“Sacrifice” – “giving away” or “making sacred”

To sacrifice something is to give it away, often to prevent a larger evil or to achieve a greater benefit. In primitive cultures where the word originated, it means you make something sacred by dedicating it to the gods for their use alone. You do this typically by preventing it ever being used by anyone else, i.e. you kill it or destroy it. It may be a young child, or a prisoner, or a prized horse or farm animal, or a sword or jewelry. You invoke the gods, then kill or break the sacrifice, or throw it somewhere irretrievable like the sea or a volcano.

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."

Here’s a story out of rural India, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:

A seven-year-old Indian girl was murdered in a tribal sacrifice and her liver offered to the gods to improve crop growth, police in the central state of Chhattisgarh said on Sunday.

The body of Lalita Tati was found in October a week after her family reported her missing.

“A seven-year-old girl was sacrificed by two persons superstitiously believing that the act would give a better harvest,” Narayan Das, the police chief of Bijapur district, told AFP by telephone.

So what words come to mind? “Murder… tribal… black magic… witch doctors…”? Yes, those all show up in the rest of the story as reported. But how about “Abraham… God… sacrifice…”?
Sacrifice is nothing more than an attempt to bribe the most powerful force you can conceive of, so that it will reward you instead of punishing you. It makes ‘love of God’ into a mere manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome.
The Roman Empire, although hosting gladiatorial contests and public executions, found human sacrifice obnoxious “to the laws of gods and men”. That the three great monotheist religions trace their common ancestry to Abraham, and to his willingness to kill his son in order to appease the voices in his head, is not something that any Jew, Christian or Muslim should be proud of.
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Best resources – Debunking myths

Humans have been very successful as a species through love of pattern-recognition activities and a broad search for cause-and-effect. This leads to a love of stories and constant search for ‘Meaning’. The easiest way to introduce a new concept to people is to connect it to a story, as Jesus did repeatedly through parables. The inherent danger is that, because people are programmed to seek a narrative, people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.

We all grow up at some point... if we live long enough...

So in the process of trying to debunk an incorrect idea, you have to be sure to provide a complete alternative explanation. You also have to be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the flawed idea – this ‘backfiring’ can be caused by various things: bad framing of the idea, or too many arguments and details, or threatening the listener’s worldview.

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, deals with these issues. It is now freely available to download, and offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the concepts down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas who encounter misinformation. It originated with climate researchers, but it has universal application.

I believe debunking myths of all kinds is important, because what we believe impacts how we make decisions. Bush foreign policy was informed with a lot of Messianic Christian mumbo-jumbo which contributed to the Iraq war as well as to anti-science policies on health care and stem-cell research. Science and government must be kept free of religion, or we end up with shorter and less fulfilling lives. But we can’t simply say ‘The Christian narrative is flawed; Jesus isn’t God, don’t be ridiculous.’ We have to provide a complete alternative story of who he was, and how we can understand his words and actions in a completely secular way.

That is what I have attempted in “The Gospel According to the Romans” – that Jesus was a Jew, and a fundamentalist Jew at that, who wanted to cleanse Israel by kicking the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist, idolatrous Romans out of Palestine and restoring the Torah as the source of law. He was connected to the Zealot uprisings which had been going on for 100 years before him and continued for another 100 years afterwards – his attempt to take over the Temple at Passover was a clear failure, and he was caught and crucified.

But this book is probably only half of what I need to say on the matter. Because Paul came along after Jesus and used him as the vehicle for creating the greatest syncretist religion the world has ever seen, blending Judaism and Mithraism with Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices to end up with the Christianity that we have today. In order to say that happened, and to be understood and believed, we need to tell it as a coherent and non-magical story – plausible even if we can’t know exactly what happened.

In short, we need a parable to debunk Jesus, Paul and Christianity.

Jesus and the Ultra-Orthodox Jew

In the news today, Israeli President Shimon Peres is calling on Israelis “to save the majority from the hands of a small minority”. Ultra-Orthodox Jews (who are exempt from military service and, rather than working, collect a government subsidy for religious studies) are increasingly resisting the secular nature of the Jewish state and trying to enforce ancient religious practices.

"Segregate women", the sign says. But surely the men are free to segregate themselves? At home? And veil themselves when they go out?

The Ultra-Orthodox demand strict gender segregation and “modest” dress for women. Recent incidents have seen schoolgirls harassed and spat at,  and women ordered to sit at the back of local buses or get off, despite court rulings that women can sit anywhere on a bus.

