Thursday, December 21, 2006

When Christian belief is "deluded" to mainstream Christians

There's been another ghastly incident of a zealously religious mother murdering her small children and saying God told her to, and this has sparked an interesting discussion on the ACA mailing list that I thought I'd hijack and migrate over here.

The ugly story in brief: Lashuan Harris, a young Oakland woman, believing she was under orders from God to deliver a human sacrifice, methodically flung her three kids, ranging in ages from 18 months to 6 years, into the freezing San Francisco Bay. Her counsel has pled not guilty by reason of insanity, which might seem entirely understandable (except for the "not guilty" part — I've always thought the plea should be "guilty but mentally impaired" or something) until you realize there's this Bible story about a fellow named Abraham and his son Isaac. Evidently this kind of behavior is not unknown in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, in the modern day California version of the story, it looks as if God forgot to give the kids a last minute stay of execution on the grounds his mother had passed some sort of sick loyalty test.

On the mailing list, the indefatigable Stephen Rogers — quite possibly making the Abraham/Isaac connection as well — asked if events like this weren't enough to wake believers out of their trance and realize how morally reprehensible and deranged their belief system really is. I replied that most Christians will probably just dismiss such a quandary with remarks that the woman isn't a True Christian™, or that she was just delusional and that God would never ask anyone to do such a thing, though he clearly did according to Genesis 22. Regular AE blog commenter Tracie Harris made a worthwhile point:

Everything I was ever taught about Xianity — when I was a Xian — would support her logic. These children are in heaven, according to most Xian doctrines. It's funny to me that using Xian logic to ensure your children's place in heaven is also labeled "delusion."

Even if the woman is viewed as having committed a sin — according to Xian doctrine, she did send her kids to god/heaven (although she may pay with eternity in hell for herself — that would take a really loving Xian mom to sacrifice her eternal soul and exhibit such great faith to kill her own children to ensure they're [sic] eternal happiness).

By calling her "deluded" in her logic, though, it's no different than calling all Xians deluded. If she was deluded for thinking that killing her kids would send them to heaven/god, then I know a great number of deluded Xians who think exactly the same way — but who just wouldn't kill their own kids to lock in their slots in heaven.

This distinction would seem to be the separator: the transition from belief into action. Consider: if a Christian would conclude that Lashuan Harris was delusional, and yet would still profess belief in the truth of the Abraham/Isaac story, a bevy of questions open up about how the believer can accurately make a moral judgment against what Harris did.

If one believes God really did order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, can the believer really say for sure that God didn't make a similar demand of Harris? A believer might say that it's obvious God didn't. After all, God spared Isaac at the last minute, so God's basically a decent guy after all (unless you're a Midianite, but that's another story). As there was no last-minute reprieve for Harris's kids, then QED, Harris couldn't have been acting under orders from God, because God doesn't ask people to kill their own children without stopping them in the nick of time to say he was only kidding.

But how could they know? And what if God hadn't reprieved Isaac? What would the believer think of God's little test of faith then? What would they think of Abraham, for committing the most abominable crime a parent can commit? Indeed, what do they think of Abraham now, for being willing to do it in the first place? Wouldn't a more courageous parent have stood up to God and said, "What, kill my own son for you? Fuck off. If that's the kind of test of faith I have to pass, I don't need you." Would a truly great God have punished Abraham for taking such a courageous stand of defiance, or recognized his courage and rewarded it? If God had smote him for it, wouldn't that just make God a sick, petty, bloodthirsty tyrant? I mean, we'd be rightly disgusted if we knew someone like Saddam Hussein had been going around ordering men to murder their own sons to prove their loyalty to him. Indeed, we'd make that one more pretext — and actually a kinda justifiable one, for a change — for his overthrow. So why is such a demand acceptable coming from God? Is it just that God gets to obey a different set of rules? Now isn't that "moral relativism"?...

And so on and so on. Stephen and Tracie, as usual, raise good points. While the expected reaction from mainstream Christians would be to brand Harris delusional, this is the sort of situation that a savvy atheist can use as a springboard to raise lots of questions about Christianity and belief in "Biblical morality" on a broad scale, and really force Christians to think about what they believe. "What if God spoke to you, clean and clear as he spoke to Abraham, demanding your child's life? What would you do? Can you be sure God would never ask that of you?"

The sad truth is that it shouldn't have to take the deaths of three innocent kids to make people investigate and question their choice to believe violent, morally dubious millennia-old fables and superstitions in the first place.


