Last month in India Rajkumar Chaurasia axed his nine-month-old son to death as a sacrifice to the Hindu goddess Durga (Kali). Kali is famously the goddess of destruction, so Chaurasia committed the horrific crime to please her. He thought that the sacrifice would bring happiness to childless couples, according to police.
As enlightened Westerners, we rightly recoil at such barbaric acts. If religion leads us to destroy, rather than to build up/inspire/encourage, then religion is wrong. That any god could take pleasure in child sacrifice is a testament to the destructive power of irrational belief—more proof that “religion poisons everything.” Thank goodness we’ve turned to more rational ideals and away from cruel superstition.
What would drive people to sacrifice their children? The purpose is to gain the favor of the god to whom the child is sacrificed, precisely what Chaurasia purposed. It is a wretchedly cruel instance of quid pro quo: “I will sacrifice something of great value to me, but then you have to do what I want.” If I burn my child on the altar, you have to provide a good harvest next year; if I throw her off the cliff, you will keep my enemies from overtaking me; if I axe him to death, you must make many wombs fertile in response.
In other words, people have sacrificed their children throughout the ages because they wanted something more than their children. It is the most severe form of pagan idolatry. Whatever idol I seek—whatever it is I want most in this world, whether that be security, riches, health, or even something as innocuous as self-fulfillment—I am willing to give up that which I should love most unconditionally to receive it. It is selfishness to the core.
Once child sacrifice is reframed in these terms, however, our “enlightened” Western culture has cause to shift uncomfortably in its seat. In the United States, at least, we have been practicing state-sanctioned child sacrifice since 1973. In fact, we have killed more than 50 million babies in the pursuit of our idols. I am referring to abortion.
What would drive us to sacrifice our children? What are the gods whose favor we seek? They are not false gods like the days of yore—Molech, Ba’al, even Kali—but modern gods of our own making. We sacrifice children to the idol career, to self-actualization, to selfish visions of the perfect life (and there is no room for a child with Down’s syndrome in those visions, it seems). If a child would hinder my plans for happiness, I will happily sacrifice him or her on that altar.
So, before we judge the religious practice of child sacrifice too harshly, perhaps we should examine our own secularized, humanist, enlightened version of it first. It is no less cruel, no less barbaric, no less selfish than Rajkumar Chaurasia’s appalling act. If the latter shocks and horrifies us, so should the former.
A final word, for the evangelicals who constitute the overwhelming bulk of my limited readership: Before we slip into our own version of smug judgmentalism (not that we’d ever fall into that!), it may be worth noting our own version of child sacrifice. While we rightly oppose abortion vocally and vehemently, we may still fall into the trap of sacrificing our children spiritually for the sake of counterfeit gods. The idols of education, advancement, success, achievement, fun, athletics and extracurricular activities all clamor for our devotion. Will we keep our children from spiritual life for any of these? For what will we allow or force them to skip fellowship with believers? What gets in the way of our family worship times—opening the Word and praying together as a family? You get the idea. We are just as wont to place our desires above our children’s most important needs.
 Small wonder, then, that the God of the Bible detests child sacrifice so intensely (cf. Jeremiah 32:35 and the harsh response to Manasseh’s sin of child sacrifice in 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33): God expects us to live self-sacrificial—not egocentric, self-serving—lives.