The Human Sacrifice Argument
Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathenry, Heathen basics, Heathen worship, Heathen worldview, Reconstruction
In case you missed it, the antitheist Vaush had a debate with the Heathen polytheist Ocean Keltoi a few days ago on Twitch, and Ocean uploaded the highlights to his YouTube channel yesterday. Vaush posted the entire unedited debate followed by some gameplay to his YouTube channel.
So, for a quick rundown of the debate: Ocean’s main argument was that Vaush’s antitheism is a hindrance to coalition building for Vaush’s leftist causes. Vaush’s main argument was that to soften his position to saying not all religion is bad would be cucking himself (his words; he seems to have some fetish for cuckolding). Most commenters I’ve seen have said that Ocean was the clear winner, and I absolutely agree. One of the many reasons was that Vaush had this obsession with defending human sacrifice. It was truly absurd watching an antitheist argue for human sacrifice, while the Heathen was firmly arguing against it.1
It’s this argument that I want to focus on. I think any rational human being of the modern era would be against human sacrifice on ethical grounds. I am firmly against any kind of ritual harm, whether that’s harm to myself or to another person. However, human sacrifice was done in ancient times by various pagan religions (usually it was voluntary victims, criminals as a means of capital punishment, or prisoners of war; Vaush’s argument posits sacrificing someone from one’s own people, so we’ll stick with that idea for this blog post), so let’s discuss what would make human sacrifice unlikely today. Most pagans today are firmly against killing another human being (with obvious exceptions such as self defense, and for some pagans, capital punishment). So if a deity asked them to kill someone else, they’re going to flat out refuse (in paganism, obedience is rarely demanded, and following one’s ethics is never punished unless it harms others, with possible exceptions for chaotic beings like ettins). But let’s take Vaush’s argument, that the human sacrifice is going to have a positive effect, like saving others.
To put it in context, this seemed to be Vaush’s main argument against religion. The argument goes that if there’s an epidemic of malaria and someone believed that their god would end it in exchange for a human sacrifice, it would be a moral imperative for that person to sacrifice someone to save millions of lives. Ocean wasn’t trying to argue from the perspective of his polytheism but rather was trying to argue from a pluralist point of view, so his counter took the form that this would be ethically wrong under pluralism and would be a harmful practice. That’s a valid argument, and it worked great in the debate.
However, I think there’s a stronger argument to be made from a polytheistic point of view. Before we get into that, though, let’s define some terms. Antitheism “is the philosophical position that theism [belief in one or more gods] should be opposed.”2 This subset of atheism is what Vaush argues for. Many antitheists seem to have as a fundamental dogma that all religion is bad, without exception. Even if a religion produced some good, they say, it’s still outweighed by all the bad that it causes. Polytheism, on the other hand, “is the belief in multiple deities”3, and this is the perspective that I will be arguing from in this blog post. Human sacrifice “is the act of killing one or more humans as part of a ritual”4, and for our purposes here, is for religious reasons as an offering to one or more deities.
For most pagan religions, especially those derived from Proto-Indo-European cultures, reciprocity between humans and gods is one of the foundations of practice. There’s an interplay between the human worshippers and the patron god (or gods) that they worship. If the community5 didn’t give enough in offerings, they risked the god abandoning them if that god didn’t feel like it was worth their trouble. Humans also had a choice though; if a god demanded too much, the humans could decide to switch to another patron god.
With that background information, let’s revisit Vaush’s scenario. To make it a little more fun though, let’s put it in narrative form.
The community has gathered together to decide what they need to do about the plague that has cursed them. Many have already died, and many more will die if they can’t figure out what to do.
The priest declares, “I have been deep in prayer, and through divination I have determined that our patron god will lift this curse from us, if we will just sacrifice the chieftain’s oldest child to him.”
The chieftain’s face goes pale. He only has one child to be his heir. He looks over at his son, who’s just barely reached manhood. His son looks back at the father and nods. He will do what he needs to do to save his community.
