Written over two days and finished up while vacationing in Palm Desert. This essay was inspired after meeting with my monthly philosophy group which broached this topic. I finished this essay with a Venti blonde roast coffee at my side, and Antonio Vivaldi playing on Pandora.
Let’s begin with some rhetorical questions. Is democracy bad because we can isolate some really bad historical offenses? Is science evil because it produced the hydrogen bomb and eugenics? I can say that I have pursued nobility and virtue in my life, but should I be deemed a vile human because I went through two years of narcissistic rebellion from 16-17 years of age? There is a tendency in our culture to isolate grievances within history, and then focus solely on the injustices born from those evils to the exclusion of anything good or lessons learned. This is the current tenor, especially when it comes tearing down statues of southern Civil War generals, demonizing Western Civilization, or dismissing and lambasting religion due to its abhorrent bronze-aged ethics. My point is that just because transgressions occur in history, even horrendous evils, doesn’t mean we should broad-brush with equal opprobrium.
Along these lines, it’s common for secularists to criticize and reject religion because it leans heavily on stories with histories in which “barbaric ethics” were accepted, as opposed to our more enlightened value system of today. I readily admit that I would much rather live in our current era, as opposed to ancient or even medieval times. Our current morality has progressed in such a way that societies have more freedoms, liberties, and rights – all of which contribute to a flourishing society. The mistake, however, is the wholesale repudiation of religious stories due to the ignoble period from which the stories are derived. Secularists are mistaken because these ancient stories address timeless existential concerns that speak to the human condition. Moreover, we interpret them in light of our current ethical framework in such a way that the useful and meaningful elements are distilled and put to virtuous action.
In this essay, I will focus on the secularist’s error in broad-brushing religion as insubstantial due to the savagery “endorsed” in holy writ. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight one of the most widely used stories secularist use to expose the ignobility of the Old Testament God: Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son. How can an ancient story that seemingly endorses human sacrifice be beneficial in our current era?
Here is short synopsis of the story. When Isaac grew to be a young boy, God tested Abraham by telling him to take his son (Isaac) and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Though filled with sadness and grief, Abraham obeyed God’s words without hesitation and took Isaac to the mountain. Abraham had complete faith that God would provide a way out and that he would not lose his son. At the moment that Abraham tied up Isaac, the angel of the Lord stopped him and said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
This is a wonderful story that has been interpreted a thousand different ways to personify such virtues as faith, love, sacrifice and loyalty. One can see Abraham’s radical faith in his “ultimate” love (i.e. God). One can distill from this notion the idea that we all have an Ultimate in life that reflects a deep foundational purpose for each of us – and making sacrifices to fulfill that purpose is what brings out the richness of life. The story can also reflect the relationship of love God has for Abraham in that God doesn’t want Abraham’s blood, God wants his heart. Moreover, the sacrifice aspect of the story is a motif that the church has adopted through lent, in an effort to deepen one’s dedication to God through sacrificing something meaningful to the believer. We can think of the story as taking us away from our narcissistic self so that we can re-focus on connecting with ideals and worthwhile pursuits that are truly more meaningful.
Unfortunately, secularists have sought to use pseudo-rationalism to dilute any valuable meaning from the story. The secular person will often note the savage ethics “endorsed” in the story which include, a call for child-sacrifice, a supposed loving God ordering Abraham to commit homicide, and the irrational blind faith of Abraham. But is this a fair assessment? I mean, this is a story preached every Sunday in some church or synagogue in America each week, and the rate of child-sacrifices due to divine command is, nevertheless, a non-issue.
The secularist’s curtailment of the virtues within the story is nothing more than the classic fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. In other words, the secularist presumes absurd and ridiculous conclusions. I can think of no church in history that regularly killed babies due to this divine fiat in the Old Testament. The reason for this is because ancient stories like this have been recognized for their deeper meaning and virtues. This story has not been used to justify any horrendous evils because humanity has been smart and practical enough to realize that more significant lessons for life may be gleaned.
It’s important to acknowledge that there have been one-off examples of child homicide due to divine commands, but those are cases in which psychological disorders were diagnosed and swift punishment was carried out. In 2004, Deanna Laney killed her two young sons because God told her to do it. She stated in an interview, “I felt like I obeyed God and I believe there will be good out of this.” This is similar to Andrea Yates of Texas who, in 2001, drowned her 5 children in the bathtub because the voice of God in her head ordered it. These cases are ones in which both Christians and Jews alike firmly believe are egregious and amoral. Moreover, psychological illness is the culprit, not a well thought out interpretation of the text. Never do we see faithful adherents of the Old Testament defending the actions of these one-off cases.
Another retort from secularists is to suggest that we set aside stories like this and conjure up a different story or select a real-life story that conveys Enlightenment virtues? This is a much more charitable rebuttal to the Abrahamic story. However, I would still argue that this suggestion fails to take into consideration the pragmatic elements of these ancient stories which speak directly to our human condition. Ancient stories abound and resonate througout milennia because they address fundamental existential concerns. Ancient narratives such as the Gilgamesh Epic (Sumeria), the Enuma Elish (Babylonia) and Egyptian Book of the Dead all provide motifs that include a fall into chaos, a struggle with evil or suffering, and then redemption – which is the relevant reality that impacts the 21-century person. Thus, whether you are in 3000 BCE Sumeria or 2019 Idaho, the quest to make meaning from suffering still permeates the soul.
Ancient stories are timeless treasures that expose the vulnerability and inclinations of the human mind. Stories from the past, even tall tales, fables or legends, unveil the psychological architecture which propel man to navigate the world – and from which we can look back and learn. Shall we set aside Plato because of the orgies and sexism found within his text? Shall we do away with the lessons and ideals of the Reformation because Martin Luther was anti-Semitic? It is simply intellectual pride to apply the pseudo-rational strategy of the secularist whereby modern moral superiority is exalted at all cost.
My argument holds true for other so-called abhorrent ethics of ancient writ. We interpret them in light of our current ethical framework in such a way that the useful and meaningful elements are distilled and put to virtuous action. Progressive Muslims are currently doing this with the difficult texts in the Quran. While a very small interpret the ancient commands as literal – which I admit is scary – a vast majority are able to employ Enlightenment values onto the Quran and glean life lessons that embolden virtue for today. And this is how culture works. Truth is found in what is useful, practical, and works within a given community. The reason why societies have progressed throughout the centuries is that we are able to view moral conundrums through the question: what does better look like? Thus, the complexion of freedom, liberty, and justice evolve throughout past centuries to reflect to norms and values as we pursue what ‘better’ looks like. Communities have proven that we are pretty good at improving on our mistakes, especially when you compare, for example, the Medieval period with today, or even 1900 ACE with 2000 ACE.
For these reasons, we ought to give these ancient stories their due. We glean what is useful and beneficial. We use them as road maps to live with more vitality and meaning. We recognize that even though they were written within a different context along with different values than we may have today, they nevertheless address the fundamental elements of the angst of being a human being in a world filled with chaos.
 Genesis 22:12 (NIV)