"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Oct 2, 2007

Incan Path from Religious Beliefs to Evil Deeds

Child sacrifice emphasizes Dawkins' point about religion

Llullaillaco Maiden

In today’s Washington Post, Richard Dawkins has an op-ed entitled “Logical Path from Religious Beliefs to Evil Deeds” in which he lays bold Stephen Wienberg’s well-known quote that “With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

Dawkins states that:

Nobody is suggesting that all religious people are violent, intolerant, racist, bigoted, contemptuous of women and so on. It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists. I am not even concerned with statistical generalizations about the majority of religious people (or atheists). My concern here is over whether there is any general reason why religion might be more or less likely to bias individuals towards all those unpleasant things in Christopher Hitchens’s list: to make them more likely to exhibit them than they would have been without religion. I think the answer is yes.

As it turns out, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was also released today demonstrating that Inca priests would fatten up certain children in order to sacrifice them to their gods. Using ancient hair samples from excavated mummies, British archaeologist Andrew Wilson and colleagues were able to identify distinct changes in the chemical signatures that reflect their diet in the time leading up to their ritual sacrifice.

As reviewed in Science Daily:

By analysing stable isotopes found in the hair samples, Dr Wilson and colleagues were able to see that for much of the time prior to sacrifice, the children were fed a diet of vegetables such as potato, suggesting that they came from a peasant background. Stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen from an individual's diet are deposited in their hair where they can remain unchanged over thousands of years.

However, in the twelve months prior to sacrifice, the isotopic evidence shows that the Maiden's diet changed markedly to one that was enriched with plants such as maize, considered an "elite" food, and protein, likely to have come from charki (dried llama meat).

Sacrifices were performed on children between the ages of 6 and 15, many of them horrifically cruel such as on one individual named the Llullaillaco Boy (from where his body was found atop Mount Llullaillaco, a 6,739m volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile):

Previous research has shown that Llullaillaco Boy appears to have met a particularly horrific end. His clothes were covered in vomit and diarrhoea, features indicative of a state of terror. The vomit was stained red by the hallucinogenic drug achiote, traces of which were also found in his stomach and faeces. However, his death was likely caused by suffocation, his body apparently having been crushed by his textile wrapping having been drawn so tight that his ribs were crushed and his pelvis dislocated.

In line with Dawkins' sentiments, no one is suggesting that the Inca were immoral monsters nor does it undermine their incredible cultural and technological achievements. To do so would be an absurd generalization akin to undermining Michelangelo’s genius because his art adorns the Vatican, which was directly responsible for the atrocious burning of “heretics” and the unleashing of the murderous rampages known as the Crusades (or the Frankish invasions as they’re known in the Middle East).

What this archaeological evidence does is simply reinforce Weinberg’s (and Dawkins’) central premise, now with a historical window encompassing many thousands of years and multiple continents:

It is easy for religious faith, even if it is irrational in itself, to lead a sane and decent person, by rational, logical steps, to do terrible things. There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds.

Whether our focus is on the murder of homosexuals in Iran, the bombing of doctor's offices in the United States, or genital mutilation in Africa the evidence is abundantly clear. However, for those who believe that framing science means that scientists should confine their comments to more politically acceptable points of view, perhaps a politically acceptable figure from our nation's past should have the final word:

"God is an essence we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of there will never be any liberal science in the world."

- President John Adams


Andrew S. Wilson et al. (2007). Stable isotope and DNA evidence for ritual sequences in Inca child sacrifice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to be published in advance online, 1 October 2007

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Anonymous said...

great points by Dawkins and analysis by you.

Henry said...

I don't agree with Dawkins when he pinpoints religion, Religion is just a form of social control like the State and both are capable of doing atrocities for the sake of a higher ideal. This Power of control is the 'Evil of all Evils' the State/Religion becomes an entity, an organism with its own agendas superior to anyone (willingly or not) that forms part of it.

jamesmnz said...


If religion is a form of social control that enables people to commit atrocities, then it is still important to try and get rid of it: by analogy, we try to get get rid (or diminish the influence) of states that commit atrocities.

DaveW said...

We talk about evil as an absolute. Is evil *only* culturally/politically/religiously defined and are we judging the deeds of other cultures against our own?

Would Dawkins have a different idea of evil if he was born and grew up in the jungles of Borneo?

Were the Incas thinking they were doing something evil, or are we applying our cultural bias? Is even our idea of "human rights" a cultural meme?