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Killing 50,000+ chickens, goats, and Jesus in the name of forgiveness

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What do chickens, goats, and Jesus all have in common? If they are killed in the right way, your sins can be forgiven.

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Kapparot, the ritual slaughter of chickens, coincides with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, October 11-12 this year. Participants and PETA estimate that 50,000 chickens will be slaughtered in Brooklyn alone. The bird carcasses are supposedly donated to the poor, though they are often thrown in the trash. [WARNING: There is video evidence of the birds being thrown away, but it is disturbing. It shows bloody, dying birds on the ground, and trash bags full of dead chickens being thrown in a dumpster. It also shows the actual killing of the birds.]

For the ritual, Hasidic Jews grab a chicken by the wings and swing it around their heads three times to transfer their sins to the bird. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, while swinging the birds, the soon-to-be-redeemed supplicants chant, “This be my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. This cock [or hen] shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace!” If you know religion, you should know what comes next. The bird is ritually slaughtered. The slaughterer is vicariously redeemed—cleansed of all sins.

As I watched the video, the constant screeching of terrified birds and the sheer number of carcasses made me wonder, “would Christians be appalled by this?” And if so, do they realize that Christianity itself is Kapparot writ large? Jesus is nothing more than the scapegoat for Christians. He died for your sins. I often joke that if you don’t sin, Jesus died for nothing. But the idea of vicarious redemption through human sacrifice is—to my mind—the most immoral of any religious idea. The idea that our guilt and liabilities can be piled onto an innocent living being is disgusting in itself. That our guilt is expunged by extinguishing that innocent life is nothing short of barbaric.

The term “scapegoat” is derived from the bible, Leviticus 16:8, where God goes into painstaking detail describing to Moses how his brother Aaron should slaughter a young bull, a ram, and draw lots for two male goats, one to be slaughtered and the other, the scapegoat, to be released into the wild after having the sins of the Israelites confessed to it. This patently immoral doctrine, sanctioned by the god of the bible himself, is a total refutation of personal responsibility. You are not beholden to the people you’ve stolen from or who you’ve lied to—you’re forgiven because you accept your role in the execution of innocent lives.

But this is what Christianity and Judaism, at least in the kapparot ritual, require: reverence for the sacrifice of an innocent. They revere the scapegoat,  the sacrifice, the kapparot chicken. The snuffing out of an innocent life is reason enough to loathe this immoral doctrine. But that a guilty person has somehow atoned for their transgressions by killing that innocent is worse. This is the doctrine of two wrongs making a right. Minor “sins” are forgiven by admitting your part in the murder of an innocent.

The slaughter of innocents to atone for sins is bad enough, but allowing sins to be purged without doing anything constructive to atone for them — apologizing, paying remuneration, making amends — is itself a bad idea. As Thomas Paine wrote, “Accustom a people to believe that priests or any other class of men can forgive sins, and you will have sins in abundance.”

The history of religion testifies to that.

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