  1. When did I become indefatigable? :.

  2. I dunno. The last time you indefatiged, I guess.

  3. This is an EXCELLENT blog! Very well written! :)

  4. Please feel free to correct my grammar in future quotes (if they're [sic] are any future quotes from my e-list posts!) ;-)

    There is another Bible story Matt brought up on AE once about a man who vowed to sacrifice whatever met him at his door after a victory in battle. It turned out to be his daughter--and the sacrifice went through without a reprieve from god or any message from god that it was inappropriate. I guess human sacrifice is more acceptable than whatever Cain offered--as there is no indication in the story that this man killing his daughter as a sacrifice was not acceptable to Jehovah.

    Any Xian who says, "God wouldn't ask this" is disregarding the Abraham story. Abraham believed the god Jehovah WOULD and DID ask this--and he was ready to do it. Any Xian who is not ready to do likewise, and who claims "that voice couldn't be from god," is denying their own belief if they actually believe the Abraham tale as factual.

    Abraham didn't think he was hearing delusional voices. He completely believed such a command WOULD and DID come from Jehovah.

    This is a very relevant point--but may be too subtle for most fundamentalist Xians to grasp: Abraham worshipped a god that he fully accepted WOULD ask a father to kill his own children as a sacrifice. This is the character that Abraham attributed to Jehovah. And it conflicts with the character most modern Xians want to have of Jehovah--that if you hear such a voice in your head--it couldn't be god, because god would _never_ ask or expect you to do such a horrendous thing.

    As a Xian, I would _never_ have understood the subtle nature of this point (and neither would my peers at the church have): Abraham characterized god as a deity who WOULD ask for human sacrifice. Abraham didn't think "this couldn't possibly be Jehovah--it must be Satan, or I'm possessed or mad." He believed his god was the type of god who would demand this and expect a follower to follow through with it. Unlike today's Xians, Abraham did NOT consider this out-of-character or strange or something he should _know_ was not from Jehovah.

    In Abraham's mind, Jehovah was the type of personality who WOULD ask you to kill your own kids. And he was OK worshipping that god. And that's the god we predominantly worship in this country today. Even though we try to re-characterize him as something other.

  5. Tracie, that other Bible story about a man who sacrificed his daughter is Jephthah. You can read all about it starting at Judges 11:30

  6. Tracie, your comments are usually so smart that it's kind of a relief to see the occasional misspelling. Makes the rest of us realize you're not completely infallible and so we're less insecure.

    (Now how was that for a line of BS? :-) )

  7. Some fanatic pastors even ask their church members to die together,and claim that God wants them to do it.Some fake pastors are just blasphemous.and about the woman, I think she really needs to go for a psychiatric check-up.
    They are nutters.But who am I to judge? We will all know when we die.

  8. ginh!,
    When we talk about the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, and the story of Jephtha sacrificing his daughter, we're not taking this from fanatic or fake pastors. It's in the Bible. If these women are "nutters" (and I agree that, in many ways, they are), so are Abraham, Jephtha, and their God--who, recall, later had his own son Jesus killed as a sacrifice to himself.

    As a human being with a functional mind, you are fully qualified to use your judgment. It should be telling you that the God of Abraham is not worth having a relationship with, because according to the Bible, that God welcomes child sacrifice. He is a god of nutters. Alternatively, those Bible passages are lying--in which case, why trust anything else the Bible says?

    In other words, either the Bible is true and the God it describes is a nutter, or the Bible is lying.

  9. I had many thoughts on this topic. But, I couldn't think of something intelligent to say.

  10. Martin, et. al., Excellent post.

    I watch the Atheist Experience TV show each week in hopes you can get a theist to call in and give reasonable answers to these type of good, searching questions. But, alas, I have been disappointed for years now.


  11. Stephen: This is what I meant in my post when I said the point is too subtle for most fundie Xians. I don't know if "haphazard" read my note or not--but she illustrates my point perfectly.

    She simply disregards what necessarily follows from the Abraham/Jephthah stories--that Jehovah's most dedicated followers believed Jehovah was OK with human sacrifice (specifically child sacrifice), and that it was not--in their minds--outside of Jehovah's character to require human sacrifices from his followers.

