God

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Of course, in my case, the decision to confront the difficulties with my core beliefs wasn’t even really a decision at all. It wasn’t something I ever consciously chose to do. Rather, once I noticed that certain ideas within Christianity didn’t seem to make sense, there was nothing I could do to un-notice it – so I had to reckon with those ideas whether I wanted to or not.

The one question in particular that I couldn’t get out of my mind, like I said before, was the question of how to think about Jesus’s sacrifice if there was no such thing as Hell. If Hell didn’t exist, then why did Jesus have to die in order to save us from it? For that matter, why did Jesus have to die at all? As Dawkins puts it: “For heaven’s sake, if [God] wanted to forgive us, why didn’t he just forgive us? Who, after all, needed to be impressed by the blood and the agony? Nobody but himself.”

Of course, from outside the perspective of Christianity – just in purely anthropological terms – this question is perfectly easy to answer. Ritual sacrifices were commonplace in ancient religions – usually of animals, but sometimes of people as well. You probably know all about the Aztecs and their infamous human sacrifices, for instance; but such practices existed in every part of the world – including the parts of the ancient Middle East where Judaism and Christianity were born.

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The rationale for these sacrifices was pretty straightforward, as Pinker explains:

In an insightful book on the history of force, the political scientist James Payne suggests that ancient peoples put a low value on other people’s lives because pain and death were so common in their own. This set a low threshold for any practice that had a chance of bringing them an advantage, even if the price was the lives of others. And if the ancients believed in gods, as most people do, then human sacrifice could easily have been seen as offering them that advantage. “Their primitive world was full of dangers, suffering, and nasty surprises, including plagues, famines, and wars. It would be natural for them to ask, ‘What kind of god would create such a world?’ A plausible answer was: a sadistic god, a god who liked to see people bleed and suffer.” So, they might think, if these gods have a minimum daily requirement of human gore, why not be proactive about it? Better him than me.

And this idea of needing to appease a bloodthirsty god fits perfectly with all those stories of divinely-sanctioned slaughter from the Bible, including God’s constant demand for blood sacrifices in the form of “burnt offerings.” One of the Bible’s most chilling verses – what Dawkins calls “one of the most repugnant ideas ever to occur to a human mind” – is Hebrews 9:22, which says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” This is a theme that the biblical authors stress at every turn; the entire first third of Leviticus, for instance – nine straight chapters – consists entirely of God’s commandments regarding animal sacrifices – how he wants the victims’ heads cut off, how he wants their organs cut out of their bodies, how he wants their blood splashed around the altar, how he wants their carcasses set on fire, etc. He punctuates every section by reveling in the “sweet savour” of the blood and burning bodies, making it horrifyingly clear how much the carnage pleases him. And this sadism continues throughout the Bible; the sheer quantity of God’s commandments requiring blood sacrifice is staggering. (You can see the whole massive list here.) Starting with Cain and Abel, God makes it clear that he prefers offerings based on slaughter over those produced non-violently; Abel offers up some of his sheep that he’s killed, while Cain offers some of the produce that he’s harvested, “and the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect” (Genesis 4:4-5). (We all know how that story ends, of course.) Later on, the first thing Noah does after disembarking from the ark is to take a bunch of the animals that have just endured the harrowing voyage and kill them: “And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour.” (Genesis 8:20-21). Similarly, when God promises the Holy Land to Abraham, he has him sacrifice a bunch of animals to mark the occasion (Genesis 15:9-17). And so on and so on. As Templeton sums up:

Worship would have been a violent and bloody scene, difficult for the modern Christian to associate with the God he has been told to love and call “Father.” Why, one might ask, would a purportedly loving and compassionate God require such carnage as evidence of repentance and obedience?

Templeton then explains the disparity by pointing out that the biblical God is actually far more similar to the other ancient gods, whose wrath could only be placated through bloodshed, than he is to the modern-day idea of a more loving and compassionate God:

The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practising Christians. He is an all-too-human deity with the human failings, weaknesses, and passions of men – but on a grand scale. His justice is often, by modern standards, outrageous, and his prejudices are deep-seated and inflexible. He is biased, querulous, vindictive, and jealous of his prerogatives. A careful rereading of the Old Testament only confirmed my doubts about the deity portrayed there. Wanting to believe, I found it impossible. The god revealed there is a primitive tribal god.

