Blood is front and center in the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You can talk all you want about the core of religion being love and grace, but you can’t get there in these orthodox religions without wading through a ton of blood.
The basic concept is simple, to wit: Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. That’s incredibly simple. It’s also incredible, that is, unbelievable for anyone with a modicum of logical sense who actually takes the time to analyze it.
Why is it incredible?
Well, think about it. Pretend you’ve never heard it before. Here’s an all-powerful god who creates a world and populates it with various forms of life. He allows the crown of his creation —human beings — to disobey in such a way that he can’t just let it go. He has to either punish them or figure out some sort of ritual they can perform so he can forgive them.
‘You’ll have to kill another innocent, peaceable animal to appease me.’
So he decides that the ritual will be this: Take an innocent animal (unable to disobey the rules and thus displease this god, by the way, and which, interestingly enough, is always a non-predator in the animal kingdom) and slit its throat. Let its blood pour out on the ground while it dies.
Then this all-powerful god can smile and say, “OK, I forgive your screwing up this time, but don’t let it happen again or you’ll have to kill another innocent, peaceable animal to appease me.”
Given that this god could have made things any way he chose, does it make any kind of sense whatsoever that bloody sacrifice would have been his brilliant solution to the problem of human beings screwing up?
How horrendous is the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son Isaac? I dare you to really consider what a terrible message it gives. God supposedly told Abraham that he should take his son to a special mountain and kill and burn him in order to prove that he loved god. According to the story in Genesis 22, the father even had his trusting son carry the wood for the fire and answered Isaac’s question about where the animal was that would be killed and burned without telling his son what he had in mind. Once there, he bound his son, laid him on the wood and was ready to kill him before this loving god — Oh happy day! — decided Abraham had proved his faith and intervened to save Isaac.
Can you imagine what that did for the boy’s trust in his father? Suppose this were a modern story about some father in your community. The boy lives to tell the tale, which he does to the authorities. Wouldn’t you think this man was an utter lunatic if he explained that god had told him to do it? Of course you would, and you’d be right. And this lunatic father who claimed he heard his god telling him to kill and burn his son would be treated for the mental illness he was exhibiting.
But times were different then, weren’t they? Yeah, right. Try telling that to the boy whose father was ready to kill and burn him in order to show how much he loved god.
Wouldn’t you think a humane god would have realized this wasn’t such a swell way to test someone’s faithfulness, that it would scar the boy for life and send a horrible message about what it takes to please this almighty being? How in the name of all that is precious can anybody justify the idea that the only way to be able to forgive somebody who has done something bad is to kill some innocent living being?
“Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.” What a sick idea!
Let me try again to put it in modern terms. Suppose you have a daughter who disobeys you. Let’s say she slips out of the house to be with her boyfriend and lies to you about it. You find out what happened and say to her, “Before I can forgive you, you have to kill something: your little pet Yorkie who sleeps in your bed every night.”
So your daughter takes her beloved pet, slits its throat with a butcher knife while tears roll down her cheeks, lets it bleed to death while the little pet looks up at her with incredulous eyes, and then you say, “OK, now I forgive you.”
Would you be a monster or what? It’s incomprehensible, isn’t it? Nobody in his or her right mind would do such a thing. But that’s what we’re told this brilliant, loving, all-powerful god decided was the way it should be. Throughout the entire Hebrew scriptures, there is never any questioning of the barbarity of this scheme.
And it gets worse, of course. When Jesus is executed in a horrible way (according to accepted religious mythology), it’s interpreted that his death was the final and ultimate sacrifice, the quintessential spilling of blood that would allow god to forgive all sins thereafter by harking back to this particular gory spectacle. There are countless references in church hymnody to the power of the blood. We’re supposed to immerse ourselves in it, wash our clothes in it, glory in it and rejoice in it, ad nauseam. This is blood we’re talking about. Blood!
Somehow god decided that killing some innocent being, which is also supposed to be god’s creation, by the way, is the best and only way to show devotion to an almighty being?
The most sacred ritual of the church throughout the centuries has been built around the notion of symbolically drinking Jesus’ blood. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the claim is made that the wine of the Eucharist actually becomes Jesus’ blood. Most Protestant groups reject this idea as being a bit much, but nonetheless blithely go ahead with the idea that symbolically drinking Jesus’ blood is honoring him.
When we hear about a primitive tribe vanquishing a foe and ritualistically eating the still-beating heart ripped from the slain enemy’s breast and drinking the still-warm blood, we are repulsed. As well we should be. Why oh why, then, are we not able to look realistically at the equally repulsive notion that the god of this universe required that innocent, living beings had to be ritualistically killed, with their blood oozing out onto the ground, in order for him to forgive us for being human and screwing up.
Any way you look at it, this is a bloody religion. And I say it’s a bloody shame.
John S. Compere, a Foundation member since 2000, is a retired clinical psychologist and vice president of FFRF’s Sun Valley, Ariz., chapter. He was a fifth-generation Southern Baptist minister who resigned from his church at age 32, having rejected the basic tenets of Christianity. He returned to college to earn an M.A. and a Ph.D., taught at Wake Forest University and had a private practice. He lives in Arizona with his wife, Joyce, and enjoys cycling, tennis, racquetball, classical music, theater and good writing, especially on why humanism is much to be preferred over supernaturalism. An avowed feminist, he delights in his four grown children and six granddaughters.
He’s the author of Towards the Light (2010). This article is excerpted from one chapter in a just-completed manuscript on “Outgrowing Religion,” which he hopes to have published soon.