This issue resonates interestingly with the position of Muslim hardliners in other countries, and with the Jewish resistance to Roman rule 2,000 years ago.

Fanatics everywhere thrive on polarization. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Al Qaeda are brothers with a common view of the universe, a view that their God, through His Infallible Book, has given them the divine duty to order the lives of entire 21st century nations in accordance with a subsistence-economy tribal past. They disagree as to which set of Semitic writings is the True Word of God, but they all loathe the Western tolerance of casual secular behavior. (Their leaders also understand that their power is increased by turning the Middle East into a religious battleground.)

When Rome ruled Palestine, the same dynamics were in play. Rome wanted a live-and-let-live religious environment where anyone could worship any god, and temples to all of them were scattered about. The more secular of the Jews were happy with this – they enjoyed the peace and improved travel and trade that the Empire brought. But the more religious of the Jews wanted to cleanse Israel of the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist idolators, and they wanted all Jews to repent and return to the Law of Moses. To them, all Jews were one family and everyone else should be evicted from the Promised Land.

Jesus was only one of a stream of would-be Messiahs who, over a 200 year period, led uprising after failed uprising against the Westerners and got crucified for their pains. Osama Bin Laden was of that mindset and he too has been executed. Secularism is gradually replacing religion around the world in a several-generations process now speeded by mass media, mass travel and the Internet. But the Ultra-Orthodox may well have a decade or two of success ahead of them.

The same things are still happening, that have been going on for 2,000 years. The Westernization of Israel is still in question.

Best resources – Christmas, Mithras, and Paul

Merry Christmas! And the question is, if Jesus was born sometime in the spring (when the shepherds were in the fields with the sheep, and the animals’ area with the manger under the house kataluma wasn’t being used), why did Christians create a winter solstice celebration for him instead?

Paul has an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus

The answer is that Paul caused it. Paul’s intent was to create a Judaism-based religion that would be universally acceptable; he was a Roman citizen, not just a member of a conquered nation, and he wanted his religion to be Roman as well as Jewish. Reputedly epileptic, his seizures gave rise to religious visions, the most famous being of Jesus (who he never met) guiding him along a syncretist path. Paul took popular elements of Roman, Egyptian and Persian religions, and expressed the message of his religion in whatever form was most acceptable to the Empire as a whole.

The most popular religion with the Roman military was Mithraism. It was exclusively male, a mystery cult with seven levels of initiation, and a clear-cut view of the world as the battle-ground between good and evil. It promised eternal life to its believers, and its god was Mithras, the Unconquerable Sun.

For an extensive review of the whole issue, I refer you to Ben Best’s enormous review of the roots of Christmas, from which I quote:

“Mithras was a divine being borne of a human virgin on December 25th (the Winter Solstice by the Roman Julian calendar), his birth watched and worshiped by shepherds. As an adult, Mithras healed the sick, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Before returning to heaven at the Spring Equinox Mithras had a last supper with 12 disciples (representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac). Mithraism included Zoroastrian beliefs in the struggle between good & evil, symbolized as light & darkness. This militaristic black-and-white morality (including a final judgment affecting an afterlife of heaven or hell) probably accounted for the popularity of Mithraism among Roman soldiers. Mithraism was like an ancient fraternity: a mystery cult open only to men which had seven degrees of initiation — including the ritual of baptism and a sacred meal of bread & wine representing the body & blood of Mithras.”

The original December 25th Virgin Birth

The purple-robed priests, candles, incense, circular wafers and Queen of Heaven motifs were ideas that were familiar and attractive to Egyptians. The winter solstice greeting cards and presents, the greenery of trees and branches and garlands, the pantheon of saints to pray to – those customs were comfortable among Greeks and Romans. But the December 25th Virgin Birth (along with much else) was what would make Paul’s Christianity completely familiar and acceptable to the Roman Legions.

In The Gospel According to the Romans, the Roman military are Mithraists while Jesus and his followers are Jews. There weren’t any Christians yet, of course.

Jewish-Egyptian mixed marriage, 5th cent BCE

There’s a lovely true-life family saga from 5th century BC Egypt sketched out in the magazine section of a recent Jerusalem Post. It involves Tamat, the Egyptian female slave of a wealthy Jew. She married Annania Ben-Azaria, an attendant in the Jewish temple in Elephantine where the Jewish god Yahu was worshiped… along with a couple of Egyptian goddesses. The marriage was not formalized until she bore him a child, she (and the child) still being formally the possessions of the original owner.

