In a discussion between Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson, the latter put forward a defence of Christianity centred on sacrifice—the idea being that sacrifice is an important requisite for the world to function and so it is possible, without resort to a literal interpretation, to take Christ as a symbol for an action that is required for the world to be functional and stable. Fry’s concern, however, was to undermine sacred sacrifice in general—and Christianity in particular—so he flicked back at Christ’s sacrifice with the Aztecs: the Aztecs sacrificed children to Quetzalcoatl to improve the weather for their crops; how, therefore, could Peterson say religious sacrifice is good?
Fry flipped back at Peterson’s approach to sacrifice—Christ’s self-sacrifice being generally seen as “good”, even by atheists—with an example where most people would be horrified by the sacrifice. Fry added that, of course, the sacrifices had no influence on the weather at all: his contention was that religious sacrifice is a pernicious idea—a useless superstition.
Now Fry claims to be an empiricist and for him what is testable in a repeatable manner constitutes a truth. The riposte to his Quetzalcoatl question is this: “If you only accept repeatable tests as a truth, how do you know child sacrifice will not alter the weather?” By Fry’s own empiricist epistemology, the only “truths” he accepts are established in this way; and it is far from self-evident that child sacrifice does not influence the weather—a fact Fry arrogantly assumed, he claimed “no relation” between the two. No scientific tests have been conducted on this matter, at least to my knowledge; and as the climate change debate illustrates, climate systems and even local weather predictions are very difficult to model—it is devilishly hard to establish cause and effect relations in this area.
If Fry was not prepared to sacrifice a child—many children, given the complexity of weather systems—to experimentally verify his assertion, then his claims were based on pure faith by his own epistemology. If he only goes by what is experimentally verifiable and he is not prepared to sacrifice a child to test the outcome, then he cannot claim there is “no relation between child sacrifice and the weather”—if he persists in his claim, he relies on faith.
Fry could reply that it is not permissible to sacrifice a child to verify this fact; but if he does so he must appeal to values beyond empirical tests, and so enter the realm of non-empirical prior claims and also the realm of Peterson’s metaphorical religion. He could say, perhaps, that it has been shown by repeated tests that children make poor experimental subjects—though the data from human subjects, including children, from German concentration camps were superior to those attained from animals and were used in post-war medicine for this reason. He could say that it is wrong to inflict pain, yet pain is sometimes necessary to establish truth by experiment too—pain itself is not wrong from an experimental perspective, nor, as scientists who experiment on themselves know, is death a block to experiment.
There are many ways child sacrifice could influence the weather: large congregations of pilgrims at the Aztec capital for the sacrifice might influence the microclimate and change wider weather patterns—perhaps the assembled methane from Aztec flatulence impacted cloud formation; perhaps the Aztecs gathered excess pilgrim dung to fertilise their crops in bad weather. I can spin many hypotheses that provide a plausible material connection between child sacrifice and the weather, between myth and reality; and this is before we consider the possibility that magic and the gods are real. In short, Fry leaned on our horror at child sacrifice to cast doubt on the more positive Christ myth; yet his rationale was not supported by his own supposed empiricism—and this is because he is not interested in the truth, but is rather a rhetorician with an axe to grind against the West and Christianity.