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Nearly every social commentator appeals to the conservative Christian community to be tolerant of other religious traditions. After all, we live in a religiously pluralistic society. The assumption is that religion is a benign choice, little different from picking one car model over another. Therefore all religious traditions should be tolerated and accepted as valid expressions of faith. In biblical terms, such an approach to differing religious opinions cannot be tolerated since eternal consequences are at stake. There is no neutrality. God does not tolerate rival religions, and neither should we.
Of course, in terms of the religious pluralism paradigm, I have blasphemed. I have insulted today’s pantheon of gods and goddesses, whoever or whatever they might be. The gods, in addition to being crazy, will also be angry with me because I dare to proclaim without reservation that all religions, no matter how well intentioned, are false except biblical Christianity. Jesus made it clear that there is one God, and He does not share His glory with another. All those who claim to be gods or goddesses are usurpers who have no more a spark of divinity than a block of wood (Isa. 40:20).
I am tired of hearing Christians talk about “people of faith.” We’re all people of faith. People have faith in Allah, the cosmos, spirits, crystals, Buddha, chance, man, evolution, natural selection, politics (as this election has shown), ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Take your pick. There are enough of them to go around.
Even atheists are people of faith. They believe—the essence of —that the cosmos in all of its complexity, mystery, and splendor evolved from a super condensed spec of matter that came into existence out of nothing. Richard Dawkins believes “the origin of all matter was an entirely spontaneous event . . . that something can be created out of nothing.” This is a tenet of an irrational religion, and when taken to its logical conclusion cannot be the basis of any moral absolute. What ethical significance can be drawn from the bursting forth of a micro-cosmic egg? None at all. That’s the problem.
Pluralism is hard to fight because religious rivals of Christianity shape their belief systems in the form of the original. All competing religions are counterfeits. Some look more like the original than others, but in the end, they are still counterfeits. Of course, this complicates things. The common features—belief in a higher power, a similar system of ethics, respect for things holy—lead many people to believe that all religions are essentially the same and should be given equal respect and support. From a distance, America’s religious quilt looks like a seamless garment. Once the essence of any religion is minimized and its common features enhanced, all religions begin to look like all the others. But Christians know better, or at least they should.
America began as a Christian nation. Gradually, however, compromise entered. Incrementally Christians tolerated changes within the Christian worldview. At first the changes were minimal, hardly noticeable, but tolerated by the majority. But over time, a little here, a little there, orthodoxy gave way to gradations of heterodoxy.
How could a heterodox “Christianity” evaluate and judge heterodox religions? How could the pot call the kettle black? Orthodox Christianity is no longer the standard. All religions are gathered under the same general heading of “faith.” If a distinction is made in any of them it is this: All religions are valid and should be tolerated except any religion that maintains that all religions are not valid and should not be tolerated.
We have to return to less halcion days to understand what the fuss is all about. How would today’s religious pluralists have responded to Montezuma and the religious beliefs of the Aztecs? Can you imagine Cortez appealing to Montezuma based on pluralist ideals? I can hear Cortez now: “Can’t we just get along?”
While Cortez’s arrival caused Montezuma fear and dread, it gave hope to many of the Indian tribes who suffered under Aztec rule. The Aztecs had raided neighboring tribes for years, capturing thousands of victims for human sacrifice, a central part of Aztec religion. Cortez and his men were horrified at the Aztec’s slaughter of countless human lives. Aztec temples were literally stacked with human skulls. So when the Spaniards made their way toward Mexico, local tribesmen who feared and hated Montezuma followed after the conquerors, urging them to attack without mercy.
When Cortez entered the Aztec capital, he spotted the center of religious worship, the sacrificial pyramid. He made his way up the hundred and fourteen steps with a number of his best soldiers following close behind. Montezuma was at the top waiting for him. What Cortez and battle-hardened men saw shocked them like nothing they had ever seen before. Montezuma had just sacrificed some boys to keep the gods happy, and there was blood everywhere. Bernal Diaz, an eyewitness, describes the scene: “All the walls . . . were so splashed and encrusted with blood that they were black, the floor was the same and the whole place stank vilely. . . . The walls were so clotted with blood and the soil so bathed with it that in the slaughterhouses of Spain there is not such another stench.”
Cortez left the blood-drenched temple to compose himself in the fresh air. Speaking to Montezuma through an interpreter, Cortez told the Aztec leader that he could not understand how such a wise ruler could believe in these pagan gods. They were not gods, Cortez admonished him, but rather devils. Montezuma was outraged. “We consider our gods to be good. They give us health and rains and good harvests and victories in war.” Of course, the gods were not good to the thousands of victims sacrificed every year.
As the Spaniards climbed down the temple pyramid and made their way through the city, they saw more unspeakable horrors. They passed rooms where the bodies of sacrificial victims were being prepared for feasts. They saw racks that held more than a hundred thousand human skulls.
Aztec society was built on blood, the blood of thousands of helpless victims. This senseless slaughter had to end, and Cortez believed that he was called by God to accomplish the task.