Elephantine Island, Egypt

Love, slavery… ownership, freedom… monotheism, polytheism… Jews, Egyptians… the relationships become ever more complicated as the next generation grows up and marries.

Fascinating novel potential – but I’d want to know a lot more about 5th century BC Egypt before I dared tackle this one!

The Promised Land, 1 – The Covenant

The Covenant with Abraham is the basis for the world’s three major monotheist religions, as well as for the conflicts between them. It dates back to the time of polytheism, and appears to have been taken originally as a powerplay by one local god, Yahweh, to ally himself with a tribe of humans for their mutual expansion. Abraham was to give sole worship and complete obedience to this god. What the god, now to be GOD, promised in exchange is found scattered through Genesis chapters 12 to 17:

  • to make of Abraham a great nation and to multiply his seed exceedingly
  • to make him father of a great many nations
  • to bless Abraham and make him great
  • to make Abraham a blessing to all the families of the earth
  • to bless those who bless him and to curse those who curse him
  • to give Abraham and his seed forever all the land which he could see
  • to give him a sign of the covenant (circumcision).

And specifically, Genesis 15:18-21 describes what is referred to in Jewish tradition as Gevulot Ha-aretz (“Borders of the Land”) and regarded as the full extent of the land God promised to Abraham:

"From the river of Egypt to the Euphrates"

On that day, God made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river the Euphrates. The land of the Kenites, Kenizites, Kadmonites; the Chitties, Perizites, Refaim; the Emorites, Canaanites, Gigashites and Yevusites.”

But Arabs also lay claim to legitimate descent from Abraham through his son Ishmael. As Amir Ali has written, ‘The Bible declares, “So, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, Sar’ai, Abram’s wife, took Hager the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife” (Gen 16:3). Note that the adjective wife has been used twice, once associated with Sar’ai and second time associated with Hager indicating no superiority of one wife over the other. This shows, according to the Bible, the original Arabs were equally descendants of Abraham as were the original Bani Israel. Christian and Jewish apologetics may have some irrational rationalization to exclude children of Ishmael from God’s covenant to Abraham.’ (End of quote.)

The vaguely Promised Land…

Monotheism and polytheism – desert and forest

Studies have pointed out that there are interesting correlations between the geographic extremes of Forest and Desert on the one hand, and a whole range of cultural predispositions on the other.

The basic claimed comparison is the table below, and the highlight is that Forests = polytheism, and Deserts = monotheism

FOREST

DESERT

Dispute resolution Non-violent Tendency to warfare
Social structure Egalitarian Stratified
Sexuality Tolerant Taboos punishable by death
Women’s rights Substantial Male-dominated
Religion Polytheism Monotheism

This is simplistic. For example, we now equate the Sahara-Asian deserts with Islam, but historically the Arabian peninsula was overwhelmingly polytheistic, right up until Muhammad began trying to change it in 610 AD. (For an extensive critique of these ideas, and of the groups that disseminate them, see Steven Dutch’s page at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.)

However there are two lines of thought that can support the ideas of polytheism seeming more natural in a Forest environment, and of monotheism finding an easier reception in a Desert.

  1. A Forest has abundant resources; a resource dispute can be solved by one party moving away. But the limited resources of a Desert will favor the party that uses violence to control the resources, and the need for violence will favor male power and stratified decision-making. A society dominated by a single powerful male will be more receptive to the idea of the Universe being under the control of a single powerful God.
  2. In a Forest, nature has many aspects: trees, rivers, delicious fruits, poisonous fruits, animals you can eat, animals that will eat you, patches of sun, frequent rain, and so on. Nature is diverse, and its gods are diverse. In a Desert, nature is dominated by the sun – omnipresent, all-seeing, harsh, unforgiving, and an easy symbol for the domination of life by a single God.

    The sun - the inspiration for monotheism?

So a more complete comparison might be:

FOREST

DESERT

Environment Complex Sparse
The sun Elusive, welcome Constant, unforgiving
Basic resources Abundant Limited
Dispute resolution Distraction, relocation Retribution, clan warfare
Social structure Egalitarian Stratified
Sexuality Tolerant Taboos punishable by death
Women’s rights Substantial Male-dominated
Religion Polytheism Monotheism

Does this mean that the Celts and Anglo-Saxons and Vikings coming out of the northern forests were non-violent? Hardly! But they were definitely more egalitarian, sexually tolerant and polytheist than the Latin cultures which subsequently dominated them.

You are unlikely to see Scandinavians stoning anyone to death for sexual promiscuity, or for pregnancy outside marriage.