    Abraham believed this was something god would ask a follower to do. Jephthah didn't think for a second that he'd incur Jehovah's wrath by killing his daughter as a sacrifice to Jehovah--he believed god would expect him to follow through and show his dedication. Abraham never doubted that god would ask this and expect child sacrifice from a follower. And Abraham is referenced over and over as a righteous man who knew and loved god's ways. He isn't called a deluded man who totally misunderstood Jehovah's intent.

    Abraham "got it". Today's Xians do not. Abraham "got" that his god was OK with human sacrifice and would ask his followers to engage in it; Abraham was ready, willing, and able to kill his child for Jehovah--just like the woman in Martin's blog--the "nutter"--as haphazard called her. As you point out so rightly: Abraham was a "nutter" as well then--because he believed god asked him to do EXACTLY the same thing--and he was totally going to do it--because he knew that's just the kinda god Jehovah is. As you point out: This must be the god of the nutters.

    This flies RIGHT OVER the Fundie heads. They simply don't see this point--no matter how you explain it. All they see is that god stayed Abraham's hand and that Jephthah acted independently of any orders from Jehovah. The lightbulb doesn't go on to expose the question of "WHY" these followers of Jehovah's thought their god would be OK with what they were doing--sacrificing their children to Him. WHY didn't Abraham think this was an odd request? THAT'S the real question--not "Oh, but god stayed his hand..."

    Abraham didn't KNOW his hand would be stayed in the story. He believed completely he was on a righteous mission to murder his only son at god's bidding. And it didn't strike him as at all a questionable request from his god. And it he's praised for being the type of person who would have murdered his own child rather than try to argue with god about the morality of such an act. There is so much wrong with this whole tale!

  12. Tracie's analysis is spot on.

    And it should be noted, in the end, this diety (all knowing? all powerful? all loving?), at a minimum seems to accept burnt animal sacrifices (non-human animals, e.g. like lambs and rams). Is not such animal sacrifice cruel, barbaric, deranged, and immoral in and of itself?

  13. I'd like to point out the obvious:

    In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God provided a blood sacrifice. And while you rightly point out Abraham was ready and willing to sacrifice his son, it's pretty clear that his God provided a substitute that most 'fundie xians' consider to represent Christ. Further study of the Abrahamic covenant mirrors the story of Isaac, with God passing through in lieu of Abraham also viewed by fundie xians as a sign of God's promise of a messiah. The problem with your use of the story as an illustration is that you cutely leave off the end of the story or the context at which the story is told or its place in Jewish, Islamic and Christian history.

    Further, you guys seem to confuse fundamentalists with charismatics, but that's beside the point I'm trying to make here: what you do here in this blog is the equivalent of what Jerry Fallwell did when he said 9/11 happened because God was angry with America for having gays and lesbians. It's sick and abstract. Real life tragedy deserves more respect than smarmy detachment.

  14. Anonymous from 1/16,
    You totally missed the point. Abraham clearly believed in a God who would request a human sacrifice, and God supposedly rewarded him richly for having that belief. That's the context.

    Falwell blamed 9/11 on homosexuals to distract from the real and obvious cause of 9/ll: religious delusion. The very same delusion drove these women to kill their own children. If you are genuinely bothered by smarmy detachment and unwarranted abstraction, you should join us in calling somber attention to just how readily many believers dismiss the tragic real-world consequences of their common delusion.

  15. I know this is an old post, but I'm reading backwards (having just found this blog through a link on PossumMomma's blog), and I had to comment here.

    "What if God spoke to you, clean and clear as he spoke to Abraham, demanding your child's life? What would you do? Can you be sure God would never ask that of you?"

    I can answer that one for you. Yes, they would kill their kid for Christ.

    Back in my formative post-bornagain days, there was a musician who made a huge impact on me: Keith Green. (He would give his albums away free as a "ministry tool.") On his album Prodigal Son, there was a song called "Pledge My Head To Heaven." In the liner notes, he said he wrote it after a "broken night of prayer" or some such, contemplating the Abraham & Isaac story, and came to the realization that if he "was called to do so," he would in fact sacrifice his wife and infant son for the sake of "The Gospel Of Jesus Christ." (Two side notes here -- one, "gospel" means "good news"... I find it hard to comtemplate that giving your wife and infant child, willingly, over to death is "good news." Second, as I was typing, my fingers went too fast and the resultant typo, with my fingers one key over too many on the board, typed out "Jesys Curst." Um, ouch.)

    The lyrics aren't nearly as bad as the liner notes (they don't really talk about him giving over his family to death for the sake of preaching), but they aren't especially nice either.


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