[NOTE: This article used to be available online. I can no longer find it, so have reposted it. It is important, less so for it’s critique of Sam Harris than for it’s highlighting of the continuing evils of human sacrifice—often aided and abetted by Christians. It is also available as an Appendix is the latest edition of my Return of the Village Atheist.]
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13)
In another example of what has come to typify his militancy as an atheist, Sam Harris has blazoned the gruesome subject of blood sacrifice. In his recent article for Newsweek Magazine, “The Sacrifice of Reason,” after enumerating instances where pagan tribes slaughtered humans in rituals everywhere from simple burnings to child sacrifice to eating people alive, Harris sees it necessary to conclude, “It is essential to realize that such impossibly stupid misuses of human life have always been explicitly religious.”
Despite Sam calling his point “essential,” his lust to paint all religion with the same blemish has once again led him into intellectual extravagance. For starters, it was the spread of Christianity that put an end to such practices for the most part—at least as far as it has spread—and this was due to the fact that the principles found in Scripture where recognized as supernatural (and genuinely “essential”) truth. In fact, it was part of the most ancient Jewish tradition that God condemned human sacrifice, and judged the pagan nations for it (Lev. 18:21; 20:2; Deut. 12:31; Wisdom 12:6). That aside, Sam’s continuing efforts to smear all faith as inhuman heresy has blinkered his own eyes from seeing simple, easy-to-find facts of history.
Incidentally: No, such atrocities have explicitly not always been religious in nature. Thus, Sam’s conclusion to the previous quotation can only draw a grimace from any genuine student of religion. He insists that since all of the pagan human sacrifices were the products of religion, therefore they are
the product of what certain human beings 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.
This is where some real scholarship may have benefited our militant pundit. Many of the civilizations that indulged, ritually and/or publicly, in human sacrifice, have been the most civilized, prosperous, and otherwise rational peoples in history. Such was the concern of one of our most respected historians and champions of human freedom, Lord Acton, in his early essay, “Human Sacrifice.” The twenty-nine year old scholar took as his opponent no less than the historian Lord Macaulay, who had denied that the civilized Romans could ever have been involved in such barbarism as human sacrifice. In page after painful page, Acton proves him wrong. Some of the nuances of such a study—which nuances any student of the subject should feel bound to honor—appear in Acton’s work. The expert thinks critically, and draws important distinctions:
When a nation of fanatics wages a war of extermination against those who do not worship its gods, and piles up pyramids of bodies, the idea of honoring the divinity does but dimly tinge the savage thirst for blood.
People hardly require religion in order to begin ritually butchering each other for any number of reasons. Human avarice can trump any faith, or even none at all (did such a thing exist). Likewise, civilized peoples can use religion, ideology, or non-religion to justify their crimes against humanity. Sam’s charge hardly applies to religion alone.
Indeed, ancient Assyria and Phoenicia, which “led the civilization of Asia, and invented the alphabet,” also gave us “the most enduring form of human sacrifice concerning which we have definitive history.” Likewise, human sacrifice was incredibly prevalent in ancient Greece, mingled with the advance of philosophy, astronomy, medicine, even the origin of the Hippocratic Oath (“never do harm”). While a couple of their own writers may have despised the sacrifices, it took the advance of Christianity to bring them to an end, or at the very least, to drive them underground. Human sacrifice in many ancient cultures did not depend on a lack of scientific knowledge, nor for that matter did it necessarily depend on religion itself.
Yet there is an essential distinction to be made between those cases in which a religious idea has been superadded to a barbarous custom, giving it an outward hypocritical varnish, and those in which the inhuman rite can be directly traced to a theological idea.
An important distinction! One we see not even a hint of anywhere in Sam’s writings. Only broad, unbelievably crude generalizations. And yet such distinctions are so vital that Acton concludes, “Without this distinction the subject will remain obscure, and its discussion will only lead into profitless generalities.”
