The Gods Must Be Hungry; Religion Has a Bloody History That's Not All in the Past

Article excerpt

Religion has a bloody history that's not all in the past

EVEN BEFORE THERE was political correctness, civilized people would never dream of running down someone else's religion, but let's face it: sometimes you just can't help yourself. To read about a 12-year-old girl plied with liquor and left on a frigid mountaintop to die is to experience a revulsion that no degree of moral relativism can rationalize away. A revulsion, however, tinged with the faint, grim satisfaction of finding scientific evidence of an atrocity perpetrated in America that cannot by any stretch of logic be even remotely blamed on the Europeans.

Not, of course, that the religious practices of the Indians were previously unknown. There is ample documentation of human sacrifice compiled by the outraged Spanish conquistadors, who preferred to shed blood in the more straightforward enterprises o war and enslavement. Accounts of an Aztec priest ripping the beating heart out of a human offering was one of the great arguments for Christianizing the continent. In more recent decades, though, Western culture has made a high-minded effort to avoid sensationalizing such potentially embarrassing spectacles. The definitive 15-volume Encyclopedia of Religion, published by Macmillan in 1987, makes only a few passing references to human sacrifice in its entry on "Inca Religion." The author placidly observes that offerings were selected from the great complementary ecosystems of nature (plants, birds, shells, the blood of animals - particularly llamas--and men) and culture (maize, coca, pepper, corn, beer, cloth, statuetttes)." It must have gone very hard on the llamas.

To list human beings as sacrificial objects along with shells' birds and maize requires a very high order of intellectual detachment, but anthropologists today rise to the challenge. "There's been a tendency among conquering people to use sacrifice as an excuse to say, `Those people are barbarians, those people should be taken over'," says Joh Verano, a Tulane University anthropologist who has written about ritual killings. [But] within the context of [Aztec] culture, it aH made sense. The sacrifice of human blood, and particularly the heart, was necessary to make the sun go around every day. It ties in to their stories of creation and myth. …