When I was younger I was told a story that was supposed to be one of the most inspiring stories throughout all of recorded history. It was the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. I believed that this was proof of his love and devotion to god. I also believed that this kind of faith was something we all should aspire to.
I am now totally repulsed by the story.
Let’s set aside, for the purposes of this discussion, the idea that it is likely that such a person as Abraham, as described in the Old Testament, never existed. Let’s assume that the historicity of the story is not important to the matter of whether we can learn an important moral lesson from this story.
Firstly, this story, and all others like it throughout all of religious history undermine the thing that theists claim as religion’s greatest strength: namely, an objective morality. If it were true that god gave to humankind an unchanging morality that humankind could anchor their lives to, then giving a commandment like: ‘Go kill your innocent son just to prove your devotion to me.’ is a disaster. You cannot have an eternal and unchanging objective moral law that says that you should not shed innocent blood and then have an exception anytime god decides that he wants to test someones devotion.
Secondly, is this really the best way to test someones devotion? If I were god and I wanted to test a subjects devotion, I would come up with a series of tests that was like running the gauntlet of goodness. Say for example, (and I’m totally shooting from the hip here) travel hundreds of miles until you found at least ten orphaned children that were begging on the side of a road somewhere and adopt them as your own. This would have been a perfect test for someone who wanted to be the father of nations. Why not have him prove that he was devoted to goodness by…I don’t know…actually having him do something really good? Instead we have this example that says the way to really test your devotion to god is if you are willing to break his laws!?!?
How many cult leaders have used this example to convince their followers that they needed to do something that seemed very wrong? Several examples come to mind and I haven’t even done any extensive research on the matter. Joseph Smith, Warren Jeffs, Marshal Applewhite, Ervil LeBaron just to name a few. Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) used this kind of language to get many of his followers to join a secret group that blatantly violated what was held to be gods laws of marriage fidelity. Wasn’t it convenient that Joseph Smith was told by god that nearly forty women, (some as young as fourteen and some already married to other men), needed to secretly marry Smith and sleep with him in order to prove their faith? If Joseph Smith really was threatened with an angel holding a flaming sword telling him to lie to his wife and sleep with many other women, as he claimed, then offering his neck to the sword would have been the best way to prove his courage and devotion to goodness. The fact that he didn’t means he failed to prove his devotion to virtue. Who cares about what threat he was given or what reward he was offered. This kind of thing is precisely the thing that if resisted proves ones virtue. Does god really have such little imagination that this is the best he could come up with to test these women’s faith?
How crazy is this? Doesn’t the Abraham story make it more likely that people who believe in the bible would be willing to follow murderous voices inside their head? If you answer no to this question, I don’t think you’re being honest with yourself, and I don’t think you’ve heard of Dan Lafferty or Ervil LeBaron.
To show how crazy this really is let’s just restate what is really going on here. In order to prove that you are really good you have to do something really bad. This is the Abrahamic test in a nutshell. It’s time that we call it what it is…either evidence of mental illness or a disturbing bit of manipulation.
Imagine that you were an employee trying to build your career in a promising company where there was lots of room for moving up. Imagine further that your manager tells you that to prove your loyalty to him that you need to start stealing money from customers. In my humble opinion the employee that passed the test would be the one who said that if this is how it was going to be then he would rather quit than steal from customers, and that he would not do it no matter the reward offered. This person would have passed the test in my view and someone who went ahead and stole the money was not worthy of keeping the job.
Are you still unconvinced? Ask yourself this: If you are a christian and you condemn the Muslims who kill Christians because god told them to kill under certain circumstances, is this kind of exception to the rule a problem now? Remember that Muslims believe in Abraham. They believe in the idea that the murder of the innocent is permissible when explicitly commanded by god.
Please… if anyone ever tells you to do something very bad in order to prove that you are very good, just say no! Saying no to this kind of perverse suggestion, even if it were to come from the lips of the Almighty himself, is the best way to show unshakable commitment to virtue.
The entire point of a commitment to virtue is that you do not let yourself become tempted by a threat of punishment or a promise of reward as a means to get you to compromise your standards. As the well known Christian song says, ‘Do what is right, let the consequence follow!’
If you were sent to hell for standing up for what is right, at least you would be in the company of others with uncompromising moral standards, not like the sycophant Abraham. Of course that’s just my opinion of him now. But maybe I’m wrong…how about you?