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One ritual they practised was the "sacred orgy". The people would get together, get very drunk, and engage in promiscuous sex. The stated reason for this ceremony was to celebrate fertility: By acting out acts of reproduction, they thanked their gods, Baal and Asherah, for their success at bearing children, breeding animals, and growing crops, and prayed for more of the same.
Another ritual was child sacrifice. A fire was lit inside a metal idol, heated until the idol was extremely hot, and then a baby would be placed in the arms of the idol or slid inside the idol and burned to death. (I once came across a source that said that the people would sing religious hymns very loudly at this point to drown out the baby's screams. I can't find that reference so I can't vouch for its reliability.) This was supposed to be an act of adoration to their god: they sacrificed the thing most valuable to them in the world -- their children -- to the god.
Excuse me if I'm being cynical, but I find it difficult to avoid wondering if the orgy's were inspired, not by religious devotion or even a materialistic desire for more crops and animals, but rather by simple lust. Did these people really see this as their solemn religious duty? Did teenagers whine, "Oh mom, do I have to go to the orgy? I have so much homework to do"? Or was the religion a thin excuse for doing what they wanted to do anyway? Of course, people are complex. It is quite possible that people saw a mystical, religious significance to sex, and also the fact that the ritual was fun didn't exactly hinder its appeal.
But then there was a problem. You have a bunch of people having wild orgies, and inevitably some number of pregnancies will result. Of course there was no real birth control back then. If the woman is married and reasonably settled and well off, maybe its no problem. Sure, the baby isn't her husband's, but they may not even know that for sure, and if they're both practicing this religion, it would seem likely that neither of them would be too upset by the fine moral niceties. But what if the pregnant woman is young and single and poor? How is she going to take care of a baby? Life is hard enough for single mothers in a wealthy, modern country like the United States, where there are many technological gadgets to ease the burden. Imagine trying to take care of a baby without disposable diapers, a microwave oven, a washing machine and vacuum cleaner to clean up messes, etc etc. What would a poor Carthagian girl do with this unwanted child? Child sacrifice provides an easy, convenient answer: give him to the god. That is, kill him and burn the body.
How neat and tidy! The people wanted cheap sex, so their religion provided a convenient excuse for it. But then they had a lot of unwanted babies, so their religion provided a convenient way to dispose of them.
The most popular religion in America today is Tolerance. This religion teaches that morality does not exist outside of the human mind. If you think that something is wrong, then don't do it. But don't try to impose your morals on others. No one has the right to judge anyone else's religion or morality. Even if there is any sort of "God", then his (or her) ideas about right and wrong have no greater significance than yours or mine. It's just one more opinion.
For example, forty or fifty years ago most people believed that sex outside of marriage was wrong, so for them it was wrong. But then people decided that marriage was too confing, they wanted "free love" -- that is, cheap and easy sex. So they decided that sex outside of marriage wasn't wrong any more. Their religion, Tolerance, provided an easy excuse for it.
But then there was a problem. You have a bunch of people having promiscuous sex, and inevitably some number of pregnancies will result. No form of birth control is 100% reliable, and people often fail to use it properly. If the woman is married and reasonably settled and well-off, no problem. Sure, the baby isn't her husband's, but they may not even know that for sure, and if they're both practicing this lifestyle, it would seem likely that neither of them would be too upset by the out-dated moral niceties. But what if the pregnant woman is young and single and poor? How is she going to take care of a baby? Even with all our modern conveniences, raising a baby by yourself is very difficult. What would these poor girls do with these unwanted children?
Abortion provides an easy, convenient answer. Forty or fifty years ago, people believed that killing innocent babies was wrong. But today we simply declare that it is not wrong, and anyone who says differently is intolerant and imposing his religion on others. So, we simply kill the baby and dispose of the body. We may even donate the body parts for medical research, if we have some twinge of guilt because we have not completely freed ourselves from the old system of morality.
Written 18 Dec 2000.