Cortez vowed to rid Mexico of paganism. He preached the gospel to the tribes throughout Mexico. People who knew that they could have become human sacrifices to false gods were amazed to hear that the God who made the world had sacrificed Himself for them, shedding His blood for their salvation. But Cortez did more than preach. He toppled the idols and burned their temples. The first pagan temple to go was the one in the center of Tenochtitlan. The idols were removed and the priests were forced to scrub the bloodstained walls clean and whitewash them with lime water. So much for religious toleration and pluralism.
Attempts by historical revisionists to paint Indians as peaceful natives who dwelled in the splendor of an unspoiled Eden is a gross corruption of the historical record. Truth is stranger and more appalling than fiction:
In ancient Mexico, human sacrifice was an offering to the gods of people’s most precious possession, their blood. The custom that most startled the Spaniards, ritual cannibalism, was in fact the attainment of a spiritual idea: It was a true communion.
Aztec priests threw their victims down on a sacrificial stone, opened the chest with a flint knife, and pulled out the still beating heart, which was then burned in a stone urn. “Each year thousands of Aztecs had their hearts cut out of their living bodies and offered to the Sun god, who was also their god of war. Thousands more were burned alive, skinned, and drowned as offerings to other gods.” How would today’s historical revisionist explain the daily bloodletting? I can just see it now. “The Aztecs were a highly advanced culture, especially in the area of medicine. Open heart surgery was practiced on a regular basis. Rarely if ever did a patient live, but it was the courage of the Aztecs to attempt the impossible that set them apart from their Spanish rivals.”
We’re told that the “Inca were never that bloodthirsty. When they needed a special favor from the gods, hundreds were sacrificed.” Hundreds, thousands, what’s a few sacrificial victims between religious pluralists? We need to be more tolerant of their beliefs since the Incas were not malicious when they sacrificed their victims. Actually, the priests were doing them a favor.
Terrible as human sacrifice seems to us, we should remember that the Inca thought it necessary to their well-being. Sacrificial victims were not being punished for any crime; they were being rewarded for their beauty. The killing was done as painlessly as possible and without anger or hatred. Being sacrificed was, indeed, an honor that guaranteed eternal life with the gods and thus a “favor.”
Written in the spirit of pluralism and toleration of everyone’s religion, even if they dig out your heart with a flint knife. If you’re one of the most favored, you might be drugged with coca (to ease the pain), dressed in fine clothes, and strangled with a rope before they tear your palpitating heart from your chest.
Certainly the Catholic Conquistadores had their faults. Even so, their exploits, both religious and military, nearly eradicated ritual human sacrifice from Central and South America. It was Cortez’s repudiation of religious pluralism that liberated those tribes who suffered under the Aztec’s bloody religion.
William A. Hamilton, who formerly taught Western civilization at Nebraska Wesleyan University, offers a much needed antidote to the misguided efforts of today’s multiculturalists:
The point is not to put down pre-Columbian culture. But before the politically correct multiculturists assign Columbus to the ash heap of history, let us not dismiss the conquistadores as less civilized than the natives they encountered. They ended massive ritual human sacrifice.
By the way, human sacrifice still persists. In 1988 a male college student was brought to a remote site near Lake Titicaca in Peru. There his throat was slit. His blood was then used as part of an ancient Incan religious ritual. Patrick Tierney, author of The Highest Altar, believes that “regular seasonal sacrifices” still take place in the Andes.
Have we moved beyond the horrors of religious pluralism? Not far enough. Kay Haugaard has taught creative writing since 1970. As with most of her classes, students read and discuss Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” Jackson’s lottery isn’t about winning millions of dollars by picking the right Lotto numbers; it’s about human sacrifice that a small town accepts and takes part in with no questions asked. Of course, the premise is absurd. Or is it?
As the years of teaching this story have passed, Haugaard began to see a change in the moral perceptions of her students. Their views on right and wrong had been dulled by the rhetoric of moral neutrality, “the danger of just ‘going along’ with something habitually, without examining its rationale and value.” Haugaard’s closing comments are chilling:
No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.
I wound up the discussion. “Frankly, I feel it’s clear that the author was pointing out the dangers of being totally accepting followers, too cowardly to rebel against obvious cruelties and injustices.” I was shaken, and I thought that the author, whose story had shocked so many, would have been shaken as well.
The class finally ended. It was a warm night when I walked to my car after class that evening, but I felt shivery, chilled to the bone.
We’ve become a nation of moral bystanders. Deep down we know certain behaviors are wrong, but we’ve been cajoled into believing that nothing can be said in objection to the new amoral climate. If we do react, we are labeled “intolerant” and “insensitive” to different “lifestyle choices.” Christians are told that they are not being “loving” when they enter an opposing opinion on moral questions. These changes in moral perceptions and attitudes have been stunning. “After the horrendous crime against the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, a young Yale student has this observation: ‘Absent was a general outcry of indignation . . . [M]y generation is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking, whether a moral wrong has taken place.’” Is it any wonder?