On Martyrs and the Religious Impulse

Stoning of StephenThe great mistake is to assume that the early followers of Jesus had a reasonable basis for their faith, and that they would not have put themselves at hazard over a mistaken or dubious belief. We reflexively take too flattering a view of our shared human nature.

The broader history of religion offers manifold instances of martyrs sipping the bitter cup over complete falsehoods. One might even conclude that the presence of a martyrdom tradition was actually a mark against the validity of Christianity, placing it squarely in the company of myriad cults, equally bereft of truth but ever eager to slaughter animals, to self-castrate, to sacrifice children, and to die in the service of the non-existent and the false. Fervent religious zeal and false beliefs make strange but steady bedfellows in the history of faith.

One might even conclude that the presence of a martyrdom tradition was actually a mark against the validity of Christianity…

We resist admitting the fact that we are but semi-rational creatures where religion is concerned, and that people invent the oddest beliefs imaginable for themselves and for one another without recognizing that they have done so. Our wishing minds have proven reliably willing to perish over a rumor believed. In this lies an answer to all the riddles, for there stands a yawning gap between the miraculous events contained within the gospel accounts – resurrections and earthquakes and darkness and the dead emptying their tombs – and the complete silence of the pagan and Jewish records of the time. So it is for the miraculous events in Islam or Mormonism. These gulfs mirror the chasm between our reasoning faculties and our religious impulses. Reconciling the disparity requires a humbler view of our own nature, but it is an explanation which leaves no remainder.

Martyrdom is evidence only of belief, and belief is not an evidence of anything.


  1. Very well said.
    I say, I will fight for what I believe but avoid the death, I could be wrong


    • That’s cool man. We can fight and die for what we believe in. Just don’t take anybody else’s death as a datapoint that they were right in what they believed. 🙂


      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        I’ve been in a somewhat contentious discussion on Mak’s site (http://maasaiboys.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/what-is-marys-relationship-to-jesus/comment-page-2/#comment-13452) for the past few days, who has been stating that all of the dinosaurs drowned in the flood, and that the Bible is totally inerrant. I tried discussing it rationally, but each point I raised, she threw me a link to some cultish website she follows, that has a spin for all occasions. I then decided to let her see it for herself, by asking her questions, based on biblical contradictions (pop over there, scroll down, ans see for yourself!), but damned if she didn’t end the discussion by stating that here religion was all she had to live for, and without it, suicide was her only other option. Her elevator clearly doesn’t go all the way to the top floor, but I’d hate to think I pushed her into anything —

        But then, she certainly bears a great deal of the responsibility, for showing up on an atheist websit ANYway, attempting to proselytize!


  2. “Martyrdom is evidence only of belief, and belief is not an evidence of anything.”
    This is so true, but with one exception. If the believer was warranted to hold the belief, for example, if the believer was at the right place and right time to have plausibly generated a true belief/description of reality. Religious martyrs today are evidence for belief, Peter and Paul just might be evidence for something more. . .


  3. There were 19 martyrs involved in 9/11 . Most were educated and yet took just a few short years to indoctrinate them so they were prepared to lose their lives for a mythical cause.


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