Again, as unthinkable as we might consider such a god nowadays, in biblical times these traits were considered perfectly normal for a god to have. None of God’s followers so much as batted an eye when he commanded them to start slashing the throats of helpless animals for no reason other than his own personal enjoyment; and in a number of cases, they were even willing to sacrifice their fellow human beings on God’s command – including members of their own family – without ever considering it strange that their God could actually want such a thing. When God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, for instance (Genesis 22), Abraham doesn’t seem to consider this request to be out of character for God at all – he doesn’t wonder if it might be a demon trying to fool him or anything like that – he simply sets right to the task. When God grants Jephthah victory in battle, he accepts the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter as payment, and no one ever questions it (Judges 11:29-40). God also accepts human sacrifices in 2 Samuel 21:1-14, in which his wrath against Israel (in the form of a three-year famine) is only pacified when two of Saul’s sons and five of his grandsons are put to death and “hung up before the Lord” as their mother desperately tries to chase the flesh-eating birds and beasts away from her sons’ bodies. Similarly, when Josiah kills a bunch of idolatrous priests and burns their bodies on their own altars as an offering to God, the Bible endorses his actions by saying, “he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD” (1 Kings 13:2, 2 Kings 23:20, 2 Chronicles 34:1-7). There’s also the Midianite massacre mentioned earlier, in which God not only orders the killing of thousands of men, women, and children, but also stipulates that some of the female virgins be set aside so that they can be offered up as a special sacrifice to him (Numbers 31:25-40). God even includes such a provision in the Ten Commandments (the Exodus 34 ones, not the Exodus 20 ones), asserting that the firstborn of every family, “both man and beast,” must be given to him (Exodus 34:19-20). He also reiterates this in Exodus 13:1-2, Exodus 22:29, and Numbers 3:13. And despite including a line in Exodus 34:20 about how firstborn sons are to be “redeemed” or “ransomed” (i.e. bought back) and a substitute sacrifice offered in their place, he immediately turns around and says in Leviticus 27:28-29 that nothing devoted to him, whether it be “man or beast,” may be bought back in this way, “but shall surely be put to death.”

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As Susan Niditch writes:

While there is still considerable controversy about the matter, the consensus of scholars over the last decade concludes that child sacrifice was a part of ancient Israelite religion, to large segments of Israelite communities of various periods.

Naturally, this practice would eventually prove to be a major source of shame and embarrassment for them, so later edits and additions to the Bible would attempt to rationalize it and pretend that God never wanted it in the first place. Passages like Deuteronomy 12:29-31 and Deuteronomy 18:9-10 denounce child sacrifice as a barbaric practice of rival religions, and suggest that if any Israelites imitated it, they were only doing so out of misguided ignorance. Ezekiel 20:25-26 bites the bullet and admits that God did in fact order the Israelites to sacrifice their firstborn children, but adds that he was only doing so in order to remind them of his power, not because he enjoyed it:

I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD.

Still, despite these verses expressing apparent regret for the practice of human sacrifice on a civilizational scale – and it does seem fair to say that the sacrifice of firstborn children, at least, was falling out of favor at the time the Bible was being written – the theme that keeps recurring in the Bible is that certain specific, isolated acts of human sacrifice can and do earn divine favor. And there’s no better example of this than the sacrifice of Jesus himself.

Let’s go back to that idea of sacrificial substitution mentioned a moment ago – the concept of “redeeming” one sacrifice for another. (This is mentioned in verses like Exodus 13:13 and Exodus 34:20 – “the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck”). If the idea rings a bell, there’s a good reason why; the foundational premise of the Christian religion is that people can be redeemed via just such a substitution. The Bible explains it in depth: According to Hebrews 9-10, the Judeo-Christian God is a god of blood. He requires constant killing in order to appease him (in the form of ritual sacrifices), and without these sacrifices, there can be no forgiveness of sins. But the continual sacrifice of bulls and goats can only go so far; it can never completely purge people of their sins on a permanent basis. Therefore, an even greater blood offering is required – a sacrifice to end all sacrifices – and it can’t just be a normal animal sacrifice; it has to be a human sacrifice. What’s more, it can’t just be an ordinary human; only the killing of someone who’s totally pure and innocent can truly appease God. Hence, the execution of Jesus serves as this final sacrifice, and it’s through his death that all of his followers are redeemed. As 1 Peter 1:18-19 puts it, Christians are “bought back” not with “corruptible things, as silver and gold […] but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” (1 Corinthians 5:7 similarly refers to Jesus as “our Passover Lamb [who] has been sacrificed for us,” and this image of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb is echoed throughout the Bible.) Jesus is the ultimate offering, intended to satisfy God’s thirst for blood and punishment once and for all. In the end, then, Christianity is fundamentally a religion of human sacrifice designed to appease a wrathful God.