The Sacrifice of Identity
“Profitless generalities.” That phrase could stand as a description of nearly all of Sam’s criticism of religion, which so often echoes to the common ear something like, “Radical Muslims fly planes into buildings; radical Muslims have faith; therefore, all faith is bad!” And mine is no unique rebuke. Many of Sam’s critics—whether conservative, liberal, or fellow atheist—have called him out on such “profitless generalities.” But, I suspect, as long as book sales and paid speeches continue, they’re not so “profitless” for at least one person.
It may be our atheist’s obvious retort to say that I am splitting historical hairs. Even if some of the sacrifices Acton outlines were not carried out as religious rituals—real-time bloody liturgies—they were still the product of religious cultures and given a religious sanction. Is it not clear that even in these cases it is religion that justifies “such impossibly stupid misuses of human life”?
But if we fast forward just a bit to the—and here we go again—explicitly atheistic rule of, say, Bolshevik Russia, the same argument fails. It is here that our atheist strains in order to say that such atheists were just bad atheists, and that the incredibly wicked abuses of human life in that milieu did not actually happen “in the name of” atheism. Well, I’m sorry, but only devout atheists are buying that line. The millions of humans sacrificed on the pyre of the Atheist-Marxist tradition were, without question, the direct result of atheists reasoning from their atheism, as atheists, essentially asking the question, “Given that God doesn’t exist, how can we now ‘scientifically’ restructure humanity, law, economics, society?” And the bodies piled up. Given the assumptions of that society, sacrificing humans made reasonable economic sense.
But for Sam to concede this point would blow his whole case that religion as religion is bad simply because all religious faith is bad. So he continues, even though he has been criticized for it numerous times since his first book, to parade before us the worst religious atrocities of history, and then announce, “Here is a picture of how you Christians believe!” This is no exaggeration. After his parade of pagan human sacrifices, he lines up the Sacrifice of Christ as just one more example, quoting the Gospel for emphasis, Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29). (One must appreciate our hip leftist’s use of the King James Version. It betrays that underneath his rudeness to faith in general, he has some taste.)
For Christians worldwide, the willing sacrifice of Christ is the beginning of the salvation of humanity, and demands the end of all ritual human or other vicarious sacrifice. For Sam, John the Baptist’s announcement is a “bizarre opinion.” He believes we should use his very narrowly defined “reason” like “Occam’s razor”: to shave away from our worldview everything we cannot see or touch. For Christians, the fact that Christ was murdered by unbelievers exemplifies how refusing to see the truth of religion itself can lead to human sacrifice. Only by sacrificing the unique identity of Christianity, and crudely lumping it with paganism, can Sam maintain his argument.
Sam’s Double Standard
Just as well as making a distinction between good atheists and bad atheists, why not at least try to see the ancient distinction between true religion and false doctrine? By way of example, the classic French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) wrote a rambling though interesting essay “Of Cannibals.” He describes savage tribes—much like the ones Sam describes—that had been discovered and related by travelers of his era. His account of the cannibals’ religion shares a striking similarity with many descriptions of Christianity: “They believe their souls to be immortal, and that they who have deserved well of the gods have their abode in that quarter of the heavens where the sun rises.” We could take from this surface commonality that since Christians believe in immortality and heaven just like the savages did, they therefore open themselves up to “other” misguided and irrational propositions like killing for God; and therefore Sam does well in judging the followers of Christ with as much shame and suspicion as those vicious man-eaters. Could the parallel really mean something this ominous?
Those who seek for clarity know better. Montaigne continues of the cannibals, “[T]heir moral teaching contains only these two articles: resoluteness in war and affection for their wives.” In the light of this scant moral code the apparent similarity with Christianity contrasts nearly as much as atheism with Christianity. While most Christians would support faithfulness and resolve in a war (were it a just and necessary war), such a virtue is far from the essence, or even half the essence, of our faith. As well, even though Christians would preach the need for affection toward one’s wife, such affection is a special instance of the greater imperative to love your neighbor in general. Not to mention, Montaigne’s cannibals were polygamists, and thus their “affection for their [many] wives” had as much to do with gaining more wives as a mark of status than it did with anything rivaling Christian love.
