I was re-reading random parts of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and came across this:
In an insightful book on the history of force, the political scientist James Payne suggests that ancient peoples put a low value on other people’s lives because pain and death were so common in their own. This set a low threshold for any practice that had a chance of bringing them an advantage, even if the price was the lives of others. And if the ancients believed in gods, as most people do, then human sacrifice could easily have been seen as offering them that advantage. “Their primitive world was full of dangers, suffering, and nasty surprises, including plagues, famines, and wars. It would be natural for them to ask, ‘What kind of god would create such a world?’ A plausible answer was: a sadistic god, a god who liked to see people bleed and suffer.” So, they might think, if these gods have a minimum daily requirement of human gore, why not be proactive about it? Better him than me.
I haven’t read James Payne referenced in the paragraph above, but The Better Angels of Our Nature is a very good book which I highly recommend. Still, the second half of this paragraph doesn’t quite ring true for me. Your thoughts?
In the more outwardly hostile religions such as “Ayn Randism” this is reversed so “better me than him” but the net effect is the same. “Kill them all, let God sort it out” sort of analysis.
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Thanks for the comment, and interesting juxtaposition. You are right… it is the same thing.
It was probably true for some people, not others. Still is.
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If death and suffering are common things, then the gods are unlikely to be impressed by casually slaughtered “offerings.” You need to dispatch NOTEWORTHY human beings, preferably with serious ceremony, to bring these deaths to the gods attention. Beautiful virgins, captured warriors, first born sons, relatives of important people — that kind of thing.
While it is a nice thought to slaughter the elites. Since the beginnings of time it has been always preferred to ransom back the welloff or wellborn.
Heads on pikes on freeways into the city. AND as to bleeding and suffering does volume not count for anything anymore?
I just finished 1493 which deals with this subject in some detail. I think the sentiment is accurate, ancient people simply did not care about others if it did not involve religion or some form of tribalism. Their religious concerns were mainly about conversion and salvation not some personal connection as we might consider today. The idea that all humanity was connected would have to wait until the enlightenment to begin, we are still not over it three hundred years later.
I have long been curious as to what impulse makes sacrifice so nearly universal anthropologically. And especially human sacrifice. This explanation, together with the idea of a sadistic god, makes so much sense. I had been thinking previously more parochially, at Judaism, with its history of temple sacrifices of food stuffs, which also seems to have been common with Greek sacrifices, and someone pointed out the primacy of food in more primative times. But I like this notion of a sadistic god, which is probably how I would have interpreted things had I been left to my own negative temperament rather than guided by my culture. The question is what kind of temperament dominates in a society to form the cultural touchstones.