I’ve been wondering lately about why we are so deeply affected by stories about religious martyrs.

I’m guessing it goes back to worshipping bronze age gods and deciding to sacrifice a prized calf or first-born daughter in return for a bountiful crop or success in the battlefield. The person willing to sacrifice their child (or themselves) was doing it for the good of the tribe and we learned to treat them as holy figures. Fast forward a few thousand years and people still go weak for the idea of “he died for our sins”. It seems to have a very powerful effect on their Paleomammalian brain.

I was thinking about the Mormons yesterday and postulating that one of the reasons their particular cult survived was because Joseph Smith was assassinated and martyred. Religious types like nothing more than a martyr.

Sam Harris wrote about blood sacrifice in his afterword to “Letter To A Christian Nation”:

Humanity has had a long fascination with blood sacrifice. In fact, it has been by no means uncommon for a child to be born into this world only to be patiently and lovingly reared by religious maniacs, who believe that the best way to keep the sun on its course or to ensure a rich harvest is to lead him by tender hand into a field or to a mountaintop and bury, butcher, or burn him alive as offering to an invisible God. Countless children have been unlucky enough to be born in so dark an age, when ignorance and fantasy were indistinguishable from knowledge and where the drumbeat of religious fanaticism kept perfect time with every human heart. In fact, almost no culture has been exempt from this evil: the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Aztecs, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and innumerable other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

The Ca$holics of course take it a step further. They literally believe (well, they are supposed to) that they are eating the actual flesh of Jesus when they take communion. Holy Cannibalism, Batman!  It’s a wonder there aren’t religions devoted to Hannibal Lecter. Oh no, wait, he’s the eatER, not the eatEE.

So anyway, I’m interested in understanding more about the evolutionary reasons for our fascination with blood sacrifice. If anyone knows anything about it, please educate me. Oh and I’ve started a Branch on the topic, too.