It is no wonder that when Christianity spread and encountered tribes like this, it reformed their concepts of affection and resolve, and it lifted their moral code beyond the primal urges of war and sex. Christianity replaced vengeful human sacrifice with the willing self-sacrifice of Christ in our place. This act of transcendent love is the example that begets our own love for neighbor, family, wives, and even intellectual opponents. The twin pillars of love for Christ and love of neighbor transformed society, instilled the foundations of peace and prosperity, and will continue to do so today when honored.
So you can see that delving just a little bit beneath the surface of names and vague generalities, and engaging with specific articles of faith, can expose a vital distinction between good beliefs and false—or at least incomplete—beliefs. When we do this, a huge chasm opens up between religions, and the kind of comparisons Sam makes get exposed for the intellectual bait-and-switch that they are. It would have been as easy for Sam to search out these differences himself as it would be for him to try to define “good atheists” over against the atheistic mass murderers of the twentieth century, but he has not even addressed the same possibility among religious faiths. The double standard belies either a failure or a refusal to take journalistic responsibility seriously.
Rather than his knack for subtly making outrageous parallels, one would like to see Sam demonstrate an ability to make critical distinctions where proper, or at least respect the fact that millions of equally intelligent and widely read people make them both thoughtfully and effortlessly. On top of this, he could perhaps show some deftness with religious sources as well; which brings us to another point. It has been a joke in the “new atheist” world—with Richard Dawkins especially—to brush off the criticism that the new atheists have not read, let alone taken seriously, any essential works of Christian or other religious tradition or scholarship. The dismissal comes in the form of one internet writer’s polished prose which can be summed up, “Why waste time waxing eloquent about the fineries of royal fashion, when the point is that the Emperor has no clothes!” Or, as Dawkins himself has put it, “Do you need to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in them [leprechauns]?”
Go ahead, it’s OK to laugh. I chuckled, myself. It is as easy to reply to as to laugh at. One of our atheist’s self deceptions here is to affirm the case up front—that the Emperor is indeed naked, or that the subject is indeed as mythological as fairy tales—which are the very questions up for debate. Some of Richards’ critics may be a bit green, and his book sales have brought him a pot of gold, but done with the real debate we are not. You have two wishes left, Dick. And our current example from Harris only highlights the need for these atheists to engage more genuinely with the subject matter, and with the sources they pretend to refute. We get none of this from Harris. Only what amounts to this: “Ancient pagans sacrificed humans; Christianity involves the sacrifice of Christ; therefore, Christianity is every bit as dumb, ‘depraved and fantastical,’ and cannibalistic as those pagans were.”
Unfortunately, to avoid such subtle and menacing logical pitfalls requires one to draw distinctions and to be slow to draw conclusions—neither of which traits has Sam exhibited for us. So, I think Acton’s conclusion is safer, at least for now, that the pagans (and we could add some atheists, too, for that matter) embraced all forms of human sacrifice, not because of faith and religion in general, but because their faith and religion were warped. In their slaughters, they
sacrificed the most precious thing on earth, because they were ignorant of the death of that Victim who alone could take away the sins of the world.
Following the example of such a respectable scholar and defender of human liberty as Acton, it behooves us to make at least the fundamental distinction between types of religions, as well as their respective propositions about the meaning and value of human life (among other things), before we lump them together en masse as first-class cannibals (an ancient slander of Christians, by the way—nothing new with Sam). Until our atheist shows an ability and willingness to make such distinctions, he will continue to prove his numerous critics right—that Sam Harris is bent on gross generalization in order to maintain that all religious folk are intellectual kin to morons and terrorists. Of course, in the logic of that world, every atheist is a Bolshevik, too, and Occam’s razor a guillotine.
Human Sacrifice Today
What goes unstated or unnoticed is that human sacrifice continues openly today despite the advance of every measure of science and reason. In fact, we could say that the butchery is often aided and promoted by the march of both science and what passes as science. Likewise, human sacrifice in the “open society” is carried out by the most prosperous and self-appointedly rational people on earth: most of Western Civilization. The massacres continue under two main guises: abortion and unnecessary war.
