In the old testament Bible in the book of Genesis, Chapter 20, Abraham was told by God to take his son to a mountain in Moriah and sacrifice his child. He travels to the mountain with his son, builds an alter and then binds his son and prepares to sacrifice him, but God sends an angle to stop the sacrifice and provides an animal to be slaughtered instead, telling Abraham that this was a test to see if he feared God by not withholding his only son.
The passage itself is a very short one, and I’ve heard preachers often elaborate about how much more can be gleamed by what isn’t said, e.g. the anguish that Abraham must have felt in the journey to the mountain over having to murder his son. But the fact remains that modern Christians and Jews see this story as portraying a great man of faith. Today, if a man or woman were to take his or her only child and sacrifice that child because God asked it, we would, at the minimum, lock up that personal in a mental institution, but more likely, place them in a federal prison for either murder or attempted murder.
The story is not as disturbing as the belief that this act displays a characteristics of faith that should be praised, when in actuality it is a psychotic act of a man claiming to be able to hear the voice of God. The fundamental belief is placed into a different reality of perception based on its historic and religious context which allows people of faith to compartmentalize it in a very irrational way.
This irrationality can also be seen story of Daniel in The Lions Den. In this story, enemies of Daniel get the king to decree that anyone who worships other gods should be put to death. They then report Daniel prays to his god in Jerusalem and Daniel is then thrown into the lions den. The king is relieved the lions do not eat him and Daniel credits his survival to the belief in his god. The end of the story is what is troubling:
“At the king’s command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.” -Daniel 6:24
I was at a conference once where a speaker was reading this passage, and as some of the teenagers were shocked at this outcome for the wives and children who had accused Daniel. The speaker claimed that the people who accused him were evil and, “What type of children would such people raise?”
At this point the speaker could have made a point that the king was not a Jewish king and what he did, both in declaring the law for a solitary god and in condemning innocent wives and children to death was wrong. In modern Western society, we hold to virtue the ideals of religious freedom and tolerance. A continuation of that ideal could have been to portray the king as completely in the wrong about all his decisions, but instead the speaker moved the audience to a perspective of intolerance.
Some fundamentalists will either downplay this particular viewpoint as not being mainstream, or justify its core values as being inherently biblical. To the contrary, the view is very mainstream, even in those who would consider themselves moderate. The very idea that those who oppose God are evil and can justifiably be killed are not limited to the archaic believes of those responsible for the Crusades or those we label as Islamic radical terrorists, but it is pervasive even in modern mainstream Christianity. An example of that is the justifiable killing of homosexuals in Africa.
For this we’ll have to turn to Uganda. In 1886, King Mwanga ordered over two dozen male pages to have sex with him, and when some refused because of their Christian faith, they were burned to death. The horrific acts of this pedophile king has caused great fear over homosexuality in the country. This fear has been modernized and ushered on in recent years by Christian evangelists Scott Lively of Defend The Family International, Rick Waren of Saddleback Church and others.
Such speakers condemn homosexuality and publicly agree with laws that are passed to put homosexuals in prison for life. They were even reluctant to condemn laws that would penalize homosexuals with death. Eventually, some speakers, including Lively, claimed they were “mortified” by the death penalty provision, but Jim Naughton, a former canon in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C, doesn’t buy it1.
“If you go to countries where there’s already a great deal of suspicion and maybe animosity towards homosexuals, and begin to tell people there, ‘Well, actually these people are child abusers, they’re coming for their children, that they’re the scourge that is being deposited on you by the secular West,’ you’re gonna get a backlash…[it’s like] showing up in rooms filled with gasoline, and throwing lighted matches around and saying, ‘Well, I never intended fire .’ … I think if they were mortified, they would have been mortified immediately. Instead they were mortified, oh, two, three months into the campaign against this thing, when it was getting real traction1.”
Although Christian fundamentalists in westernized societies don’t openly advocate the death of homosexuals, it is accepted among many of them that those homosexuals live detrimental lifestyles of choice; that the laws prescribed by their god are designed to protect individuals from causing harm to their lives. Some extreme conservatives even believe those who die due to HIV/AIDS do so because their choices were wrong, such as homosexuality or sexual promiscuity, and that those choices led them to those ends.
But these beliefs aren’t supported by reality. A recent study showed that children raised by lesbian parents were more likely to be more psychologically adjusted and less likely to suffer from behavioral problems that children in traditional households2. To attribute homosexuality as purely a detrimental individual choice and not motivated by a psychological attraction is to use the same logical reasoning that led early Puritans to believe in Divine Providence or to believe that the Earth is flat and supported by pillars. It is a thought process that takes a religious world view based on mythology and attempts to apply it to a very different, real and rational existence.
Another pertinent example is the role of women in conservative religions. I was on a youth retreat in high school with others who considered themselves serious Christians. We were in an evening rap session, discussing the spiritual states we had been placed in by the day’s emotionally charged speakers, bible studies, workshops and seminars. It was during a particular rap session where one of my friends mentioned how he would never vote for a women into a position of power above him, claiming biblical justification.
Coming from a self-taught liberal background and slowly rediscovering myself in Christianity, this notion puzzled me and made me take a few steps back to examine my faith. It’s a simple notion, still believed by many fundamentalists, that descends not only opinions on women, but had led to a misguided bias against people of color and homosexuals.
This goes against many of the ideals of freedom and equality that we try to instill in our children, that they can be anything regardless of their race or sex. And yet, many churches do not allows female pastors. This isn’t a fringe belief, it is a mainstream viewpoint held by many Christians and is yet another example of how the mythology of religion is applied irrationally to a world that has spent decades, even centuries, with people fighting injustice and for the equality of all individuals.
My nature of tolerance would usher me to accept people of different faith, no matter their believes, because even if I do not believe in the same myths they believe in, these myths can be very powerful and help people during times of hardship and loss. And if people kept their myths close to their hearts as such, they could be very beautiful things. But faith is a thing of both great beauty and great power. Society can make these myths real, because that is just how powerful our minds are.
When we turn things of ancient mythology, mired in a historic sea of intolerance, ignorance, war, pain and suffering, and try to turn them into a literal thing applied to the rational world as some type of divine infallible guidance from a supreme being, we move into a society of group think and stand against the voice of progressivism. Instead we stare into the abyss humanity has tried so long to escape. Those who try to compartmentalize these mythical stories are often called “luke warm” by their fundamentalist counterparts, but they are the essence of true balance in reconciling the mythical with the rational in a world that may not be able to survive continued eras of irrational belief.
1 U.S. Exports Cultural War To Uganda. Hagerty. NPR. January 15, 2010.
2 Study: Kids of Lesbian Parents Are Well-Adjusted. Web MD. Doheny. June 7, 2010.