my crimes is eat some of the flesh and drink some of the blood of a virtuous person.”

One of the many ironies here is that Christian believers so often have the audacity to suggest that only by believing in God and being Christian can a person live a decent, moral life. Yet on their view, we are intractably evil. One could hardly find a more anti-humanist worldview. And it is the nonbelievers who proclaim that humans have good, redeeming traits by nature that deserve to be celebrated and fostered.


paulv said...

The U.S has killed and discriminated against blacks, robbed, killed or chased Native Americans from their lands. Invaded and tortured in the Philipines and elsewhere, not to mention invoked prohibitions on abortion, alcohol. You would think from this list that the world would be better off had the U.S.A never existed.
But this like yours is an entirely onesided argument, and should be denounced not just because it may hide some irrational anti-Americanism, but because it is fundamentally flawed.

The issues are does the U.S. still do all these things? Did the founding principles overcome initial prejudices and ultimately defeat some of them? Do perfect nation states exist?

On religion, the questions are similar. Humanism did not arise in the Roman Empire, it arose in the Christian west. All that this proves is that a christian society is something in between an insurmountable obstacle to the rise of humanism and the sole cause of humanism.

The moral outrage you feel for certain practises, where does it come from? Since the universe has no provable purpose, why the need to burst anyone's illusions. The farther they are from the truth the less likely it is they will succeed. Unless you feel there are perverse and evil forces at work, and our salvation depends on defeating or converting them.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the comments, as always, PaulV. You seem to be understanding me as arguing that Christianity has required all sorts of vicious, immoral practices, therefore it should be condemned. And your criticism is that 1) I am picking only those aspects of Christianity that make it look bad without giving credit where credit is due, and 2) there's no better scheme of things out there, so I should just leave people to their faulty worldview.

I guess I don't see that any of these have anything to do with what I intended to convey, but that may the fault of my poor and hasty writing.

I don't deny that Christianity and Christians have done good things. My point is that because it is an archaic and simple-minded moral system (what else would you expect from Iron Age people) it harbors lots of strange, misguided views about the nature of morality, punishment, moral redemption, and human nature. We've been immersed and subjected to the Christian moral metaphysics to the point that it doesn't even strike us as odd when it is suggested that the way to become a better person is to be bathed in the blood, or consume the flesh and blood, of a divine being. But it should strike us as not just odd, but mistaken. That is not how we can become better people, and we all know it. But we either don't care enough about important matters, or we've actually been seduced by the metaphor to the point that we can't see it anymore. So I'm trying, in my futile way, to drag the strangeness back out into the light.

Why do we need to burst people's illusions? It should be obvious why people should strive to have well-justified beliefs that track the truth as much as possible. If you don't think having true defeasible beliefs that are corroborated by the evidence, then we won't have much common ground on which to discuss the reasonableness of atheism and theism.

I take it that you agree that believing in God is foolish or mistaken or an "illusion" but it's not important enough to warrant serious consideration?


paulv said...

You chose to title your remarks, Washing in Blood etc. Of the four items in the title only one (groveling) is in my mind present in any major religion today.

That these arise in prehistory is not disputed, nor do I regret their demise. How much of them is rightfully attributable to theism is something that is not clear to me from the evidence. The problem is that we don't have much data from societies without religion (the Gombe chimpanzees is an exception).

Are these the essential characteristics of religion, or even the Judeo-Christian religion, or are they cultural incidentals. Even atheists don't agree on this, see

The core priciples of a religion are either right, wrong or untestable. Then even if we agree that they are wrong, they may be destructive, helpfull or harmless.

My feeling is that on the whole traditional religions lean towards relatively harmless.

To argue that they are very destructive, creates the problem of why they survived. If relatively harmless, their longevity like unexpressed DNA baggage is not a problem to explain.

Some people feel it is an insult to say we are descendants of the apes. They feel themselves far above other primates. You seem to have a similar indignation about iron age thinking.

Whatever the source, it is wrong to assume that a religion is what it once was. We are not apes anymore, and the USA is not anymore what it was when it was founded. You argue that children should not be punished for the sins of the parents, yet insist on doing so when it comes to religions.

Like apes, iron age religions may have been a necessary evolutionary stage. That does not mean we need to preserve them, but we should at least acknowledge that they may have been very important in getting us to where we are now. We do know that they were not an insurmountable obstacle.

We can believe religions are very destructive, if like sicle-cell anemia, they also offer a benefit against greater evils. When I look at the odds against surviving an inner city jungle, I think religion is perhaps not a bad gamble. The gene pool here will likely not see any rewards in their lifetime. Their only hope may be that some future generations can escape. This sort of enviroment requires philosophies that motivate, forgive and start over, and defend the worth of the individual, for a goal that will not be realized in his lifetime, that minimizes destructive retaliation, and acknowledges that real evils (dangers) exist. Rather than focus on the deity involved, it is worth looking at the effects. If we believe that religion or theisms are like sicle-cell, we should be very sure to have alternative means of procurring the benefits that explain their prevalence and longevity, before doing away with them.

Like the USA, I think some religions can probably be reformed, and don't need to be destroyed.

