Chickens, goats, Jesus and the immorality of vicarious redemption

By Andrew L. Seidel
Staff Attorney
Freedom From Religion Foundation

Yesterday, the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, wrote about the Jewish practice of kapparot. Kapparot coincides with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Hasidic Jews grab a chicken by the wings and swing it around their heads three times to transfer their sins to the bird. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, while swinging the birds, the soon-to-be-redeemed supplicants chant, “This be my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This cock [or hen] shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace!”

Kapparot in Jerusalem on the eve of Yom Kippur. Photo by Fritz Cohen, from National Photo Collection of Israel, via Wikicommons.

If you know religion, you should know what comes next. The bird is ritually slaughtered. The slaughterer is vicariously redeemed—cleansed of all sins. Participants and PETA estimate that 50,000 chickens are slaughtered in Brooklyn alone. The bird carcasses are supposedly donated to the poor, though they are often thrown in the trash. [WARNINGThere is video evidence of the birds being thrown away, but it is disturbing. It shows bloody, dying birds on the ground, and trash bags full of dead chickens being thrown in a dumpster. It also shows the actual killing of the birds.]

It’s hard to watch that video and hear the constant screeching of terrified birds and not be sickened. As I watched it, I wondered what Christians would think. Do they realize that Christianity is Kapparot on an even grander scale? Jesus is nothing more than the scapegoat for Christians. He died for your sins. I often joke that if you don’t sin, Jesus died for nothing. But in all seriousness, the idea of vicarious redemption through human sacrifice is—to my mind—the most immoral religious idea. That our guilt and liabilities can be piled onto an innocent living being is disgusting in itself. That our guilt is expunged by extinguishing that innocent life is nothing short of barbaric.

This patently immoral doctrine is a total refutation of personal responsibility. You are not beholden to the people you’ve stolen from or who you’ve lied to—you’re forgiven because you accept your role in the execution of an innocent.

But this is what Christianity requires: reverence for the sacrifice of an innocent. Christianity reveres the scapegoat, the sacrifice, the kapparot chicken. The snuffing out of an innocent life is reason enough to loathe this immoral doctrine. But that a guilty person has somehow atoned for their transgressions by killing that innocent is worse. This is the doctrine of two wrongs making a right. Minor “sins” are forgiven by admitting your part in the murder of an innocent.

Jesus, if he lived, died for nothing. His death cannot absolve anyone of his or her mistakes. The world would be better off if people would stop piling their sins on the innocent and simply accept personal responsibility for their mistakes.

[Legal note: In 1992, The Supreme Court upheld animal sacrifice as a religious ritual in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993). The Court relied on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the same law that Hobby Lobby used to impose evangelical Christianity on its employees. To read more about RFRA’s problems, see here.]


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