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Harris gives his thoughts on the subject:

Humanity has had a long fascination with blood sacrifice. In fact, it has been by no means uncommon for a child to be born into this world only to be patiently and lovingly reared by religious maniacs, who believe that the best way to keep the sun on its course or to ensure a rich harvest is to lead him by tender hand into a field or to a mountaintop and bury, butcher, or burn him alive as offering to an invisible God. Countless children have been unlucky enough to be born in so dark an age, when ignorance and fantasy were indistinguishable from knowledge and where the drumbeat of religious fanaticism kept perfect time with every human heart.

In fact, almost no culture has been exempt from this evil: the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Aztecs, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesians, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and innumerable other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

In many societies, whenever a new building was constructed, it was thought only prudent to pacify the local deities by burying children alive beneath its foundations (this is how faith sometimes operates in a world without structural engineers). Many societies regularly sacrificed virgins to ward off floods. Others killed their first-born children, and even ate them, as a way of ensuring a mother’s ongoing fertility. In India, living infants were ritually fed to sharks at the mouth of the Ganges for the same purpose. Indians also burned widows alive so that they could follow their husbands into the next world. Leaving nothing to chance, Indians also sowed their fields with the flesh of a certain caste of men, raised especially for this purpose and dismembered while alive, to ensure that every crop of turmeric would be appropriately crimson. The British were actually hard pressed to put an end to these pious atrocities.

In some cultures whenever a nobleman died, other men and women allowed themselves to be buried alive so as to serve as his retainers in the next world. In ancient Rome, children were occasionally slaughtered so that the future could be read in their entrails. Some Fijian prodigy devised a powerful sacrament called “Vakatoga” which required that a victim’s limbs be cut off and eaten while he watched. Among the Iroquois, prisoners taken captive in war were often permitted to live among the tribe for many years, and even to marry, all the while being doomed to be flayed alive as an oblation to the God of War; whatever children they produced while in captivity were disposed of in the same ritual. Certain African tribes have a long history of murdering people to send as couriers in a one-way dialogue with their ancestors or to convert their body parts into magical charms. Ritual murders of this sort continue in many African societies to this day.

It is essential to realize that such obscene misuses of human life have always been explicitly religious. They are the product of what people think they know about invisible gods and goddesses, and of what they manifestly do not know about biology, meteorology, medicine, physics, and a dozen other specific sciences that have more than a little to say about the events in the world that concern them. And it is astride this contemptible history of religious atrocity and scientific ignorance that Christianity now stands as an absurdly unselfconscious apotheosis. The notion that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that his death constitutes a successful propitiation of a “loving” God is a direct and undisguised inheritance of the superstitious bloodletting that has plagued bewildered people throughout history.

Of course, the God of Abraham was no stranger to ritual murder. Occasionally, He condemns the practice (Deuteronomy 12:31; Jeremiah 19:4-5; Ezekiel 16:20-21); at other points, He requires or rewards it (Exodus 22:29-30; Judges 11:29-40; 1 Kings 13:1-2; 2 Kings 3:27; 2 Kings 23:20-25; Numbers 31:40, Deuteronomy 13:13-19). In the case of Abraham, God demands that he sacrifice his son Isaac but then stays his hand at the last moment (Genesis 22:1-18), without ever suggesting that the act of slaughtering one’s own child is immoral. Elsewhere, God confesses to inspiring human sacrifice so as to defile its practitioners (Ezekiel 20:26), while getting into the act Himself by slaying the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 11:5). The rite of circumcision emerges as a surrogate for child sacrifice (Exodus 4:24-26), and God seems to generally encourage the substitution of animals for people. Indeed, His thirst for the blood of animals, as well as His attentiveness to the niceties of their slaughter and holocaust, is almost impossible to exaggerate.

Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist is rumored to have said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). For most Christians, this bizarre opinion still stands, and it remains the core of their faith. Christianity is more or less synonymous with the proposition that the crucifixion of Jesus represents a final, sufficient offering of blood to a God who absolutely requires it (Hebrews 9:22-28). Christianity amounts to the claim that we must love and be loved by a God who approves of the scapegoating, torture, and murder of one man – his son, incidentally – in compensation for the misbehavior and thought-crimes of all others.

Let the good news go forth: we live in a cosmos, the vastness of which we can scarcely even indicate in our thoughts, on a planet teeming with creatures we have only begun to understand, but the whole project was actually brought to a glorious fulfillment over twenty centuries ago, after one species of primate (our own) climbed down out of the trees, invented agriculture and iron tools, glimpsed (as through a glass, darkly) the possibility of keeping its excrement out of its food, and then singled out one among its number to be viciously flogged and nailed to a cross.