My point about bursting illusions, is only that someone who believes the universe is purposeless, should not be too concerned by the illusions others have. Its all meaningless anyway. If we argue that we should try to rid the unenlighted of their unproven mythology and values, it belies the fact that we think the universe has some different inherent purpose and value. I think we will find that any system of understanding or representing the universe is founded on belief in certain unproven axioms. So it is intellectually dishonest for someone to say your god is ridiculous, while holding a curtain around his own so as to avoid scrutiny.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks, PaulV. I don't think much progress will be made with more disagreement over this. You're really not understanding my points, but as I say, that's probably my fault. Of course I am not suggesting that every major religion today ACTUALLY performs cannibalism and human sacrifices. I am troubled by the metaphor that does linger from an earlier age. Walk into virtually any mainstream protestant American church, pick up a hymnal and you'll find numerous songs that rejoice about being washed in the blood of the lamb. Stay later for the service and they'll have communion and call it the "body and the blood" of Christ. Some hardcore Catholics will even maintain that the juice and crackers actually transfigure miraculously into the flesh and blood of Jesus. These are archaic metaphors that prevent us from having clear headed, non-superstitious discussions about how to make moral decisions. Continuing to talk and think about human nature and human actions in these terms is as counter productive to moral progress as continuing to talk and think that all of reality is made up of earth, air, fire, and water like the ancient Greeks. We know better now--time to move on. These metaphors get into people's heads and affect their real decisions and their real beliefs. 80-120 million people in the US think that a bloody apocalypse is coming in their lifetime and they are going to be physically raptured to heaven. We shouldn't underestimate the power of symbolic language to co-opt people's thoughts about what is real.

You've misunderstood me on this point several times: I am not arguing that religion is on the whole bad for people. I wouldn't know how to begin arguing convincingly for something like that when there's no easy way to tabulate the pluses and minuses. I think these discussions that believers and non-believers have comparing the crimes of the Inquisition to the crimes of Stalin aren't going to be resolved. We just don't the sort of perspective or data we'd need to answer that question. Clearly there are some religious movements and some religious people who have mostly harm and hatred to offer us.

And it is possible to recognize and argue for some obvious improvements that would benefit everyone.

You seem to resent my pointing out the downsides of various aspects of religious practices. Let's put it this way--even if you have a deep affection for something and you want it to survive and prosper, that doesn't preclude you from recognizing and working to improve it in different ways. Suppose I was arguing for seat belts in cars because going without them is dangerous. Would it make sense to resist and keep pointing out all of the wonderful things cars do for us?

I haven't argued that the universe is purposeless, so I'm really not sure where that part of the criticism is coming from.


paulv said...

"Constant exposure to Christian mythology has inured us to some profoundly strange practices and backward ideas".

The claim if true implies that this is something like an intrinsically flawed nature that "We must struggle continually against". So the idea that we must struggle against what feels like our very nature is something that you also hold. The arguement we won't see the error of our ways until we break completely out of a certain mindset, is essentially circular and in my mind identical to the argument you won't see the evil of your ways until you embrace your saviour. It has been used to justify the persucution of other theistic religions, as well as other belief systems like petite-bourgoises, counter revolutionaries etc.

The idea that healthy fantasy game players, for instance, are adversly affected
by the fantasy mythologies they play with, has not been proven clearly. Certainly people with a poor grip on reality can be adversly affected, but the data I've seen is that the rest suffer no additional risks. Of course you may preclude the possibility that mentally healthy religious persons exist.

The claim (and many like it) suffer from the inability to test them clearly. What test result would lead you to conclude the claim is false. What percentage of Christians or citizens of a post Christian rejecting a particular backward idea whould show that Christian mythology is not debilitating. And what source of people do you use to determine what is backwards and what is debilitating?

"One wonders how much worse off these struggling groups of humans were made by the wanton destruction of the scarce supplies ... livestock, and other necessities ... Ultimately they met their demise because of their inability to escape the world-distorting lens of religion".

Clearly the dissappearance of very devout Vikings on Greenland (who valued religion, over the natives diet of fish) identifies the fact that if the burden was greater than the benefits to the society, the religion and/or the society should disappear. So if a religion or society hasn't disappeared the correct conclusion is that on average the burden has not outweighed the benefits. That is some way their world view is less distorted (more accurate) than those that have disappeared.

Believing in a god who keeps score (of trangressions) is not so strange in my mind, when we live in a universe that keeps score. Effects are cumulative, and can be dire.

You imply that religion can only be world-distorting? One can cite the many stupidities of religions, just as one can cite the many abuses of police forces. But as an atheist, you must see religion as a human invention, that is an attempt to understand the world, so why would it be inherently distorting. That may be something you believe but cannot prove.

Monkihunta said...

I think Paul V's comments are very insightful, and agree with him that Prof Mcormick's arguement is rather one sided.
I think that human behaviors, which include relgious behavior, really exsist on a continuous spectrum, and the transistion from ancient cultures to modern culture has really been chrachterised by the compartmentalisation of these different behaviors- ie, religous, political, etc. To our most ancient ancestors, reliogous practise not neccasarily clearly divisible from their daily activities, and on the whole something that arose from the naturally occouring pschological structures of humans. Humans haven't in all honesty changed so much; We are afflicted and motivated by the same forces. Therefore myth (which includes christianity) is still deeply relevant to modern humans, as much as the modern hardcore of religion bashers hate to admit it. While taking literal interpretaions generally leads people to warped moral judgements, contemplation of myth and religious scripture is a fascinating insight into the human psyche and different quests for happiness, even if one doesn't adopt a fixedly theistic approach to it.
Dispariging religious ritual and sacrifice also seems to have been done with a distinct lack of imagination by Prof McCormick. The dedication of resources to even unseen imagos can have profound effects on the psyche of the ritual participants and can have very positive effects on communities in the sense that it can bind them together and give them a less abstract vision of why they cooperate altruistically. One of the early Chinese philosophers (I forget which one, a confucian I think) said that only peasants would actually believe that the rain-bringing rituals had any efficacy, but thay had social value none the less, for the elite and peasantry alike. Even amongst secular people, rituals like placing flowers on a grave are observed as a basically instinctive reaction. Why is Prof M so eager to disparage them?