The practice of abortion, from a pro-life perspective anyway, stands as an obvious modern counterpart to the ancient Moloch worship of sacrificing infants, only today done for human convenience, money, or social status, rather than religion. But don’t assume the difference is so great. The ancient pagans ritually killed infants as propitiation of a false god that didn’t exist. Today, it is done for the propitiation of a false god called man, humanity, society, woman’s rights, choice—this demon is legion. As a result, nothing has changed but the object of worship: society has exchanged a non-existent false god, Moloch, for an existent false god, man.
The case of war is no less controversial, but no less clear. Without any intended reference to the current (and waning) occupation of Iraq, it should be obvious that if any war is waged unjustly, and troops are killed in that battle for an ungodly cause, then the perpetrators of that war have offered human blood as an agent of social change, rather than relying on godly principles. This is human sacrifice pure and simple. Christians should not be afraid to oppose war, to oppose it vigorously, and to oppose hasty wars especially. Well does the prayer book of my [old] denomination include in its military prayer, “Ever spare them from being ordered into a war of aggression or oppression.” I have referred to the cannibals of Montaigne’s essay as having a moral code based in war and sex. With these foundations—the devolution of nearly all societies left to only the devices of man—it is no wonder that cannibalism and human sacrifice found center stage. The scary part is that the parallel to twentieth century life jumps out immediately. War and sex—evolution and abortion. The modern instances of human sacrifice are built upon the same sands as the cannibalism Montaigne and Acton describe.
What keeps our own civilization—as the influence of Christianity wanes (so we are told), and is constantly attacked—from complete savagery? One thought for now: our own times are delayed from devolving into utter barbarism partly due to the fact that our two instances of human sacrifice are held dear, for the most part, by two separate and competing factions, Left and Right. It is the sin, primarily but not exclusively, of the Right to over-glorify war; and it is the sin, primarily but not exclusively, of the Left to demand every possible right to abortion. This has not always been so—both revolutionary violence and abortion grew popular amidst the atheistic-Marxist tradition in the twentieth century—but currently conservatives tend to promote perpetual war, and liberals abortion on demand. If ever the twain should again meet, we will brink the down-slope to civil and societal collapse. For now, we are only creeping in that direction.
Human sacrifice thrived—and sometimes still does—within many civilizations throughout history, for both religious and explicitly non-religious reasons. It took a powerful religion to end the practice in many parts of the world. It is ridiculous to argue that it is religion that opens the door for such mindless ritual murder when it is obvious that religion is neither necessary nor sufficient in many cases, and that it is religion that most often has prevented it.
To imply that the meaning of the crucifixion of Christ within Christendom is on par with a savage eating his enemy’s heart in order to acquire his courage and power is a stupid misuse of information, and a devious swindle on the reading public’s mind. The stupid misuse of human life will continue until we gain a respect for each other as divine creations, as images of the divine, and until we find our orientation toward divine law and judgment. While humans sacrificed each other in vengeance or greed, God himself entered history, took on our flesh and blood, and then gave himself for the world. That’s not just more of the same, Sam. It’s the hope of humanity, and an example to be followed.
No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself (John 10:18).
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12–13).
[NOTE: This article used to be available online. I can no longer find it, so have reposted it. It is also available as an Appendix is the latest edition of my Return of the Village Atheist.]
 J. E. E. D. Acton, “Human Sacrifice,” Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality: Selected Writings of Lord Acton, 3 vols. ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988), 3:205.
 J. E. E. D. Acton, “Human Sacrifice,” Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality: Selected Writings of Lord Acton, 3 vols. ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988), 3:395–442.
 Acton, “Human Sacrifice,” 396.
 Acton, “Human Sacrifice,” 405.
 Acton, “Human Sacrifice,” 398.
 Acton, “Human Sacrifice,” 398.
 Acton, “Human Sacrifice,” 442.
 The Book of Common Prayer (Reformed Episcopal Church of North America, Third Edition, 2003) 63.