Are There Limits to Religious Toleration?

By Gary DeMar

6/01/2006

Nearly every social commentator appeals to the conservative Christian community to be tolerant of other religious traditions. After all, we live in a religiously pluralistic society. The assumption is that religion is a benign choice, little different from picking one car model over another. Therefore all religious traditions should be tolerated and accepted as valid expressions of faith.

Of course, in terms of the religious pluralism paradigm, I have blasphemed. I have insulted today’s pantheon of gods and goddesses, whoever or whatever they might be. The gods, in addition to being crazy, will also be angry with me because I dare to proclaim without reservation that all religions except biblical Christianity are false, no matter how well intentioned. Jesus made it clear that there is one God, and He does not share His glory with another. All those who claim to be gods or goddesses are usurpers who have no more a spark of divinity than does a block of wood (Isa. 40:20).

We have to return to less halcyon days to understand what the fuss is all about. How would today’s religious pluralists have responded to Montezuma and the religious beliefs of the Aztecs? Can you imagine Montezuma appealing to Cortez based on pluralist ideals?: “Can’t we all just get along?”

While Cortez’s arrival caused Montezuma fear and dread, it gave hope to many of the Indian tribes who suffered under Aztec rule. The Aztecs had raided neighboring tribes for years, capturing thousands of victims for human sacrifice, a central part of Aztec religion. Cortez and his men were horrified at the Aztec’s slaughter of countless human lives. Aztec temples were stacked with human skulls. So when they made their way toward the Aztec capital, local tribesmen who feared and hated Montezuma followed after the conquerors urging them to attack without mercy.

When Cortez spotted the center of religious worship, the sacrificial pyramid, he made his way up the hundred and fourteen steps with some of his best soldiers following close behind. Montezuma was at the top waiting for him. What Cortez and his battle-hardened men saw there shocked them like nothing they had ever seen before. Montezuma had just sacrificed some boys to keep the gods happy, and there was blood everywhere. Bernal Diaz, an eyewitness, describes the scene: “All the walls . . . were so splashed and encrusted with blood that they were black, the floor was the same and the whole place stank vilely. . . . The walls were so clotted with blood and the soil so bathed with it that in the slaughterhouses of Spain there is not such another stench.”1

Cortez left the blood-drenched temple to compose himself in the fresh air. Speaking to Montezuma through an interpreter, Cortez told the Aztec leader that he could not understand how such a wise ruler could believe in these pagan gods. They were not gods, Cortez admonished him, but rather devils. Montezuma was outraged. “We consider our gods to be good. They give us health and rains and good harvests and victories in war.” Of course, the gods were not good to the thousands of victims sacrificed every year.

As the Spaniards climbed down the temple pyramid and made their way through the city, they saw more unspeakable horrors. They passed rooms where the bodies of sacrificial victims were being prepared for feasts. They saw racks that held more than a hundred thousand human skulls.

Aztec society was built on blood, the blood of thousands of helpless victims. This senseless slaughter had to end, and Cortez believed that he was called by God to accomplish the task.

Cortez vowed to rid Mexico of paganism. He preached the gospel to the tribes throughout Mexico. People who knew that they could become human sacrifices to false gods were amazed to hear that the God who made the world had sacrificed Himself for them, shedding His blood for their salvation. But Cortez did more than preach. He toppled the idols and burned their temples. The first pagan temple to go was the one in the center of Tenochtitlan. The idols were removed and the priests were forced to scrub the bloodstained walls clean and whitewash them with lime water. So much for religious toleration and pluralism.

Attempts by historical revisionists to paint the Aztecs as peaceful natives who dwelled in the splendor of an unspoiled Eden is a gross corruption of the historical record.

In ancient Mexico, human sacrifice was an offering to the gods of people’s most precious possession, their blood. The custom that most startled the Spaniards, ritual cannibalism, was in fact the attainment of a spiritual idea: It was a true communion.2

Hernando Cortez (1485-1547).

Aztec priests threw their victims down on a sacrificial stone, opened the chest with a flint knife, and pulled out the still beating heart, which was then burned in a stone urn. “Each year thousands of Aztecs had their hearts cut out of their living bodies and offered to the Sun god, who was also3 their god of war. Thousands more were burned alive, skinned, and drowned as offerings to other gods.” How would today’s historical revisionist explain the daily bloodletting? I can just see it now. “The Aztecs were a highly advanced culture, especially in the area of medicine. Open heart surgery was practiced on a regular basis. Rarely if ever did a patient live, but it was the courage of the Aztecs to attempt the impossible that set them apart from their Spanish rivals.”

Like the Aztecs, the Inca Indians had a culture steeped in blood. Yet, we’re told that the “Inca were never that bloodthirsty. When they needed a special favor from the gods, hundreds were sacrificed.” Hundreds, thousands, what’s a few sacrificial victims between religious pluralists? We need to be more tolerant of their beliefs since the Incas were not malicious when they sacrificed their victims. Actually, the priests were doing them a favor.

Terrible as human sacrifice seems to us, we should remember that the Inca thought it necessary to their well-being. Sacrificial victims were not being punished for any crime; they were being rewarded for their beauty. The killing was done as painlessly as possible and without anger or hatred. Being sacrificed was, indeed, an honor that guaranteed eternal life with the gods and thus a “favor.”4

The above was written in the spirit of pluralism and toleration of everyone’s religion, even ones that encouraged digging out your heart with a flint knife. If you’re one of the most favored, you might be drugged with coca (to ease the pain), dressed in fine clothes, and strangled with a rope before they tear your palpitating heart from your chest.

Certainly the Catholic Conquistadors had their faults. Even so, their exploits, both religious and military, nearly eradicated ritual human sacrifice from Central and South America. It was Cortez’s repudiation of religious pluralism that liberated those tribes who suffered under the Aztec’s bloody religion.

William A. Hamilton, who formerly taught Western civilization at Nebraska Wesleyan University, offers a much needed antidote to the misguided efforts of today’s multiculturalists:

The point is not to put down pre-Columbian culture. But before the politically correct multiculturists assign Columbus to the ash heap of history, let us not dismiss the conquistadors as less civilized than the natives they encountered. They ended massive ritual human sacrifice.5

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1. Quoted in Albert Marrin, Aztecs and Spaniards: Cortes and the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Atheneum, 1986), 111.

2. Serge Gruzinski, The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire, trans. Paul G. Bahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, [1987] 1992), 49.

3. Albert Marrin, Inca and Spaniard: Pizarro and the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Atheneum, 1989), 34.

4. Marrin, Inca and Spaniard, 34–35.

5. William A. Hamilton, “The conquistadors were not all bad,” USA Today (October 8, 1992), 15A.

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American Vision
P.O. Box 220,
Powder Springs,
GA 30127, 800-628-9460, www.americanvision.org.

Gary DeMar is president of American Vision and the author of more than 20 books. His latest is Myths, Lies, and Half Truths.

30th June, 2007: We would like to thank Joan Jordan of American Vision for, on June 30th 2007, granting UK Apologetics generous rights regarding the use of their articles where we feel appropriate.

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