It’s amazing how different your upbringing can look to you after you get some distance from it. I grew up holding certain things as sacred which I now realize are nothing of the sort. Or perhaps I should say I see now that “sacredness” is a subjective value assigned to a thing by an individual or group. What makes it “sacred” is that it’s sacred to them.
Outside that group, however, the magic disappears. Things you once imbued with supernatural importance now look like, well…just things. There isn’t really anything special about them. The exceptionalism you were taught to see in your family’s traditions turns out to be a remarkably common thing.
You were taught to see your beliefs as special, just like everyone else. But then you leave your bubble and find out that your cultural traditions have an explainable history, an origin story that makes so much more sense out of what you were taught to believe. After you finally see it from the outside looking in, you see why people who weren’t raised inside the same bubble don’t believe the same things you believe.
You may also find it quite repulsive, looking back.
Other People’s Gods
Take religion, for example. Once you start formally studying world religions you learn there are logical, natural explanations for how they came to be.
Life in ancient Egypt was predictable and consistent because the climate in that area was equally predictable and consistent. Rains came and went with reliable punctuality, and the waters of the Nile rose and fell at the same leisurely pace every year, making agriculture pleasantly manageable.
Now how do you suppose their gods behaved? If you guessed they were predictable and consistent, you’d be correct. Like the natural environment in which the ancient Egyptians lived, the gods of Egypt were orderly and even-tempered. You knew what they wanted, and when you gave them what they asked for (through the priests, who benefited most from this system of worship), your crops thrived and your family enjoyed good health and fortune.
Over in ancient Mesopotamia, however, things were considerably different. Their climate was shifty and unpredictable. Floods came and went with little warning and often with devastating effect. The rains which produced their floods fell far away from the best farmlands, so they rarely knew what to expect. And since ancient people believed Nature measured the moods of the gods, ancient Mesopotamian gods were always getting mad about one thing or another. They were capricious and vindictive, and the trick was figuring out what set them off…and what could be done to appease their wrath.
That’s where the priesthood came in. Ancient Sumerian and Babylonian religions were filled with instructions about what you could and couldn’t do, and most importantly of all they had systems in place for atoning for the sins you committed against their deities. It almost always had something to do with feeding the priests—either through sacrificing animals or through offering grain and produce from the fruits of your own labors. How convenient for them.
Because these were barbaric times, these ancient religions quite often demanded bloodshed to mollify the gods. Crimes against humanity were punishable by death, so naturally sins against the gods demanded something be killed to make things better. Without bloodshed, sins could not be forgiven. In the earliest days, you had to sacrifice one of your own children. But the priests soon figured out you could just transfer your guilt onto an animal and kill it instead, in your place.
Barbaric, right? What would the world be like today if we demanded that something be killed every time you did something wrong? Good thing we don’t think that way anymore, right? At least not in civilized places like where we live, right?
Well, not so fast…we may not have evolved as far as we think. We may have gentrified our methods, but these same ancient ways of thinking undergird the beliefs of even the most sophisticated, well-educated people in the English speaking world thanks to the way religion preserves and protects beliefs from closer scrutiny.
Obsessed with Blood
Where I live, four out of five people identify as Christians. That religion was born in a time and place in which people still killed animals to appease divine wrath, only this particular offshoot innovated the process to make it less barbaric and more easily adaptable among a sophisticated people.
Instead of killing something every week or month or year, one single human sacrifice covered all sins in perpetuity…so long as you continue to observe the ceremonial meal which in effect reenacts the sacrifice every time you perform it. Once a week, priests would say magic Latin words over the meal, and then everyone would take a bite of the food and sip from the ceremonial cup, reapplying the forgiveness all over again, making the participants clean.
You might think that centuries later more modern, civilized people would turn their noses up at this kind of thinking, but you’d be wrong. To this day, even in post-industrial countries all over the world people still gather every single week to perform the same ceremony reenacting the human sacrifice that appeased the wrath of the pertinent deity, and robed priests still pronounce the same words over the meal to make the magic happen.
Some groups only observe the meal once a month, or just a few times a year, and some have decided the meal is purely symbolic. They no longer believe the food and the drink literally transmit the blood and the flesh of the sacrifice to the recipients of the meal, but they still talk and sing about the sacrifice in exactly the same ways as the ancient people did who first came up with this religion.
