Sacrifice and Prayer

Category:Ancient Greek buildings and structure...
Category:Ancient Greek buildings and structures in Athens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many ancient civilizations made sacrifices to their gods. Far more common than the few notorious examples of human sacrifice were those involving the sacrifice of animals, various items of wealth, and symbolic items used in elaborate rituals. Such sacrifices were evident in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle East, including the times and places described in the Christian bible. If you have read the Old Testament, you may recall that it includes page after page describing all sorts of ways to honor gods through "burnt offerings" and other sacrifices.

What interests me here is no so much the nature of what was sacrificed or that what we see in the Christian bible is little more than a continuation of customs which had been practiced for centuries prior to this time period. No, what interests me most is the rationale for making such sacrifices. Whether we are talking about the ancient Greeks or the Jews described in what would later become the Christian bible, we see that sacrifice was a way to influence the gods.

Think about this for a moment. In polytheistic societies, we have gods that are immortal, powerful beyond our imagination, and regularly interfere in human affairs. In Greek and Roman mythology, these gods did not always have our best interests in mind; some gods could be cruel at times. Efforts to appease such gods were understandable. They did change their minds, and perhaps the right sort of sacrifice would lead the right one to do so. This would continue in the early monotheistic religions like Judaism. The god of the Old Testament is a cruel and callous monster, one that allegedly created us but seems quite content to use and abuse us like a child burning ants with a magnifying glass. The Old Testament is a collection of atrocity after atrocity inflicted on humanity by this despicable being. For those who opted to worship such a god, appeasement probably did make sense.

Fast forward to modern times and to the mainstream forms of Christianity one finds in the U.S. today. We are taught to worship a god that is all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent. While there is little reason to think that this god involves itself in human affairs at anywhere near the frequency it did during biblical times, believers keep on hoping that it will do so. And yet, the attributes we have assigned to this god make sacrifice all but nonsensical. The evangelical fundamentalists tell us that all the old rules and customs were voided by the murder of Jesus even though Jesus himself is described in their bible as having said otherwise. They preach that salvation now comes not through sacrifice but through belief. Instead of sacrifice, most Christians today rely on a different method for attempting to curry favor with their god: prayer.

Prayer is just like sacrifice in that it represents an attempt to influence the mind of one's god. Talk about arrogance! These Christians actually believe that some sort of god is going to change its mind in response to their begging. It boggles the mind.

If their god is all-knowing, prayer is redundant because this god already knows their thoughts. If their god is truly benevolent, there would be little reason why their every prayer would not be granted (unless of course their god had a plan for them that had not yet been revealed). And if their infinitely wise, powerful, and benevolent god did have a plan for them of some sort, who the hell do they think they are to try to change it? I mean, if this god in which they claim to believe is anything like what they claim, doesn't it know what they need far better than they do? Who are they to ask their god to modify its plan for them?

In addition to being ineffective (except in so far as the limited psychological benefits it may provide to to practitioner much like we see for meditation and secular relaxation training), prayer makes little sense in light of the modern conceptualizations of the Christian god. Through prayer, Christians are trying to influence something which they claim is beyond their comprehension, which loves them, and which has a plan for them far superior to anything they could do on their own. If there was such a god out there, I have little doubt that it would be insulted by such blatant pandering.