From Abraham to Milgram

Eid al-Adha

Tomorrow is Eid al-Adha, “the feast of sacrifice”, commemorating the tale of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son at god’s demand, as part of a twisted faith and loyalty test. In reward to Abraham’s obedience, his son is spared, in exchange for a much more “suitable” and “natural” victim – a ram. This epic myth of the ultimate obedience and its, so called, happy ending is commemorated in all 3 monotheistic religions, and is still universally admired. Millions of animals, all around the world, would be slaughtered tomorrow in millions of Muslim houses and public squares.

Knowing such butchery happens daily all over the world, many activists give it no special attention. They see it as more of the same horribleness, disregarding the added spiritual and cultural element and its long term implications.

But the ritual is significant even if it doesn’t increase the number of victims in the short term (assuming more or less the same number of animals would have been slaughtered as part or separately from the ritual). And it is so from 3 main angles.
First is the dominance display exemplified in the ritual, which we have broadly discussed in two of our former posts (here and here) and in the article about the various rituals and festivals that include animal abuse all around the world, so we won’t elaborate about that angle again here.

Second is the significance of the overtness of the abuse, which not only legitimizes it but also preconditions young children into the same violence patterns, as they watch their own father forcefully grabbing animals, aggressively subduing them to the floor and cutting their throat while they struggle and convulse until they die. All in front of the children who can smell the blood, and the urine and sweat of fear, they can hear every scream and observe every spasm. That is the strongest and deepest objectification and speciesism lesson possible.

Even the ones who are innately more sensitive, when raised exposed to such brutal customs as normative, conducted by the head authority figure, and celebrated as part of a feast, learn to suppress their more developed intuitive sensitivity towards the victims at the face of this severe violence. They are much more likely to copy this brutal behavior and carry on the objectifying outlook, instead of recognizing how appalling this ritual is.


This relates to a much bigger issue which we’ll broadly refer to in the near future, probably as part of reviewing the civilization process theory of Norbert Elias and the changes in the standard of violence along history. Basically and rather plainly for now, it refers to a centuries long process in which violence was gradually taken out of humans’ sight, and as a result they became more sensitive towards it. The outcome is that when humans encounter a violent act, most of them feel deterred by it. Those who grew up with slaughter as a regular part of the scenery are less likely to be deterred, as opposed to those who never encountered animal slaughter and then face it at some point.

However as you all know, being deterred by an act is far from enough to shift humans from taking an active part in the same violent act they were just deterred by, and that’s directly connected to the third point of the significance of this sick ritual- conformism and obedience to authority as inherent elements of human’s character.

The glorification of this iconic tale, one of the founding stones in human civilization, sadly symbolizes human’s conformity and obedience. You encounter these features all the time, while you talk to humans about animal exploitation and they come up, again and again, with the same thoughtless, readymade, confirmative excuses, comfortably hiding – behind what the majority does and approves, behind the tradition of what was done for centuries, behind authoritative figures such as their parents, doctors and nutritionists, religious figures, secular leaders and trend setters. Most humans go along hardly bothered, as unconsciously and automatically the answers were already provided to them by others. Not surprisingly, it’s the same answer that allows them to keep their own convenient habits, and spares them of the fear of change.

Not accidentally, the figure of Abraham and the story of the sacrifice have rose to become such iconic elements in the 3 big monotheistic religions and even within non-religion cultural areas.
According to the tale, Abraham is considered to be the first monotheist in human history and monotheism is considered a key-stone in human culture development.
Not accidentally, Abraham, who is the ultimate embodiment of obedience, accepting god’s command without questions and hesitations, became such an ultimate icon of human culture.

Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son can set as a microcosm for many human culture characteristics. As we wrote regarding Eid al-Adha in the article Celebrating Suffering
Religion was created in humans own image and innately so are the myths, the founding stories and the role models. Ibrahim, the undoubtable ultimate believer (Søren Kierkegaard’s Knight of faith) of the Islam which is discussed here but also in Christianity and Judaism, is indeed characteristic of the human race and its cultural milestones. Ibrahim expresses his complete and total submission to Allah by the willingness to kill his son. No questions, no speculations and no hesitations. Following orders is the ideal of being faithful in human culture. But of course infanticide, certainly of your own descendants, cannot be such a fundamental element of humanity and of the exhibition of one’s faithfulness, clearly only a few would pass such a loyalty test. But murdering animals? Everyone passes.

Ibrahim is not supposed to doubt the supposed command from god, and Ishmael is not supposed to doubt his father’s actions no matter how crucial the consequence is for him. Hagar’s (Ishmael’s mother) voice is not even mentioned, not to mention counts for anything and far down the line there is a ram who his whole life’s purpose is to serve humans and is expected to feel very proud that he was chosen to be slaughtered instead of Ishmael.
And so should the hundreds of millions of animals who their throats are publicly cut and they bleed to death for the longest minutes in their poor lives as humans’ meat and rituals vessels.

Although Abraham’s behavior (according to the tale) was rather unique even back then, about 4,000 years ago, the thought of killing and sacrificing your own son is nowadays obviously considered much more appalling and absurd. If someone would do something similar today he wouldn’t become a faith icon but a hate one. However what was the logical, natural and self-evident solution back then, murdering an animal instead, still works nowadays. In that sense nothing was changed. Every year since the ritual started millions of animals are sacrificed for it.

If you feel that despite the glorification and iconic symbolism of the story, for such a long time and among the 3 big monotheistic religions, it is merely a folkloristic tale and not really an indication of modern human culture, think of the famous experiments on obedience to authority conducted by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram.
Milgram’s study, with its notoriously frightening results, is somewhat of a modern, controlled condition, reenactment of the Abrahamic tale. Most of the participants of the experiment personally pressed a button which supposedly gave an electric shock to another person in another room, despite hearing him beg for the experiment to stop and crying in pain, “just” because an authoritative looking figure (a person in a white coat not god himself) told them to.

It appears that before he ran the experiment, Milgram polled his colleagues, students, and a sample of psychiatrists on how far they thought the participants would go when an experimenter instructed them to shock a fellow participant. The respondents unanimously predicted that few would exceed 150 volts (the level at which the victim demands to be freed), that just 4 percent would go up to 300 volts (the setting that bore the warning “Danger: Severe Shock”), and that only a handful of psychopaths would go all the way to the highest shock the machine could deliver (the setting labeled “450 Volts—XXX”). However 65% of the participants went all the way to the maximum shock, long past the point when the victim’s agonized protests had turned to an eerie silence. The percentage barely budged with the sex, age, or occupation of the participants. And they might have kept on shocking the presumably comatose subject (or his corpse) had the experimenter not brought the proceedings to a halt.


And for those who think that even Milgram modern experiments don’t reflect our current era, in 2008 another social psychologist replicated the test. 70% of the participants went all the way to brutalize a stranger and got to the fatal levels. The remake of Milgram’s experiment asked whether humans in the 2000’s still follow the orders of an authority to inflict pain on a stranger? The answer is that they do.

So what are the odds that humans would stop “pressing the button” when they don’t hear the screams? When they don’t see the victims? When they personally and directly enjoy the violence outcome? When they don’t personally inflict the violence but still enjoy its outcome? And worst, when it is not even considered violence to begin with but “a perfectly natural and legitimate” way of feeding themselves?

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