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.