Saturday, July 09, 2016

Does Moralistic Religion Promote Human Sacrifice and Other Moralistic Violence?

At the beginning of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius promises that his teaching of Epicurean atomism, according to which the world is governed by natural laws and not by the gods, will liberate human beings from the suffering caused by religion.  He recognizes that many people will see this teaching as promoting impious wickedness, because the gods are not understood as enforcing a moral law in human affairs.  Lucretius's answer to this objection is to argue, on the contrary, that the religious belief in moralistic gods will support the most impious and wicked crimes, and he illustrates this with the story of Agamemnon sacrificing the life of his first-born daughter Iphigeneia to appease the anger of the goddess Artemis, who had sent unfavorable winds to detain the Greek fleet at Argos.  Thus, a father's natural love for his daughter was overcome by the religious belief that the gods could intervene into human affairs and command the killing of his innocent daughter.

Lucretius concludes: "Such evils could religion prompt" (1.101).  This is one of the most famous lines in Lucretius's book.  Voltaire praised this as one of the most insightful ideas in the book.

The fearful evils of religion arise, Lucretius believes, from the fear of the gods, and particularly the fear of eternal punishment by the gods after death.  Such fear is dispelled by seeing that the gods exist in some realm beyond our world, and that they live a self-sufficient life in not caring for us and not intervening in our world.  The natural world in which we live is governed by natural laws, and so "all things happen independently of the gods" (1.159).  By nature we are mortal, and so we must die.  But death is not fearful, because death is nothing to us, since we cannot suffer anything when we don't exist.  Death becomes fearful only when we have a religious belief in an afterlife with eternal divine judgment.  Such religious fears weaken our natural moral sense and promote unjust violence, such as human sacrifice, when we think we are obeying divine commands.

But is this true?  Wouldn't most religious believers today say that the belief that God demands the human sacrifice of innocent people is a false superstition rather than true religion?  And haven't some evolutionary scientists shown that the religious belief in moralistic gods--gods who enforce moral conduct by rewarding the good and punishing the bad, in this life and the next--was necessary to sustain human cooperation in the large agrarian states that began to emerge for the first time about 4,000 years ago?

Lucretius might have found some confirmation for his argument in some recent research on the evolution of ritual human sacrifice (Joseph Watts, et al., "Ritual Human Sacrifice Promoted and Sustained the Evolution of Stratified Societies," Nature 532 [2016]: 228-31).  This study examined 93 traditional Austronesian cultures (in parts of Asia and the South Pacific).  The scholars found that 40 of these cultures had practiced ritual human sacrifice, and that the practice of human sacrifice seemed to create and preserve social hierarchies.  Through human sacrifice, ruling elites could legitimize their power by claiming supernatural authority and by enforcing obedience by the intimidation of human sacrifice.  So while some evolutionary scientists have seen evidence that moralistic religions have supported cooperative behavior in large states, the scholars in this study suggest that there is a dark side to this that is evident in the religious practice of human sacrifice.

Even the Bible shows some evidence of human sacrifice, which must trouble Biblical religious believers.  The most famous example of this is in Genesis 22, where God decides to test Abraham's obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Abraham obeys, although an angel intervenes to stop his hand from plunging a knife into Isaac.  He has passed the test by showing that he was willing to engage in the ritual human sacrifice of his son.  According to Soren Kierkegaard, this shows the "teleological suspension of the ethical" in the Bible--that the faithful believer must obey any command of God, even when it is immoral.

Another example of human sacrifice in the Bible is Jephthah killing his daughter.  He had promised to God that if God gave him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice as a burnt offering to God the first person coming out of his house on his return.  The Ammonites were defeated, and when Jephthah returned, his daughter came out of his house to greet him.  According to his vow, Jephthah sacrificed her, and the Bible says nothing to indicate that this was mistaken (Judges 11:29-40).

The most prominent example of ritual human sacrifice in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus.  God demanded the ritual sacrifice of His only son, who was both fully human and fully divine, as atonement for human sin.

More generally, one might see the Biblical teaching of capital punishment for violating divine law as human sacrifice.  Blasphemy, apostasy, witchcraft, homosexuality, and many more crimes are to be punished by death.  Up to the middle of the 19th century, many Christian legal systems dictated capital punishment for hundreds of crimes.  Islamic sharia law continues this tradition of divinely commanded capital punishment.

Remarkably, even Thomas Aquinas upheld God's command to Abraham to kill his son, and he also upheld the killing of apostates in the Inquisition.

In recent history, most Christians, Jews, and Muslims have rejected divinely commanded human sacrifice or capital punishment.  Does this show the influence of a Lucretian natural science that denies or minimizes divine intervention into nature?  Today, if parents think God has commanded them to kill their children, we assume they are insane.

We are also less inclined today to believe in an afterlife with divine judgment and eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell.  Even the most fundamentalist Christians have largely given up any belief in Hell.  As indicated in a previous post, Dante's cosmic model of the universe with Heaven above and Hell below was replaced in the 17th century with a cosmic model that had a Heaven but not a Hell.  Increasingly, it seems that even devout Christians agree with Charles Darwin that eternal punishment in Hell is a "damnable doctrine."


R.K. said...

"Even the most fundamentalist Christians have largely given up any belief in Hell."

Definitely not true, and belief in it is not just confined to fundamentalists but also extends to Catholic apologists and others.

My feeling: while it does not make ethical sense I'm not convinced it doesn't "work" socially in lowering crime rates, etc. As such it may be one of those "paradoxes" that really isn't if we understand evolution as it really is:

Larry Arnhart said...

My empirical prediction is that any survey of sermons preached in Protestant and Catholic churches would show that extended sermonizing on Hell is almost completely absent.

R.K. said...

Oh, I agree that they don't preach about it much anymore (and definitely not in an extended sense), but I would predict that if polled the percentage of clergymen both Protestant and Catholic who accept the idea of hell would be found to be higher than the percentage who refuse to accept evolution.

BTW, I was raised in a fundamentalist church that refused to accept evolution. That was the main reason, though not the only reason, that I broke with it 40 years ago.

I think there is a sense now even among fundamentalists that talking about hell too much is a turnoff in this age of mass communication, and this is why the "fire and brimstone sermon" is heard far less often today, but if pressed they will still defend the idea. Also, you will see defenses of the concept on many Catholic sites.

I suspect this is in part due to a belief that people as a group have to have the threat of hell over them to keep them from violating the social order to a degree that it will cause disintegration. Any empirical evidence relating to this in either direction? The link I gave, ironically, I first found referred to on the TalkOrigins site.

Theologically and ethically, yes, I agree that the doctrine of the Good creator of everything creating Hell (directly or indirectly) for most of His creatures of intelligence has irresolvable problems. But that is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the belief in Hell produces a better society or not. Just like the question of whether or not evolution occurred is totally irrelevant to the question of whether acceptance of it is good for society. (I think there are a lot of conservative Protestants and Catholics who deep down know full well that the Genesis story of creation can't possibly be literal, but still defend it because they think it's better for the culture).

In other words, man being the imperfect creature that he is, there is no certainty that knowing the truth is always the best thing. I believe in searching for the truth wherever it leads, but I realize that maybe some people can't handle it right. This leads me back to my general belief that our goal has to be to seek balance. I have a curiosity which seeks the true answers, but other people may be far less comfortable with those answers. In between these ends where can we find the balance?