This is how Vaush’s argument plays out, and if this is how it would end I’d agree with his point. The problem is, it assumes that there’s only one god, or that this god demands obedience and will punish them severely if they do not listen. That’s just not how paganism works, but Vaush assumes that all religions work like they do in the monotheistic faiths that he is familiar with. He even admits that he isn’t familiar with any polytheistic religion despite insisting that all religions are bad. In paganism, however, consent is required by both the deity and the worshipper. Either party can decide they aren’t happy with the relationship. Let’s continue with our narrative to see one way of avoiding the sacrifice:
Somebody in the crowd speaks up. “I’ve heard that the village to the north of us has had their plague lifted. All their patron deity required was a couple bottles of wine and a few loaves of bread!”
The chieftain turns to look at the priest. The priest says he will consult this other deity. When the priest returns, he declares, “Sunne is willing to lift this plague in exchange for the wine and bread, if we will make her our new patron deity!”
The chieftain nods, and the crowd breaks into applause. The priest hurries off to gather the offerings for their new god, and the plague is lifted that very night.
There are, of course, other ways of getting out of sacrificing a human under polytheism in this ridiculous scenario that Vaush set up. Bearing the situation (in this case, the plague) on ethical grounds is another option, and a particularly brave people might do just that. They could try negotiating with the deity. Again, obedience is not demanded by the majority of pagan gods, so they could simply refuse to do it and see if the deity changes their mind about the cost or if another deity is moved by their fortitude to help them. They could even just try offering something else in order to see if the deity accepts the offering and lifts the plague. The point is, paganism is a relationship between gods and humans built on reciprocity. It’s not coercive from either end, and consent is paramount.
I really do not think Vaush’s argument was a good faith argument. He was trying to make a strawman so that he could later knock it down (which Ocean didn’t let him get to), but the problem is that it is a completly hypothetical situation that doesn’t apply to any modern religion. Even the ancient religions that practiced human sacrifice didn’t work this way. But even going with the scenario of Vaush’s bad faith argument, it completely falls apart under polytheism because by its nature, polytheism offers many different gods to choose from.
Now, let’s come at this from a materialist point of view. Let’s say there’s no gods, and in the above scenario the priest is trying to off the chieftain’s only heir to get someone else to take over after the chieftain passes on. First, this harm would have been caused by the abuse of power for political reasons and not by religion itself. (Most harm that is caused by religion usually has an abuse of power at its root, but that’s a different topic. If you want me to do a future post on that, let me know in the comments below!) However, if the priest is asking for a price that’s too high, there is nothing stopping someone else from taking the opportunity to say, “My family’s patron god is willing to lift this plague for some bread if you install me as your priest!” Which do you think the chieftain is going to listen to?
Monotheism would be a bit more susceptible to this kind of abuse, especially if there’s only one church or the people have been indoctrinated in one church deeply enough. As I’m not a monotheist, I’m not even going to attempt a defense of monotheism. I’ll leave that to the Christian apologists.
So what do you think? Did I misrepresent Vaush’s argument? Is there something in his argument that I’m missing? Do you feel that everyone else is wrong about Ocean winning the debate? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.
The main reason that I feel Ocean was the clear winner is that every argument Vaush uses against religion either only applied to toxic forms of Christianity, or didn’t even apply to any modern religion. Vaush was incredibly rude from about half an hour in to the very end, but Ocean managed to not only hold his composure but also continued to get his points across. Vaush’s behavior in this debate was very reminiscient of the tactics used in debate by creationists such as Ray Comfort, Kent Hovind, or Kirk Cameron. ↩
Community is used loosely here. In the ancient world, the community could be as small as a household or as large as a nation. People were sometimes part of a few different religious communities: their town could have one patron god, their family another patron god, and their kingdom could have yet another patron god. In the modern world, pagans usually have their individual praxis, but can also have a praxis with their household, and another with a coven/kindred/etc. ↩