Add to this abject mythology surrounding one man’s death by torture – Christ’s passion – the symbolic cannibalism of the Eucharist. Did I say “symbolic”? Sorry, according to the Vatican it is most assuredly not symbolic. In fact, the judgment of the Council of Trent remains in effect:

I likewise profess that in the Mass a true, proper and propitiatory sacrifice is offered to God on behalf of the living and the dead, and that the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, and that there is a change of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into blood; and this change the Catholic Church calls transubstantiation. I also profess that the whole and entire Christ and a true sacrament is received under each separate species.

Of course, Catholics have done some very strenuous and unconvincing theology in this area, in an effort to make sense of how they can really eat the body of Jesus, not mere crackers enrobed in metaphor, and really drink his blood without, in fact, being a cult of crazy cannibals. Suffice it to say, however, that a world view in which “propitiatory sacrifices on behalf of the living and the dead” figure prominently is rather difficult to defend in the year 2007. But this has not stopped otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people from defending it.

Viewed from this outside perspective, it’s evident that Christianity really is based on some terrifyingly bloody ideas at its root. All the talk of Jesus’s sacrifice and “the blood that was spilled for us” might seem perfectly normal to someone who has grown up in the Church and has heard it so often that they’ve become desensitized and no longer register it on a visceral level – but just imagine how it might sound to someone who’d never heard of Christianity before. I remember a post that was floating around the internet a few years ago (unfortunately I can’t find the original source), which said:

Can someone help me out? I’m trying to remember the name of a particular death cult. The central theme is the glorification of an act of human sacrifice. They celebrate this with ritualistic symbolic cannibalism. Their idol is a torture device, which they usually display a large replica of where they meet, and they believe everybody not in their cult deserves to be set on fire. Any ideas?

And when I saw this post, I had to admit, there wasn’t actually anything in there that was untrue. Technically, Christianity really was a religion that, at its core, was based on a belief in the wonderful redemptive power of bloodshed and death. It glorified the sacrificial killing of innocent people and animals solely for God’s satisfaction, and its culmination was the act of killing the most pure and innocent person of all, solely because God required it. (Of course, the question of whether Jesus’s death counts as a “true” sacrifice is debatable, since he simply came back three days later, good as new, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

Again, though, I found myself feeling like all this brutality just fundamentally didn’t match up with the idea I had in my head of what God was really like. Maybe the idea of blood sacrifice seemed perfectly natural to all those ancient tribes – including those who would become the first Christians – but the God I worshiped wasn’t the kind of bloodthirsty deity that would require violent acts of murder in order to forgive his children; he was a God of peace, whose forgiveness came from his unconditional love. The idea of him wanting some of his beloved creations to gratuitously slaughter others of his beloved creations – not just for the forgiveness of sins, but for any reason – just didn’t seem compatible with the idea of his infinite love and compassion that I’d so deeply internalized.

Not only that, but even if I granted the premise that God’s justice had to be served, and tried to think about it from that perspective, it still didn’t make sense to me that God would accept the killing of a completely innocent person or animal in lieu of wrongdoers themselves actually being responsible for their own actions. How was that serving justice, exactly? As Paine put it:

If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.

Just to drive home this point, imagine how Christianity’s line of reasoning would work in any other situation. Barker gives one of the best possible illustrations of this:

And NonStampCollector has one that’s equally revealing:

In under two minutes, these clips manage to show just how untenable the central premise of Christianity really is, both in moral terms and, frankly, in terms of basic sanity. How does God killing his own son in order to forgive our sins make sense at any kind of fundamental level?

It gets even more nonsensical once you consider the belief that Jesus himself actually is God the Father, as Christianity claims – that they’re one and the same being. (At least, some parts of the Bible claim this; other parts contradict it.) If you take that belief to its logical conclusion, it means that God essentially sacrificed himself to himself – and that he did it in order to create a loophole in a rule that he created, so as to persuade himself to forgive us for being the way that he made us, and to save us from the cruel punishment that he created for us (and moreover, that all of this only applies if we believe in the arrangement itself). The whole narrative just doesn’t make any sense.

If you only watch two clips from this entire post, watch the two below. The first one is from NonStampCollector:

And the second one is from TheoreticalBullshit:

These two clips summarize the central flaws in the Christian worldview that, for me, finally undercut the structural integrity of the whole framework in such a fundamental way that I finally had to take a step back and question the validity of the whole thing. I’d encountered a lot of challenging ideas throughout my whole process of critically reexamining my beliefs, but it was only when I had to reckon with these most foundational ones that I felt like I was finally starting to reach the critical tipping point. If the core theology of Christianity wasn’t even coherent, then the religion itself didn’t have a leg to stand on. And if it didn’t have a leg to stand on, I would have to admit that whatever the truth about God was, it wasn’t Christianity.

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