They sing about the blood. They talk about the human sacrifice being whipped bloody, then being stretched out over a cross and pierced in the hands and feet by nails, slowly suffocating to death. They talk about him being impaled by a Roman spear and they talk about his blood “covering” them, making them clean. Then they sing about it again. And again, and again, and again. So many songs about blood.
- Are You Washed in the Blood?
- Nothing But the Blood
- There is Power in the Blood
- There is a Fountain Filled with Blood
- The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power
Week after week, they celebrate the killing of a man to appease the wrath of their deity because that’s how you appease deities…something or someone must be brutally slaughtered. Two thousand years have passed since this formula was first created and yet people with advanced medical degrees and PhDs in things like physics still gather to celebrate how someone’s blood had to be shed for them to become pleasing to their god.
Does that not strike you as astoundingly weird? In retrospect, I’m amazed it didn’t always seem that way to me. The priests of this religion know they have to normalize it for you before you are old enough to possess critical thinking skills. Otherwise you’ll find it all horrifying.
Religion preserves ideas in a protective casing so that thousands of years later people still believe the same things. They still believe that in order to pay for upsetting an invisible Supreme Being, something has to die and shed blood, preferably something or someone who has done nothing to deserve it. You can try to scrutinize this belief, but you won’t get anywhere because you are not authorized to question its logic.
Once you’ve attributed divine authority to an idea, it becomes untouchable. If you disagree with it, you’re the one who’s in the wrong. The surrounding cultures may change a hundred times, but not the ideas themselves. Sometimes even the ceremonies themselves remain exactly the same, down to the smallest detail.
In other cases, the core beliefs adapt to fit their new surroundings in order to avoid extinction. Those cultures too genteel to stomach the gory brutality of early Christianity’s blood lust reinterpreted the elements of that faith to render them entirely symbolic. For them, even the celebratory meal itself must be sanitized to separate it from its original symbolism. In the hands of some, the sacrifice that truly pleases God is offering yourself as living sacrifice.
Once again we have the apostle Paul to thank for this innovative reinterpretation of an ancient notion. Paul had already taken circumcision, the central identity marker of the Jewish faith, and had declared that true circumcision is a metaphorical removal of wickedness from the heart. There’s way less bloodshed, this way. Someone had also already reinterpreted the Passover meal to signify the bloody death of Jesus.
Now Paul gives the church yet another sublimation of ancient brutality, enjoining his followers to see themselves as ongoing sacrifices pleasing to God. This way, no one new has to die, and yet nothing can be held back from God (read: the priesthood). Anything and everything imaginable can now become an acceptable sacrifice: your time, your energy, your profession, even a set portion of your income (despite the fact that the tithe was a part of the now obsolete Mosaic covenant).
But it’s all still about death. The language of sacrifice continues to this day because religion locks in certain concepts as sacred, untouchable, unalterable. Death and killing will forever make up the core of this religion, rooted as it is in ancient modes of belief.
Looking Forward to Death
I could keep going and analyze the fixation with actual death as a doorway to a second life. The Christian faith teaches you to bank absolutely everything on the hope that after we die we’ll come back from the dead, this time with everything wrong with the world fixed and idyllic.
It’s my observation that the longer you labor under this belief, the more anxious you become about dying because you know the moment of truth is drawing near. You’re about to find out whether or not your entire life has been built on a lie…or maybe you won’t learn anything at all. It would seem the potential downsides are all on the side of the ones who don’t believe (cue Pascal’s Wager).
I would argue, on the contrary, that it is the ones who keep sacrificing things they hold dear to a God they won’t even meet until after they die who must wrestle with the greatest uncertainty. The angst as death approaches becomes palpable. On the other hand, non-theists long ago began viewing death as a natural part of life rather than as a mistake or a disease for which a cure will one day be miraculously and dramatically revealed. Humanists acclimate themselves to the idea that you only get one life, and they busy themselves with making it the best one they can.
But that’s not really what strikes me today. What amazes me today, looking back on the beliefs of my younger self, is that I treated all this talk about blood and death and sacrifice as if it weren’t an ancient primitive barbarism but a divinely ordained system of justice around which all other justice systems are built. If that were truly the case, of course, then it would be legal to make innocent people suffer for the crimes of others. Thank goodness that’s not the way things are done in real life.
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