Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Michael Abrahams | The story of Abraham and Isaac, and why religion scares me

Published:Monday | July 6, 2020 | 12:12 AM
Michael Abrahams
Michael Abrahams

Recently, I found myself reflecting on the story of Abraham and Isaac, found in the Bible (Genesis 22). According to the tale, God commands Abraham to offer Isaac, his only son, as a sacrifice, a burnt offering. Abraham obeyed and took Isaac up a mountain as instructed by God. He built an altar there, arranged the wood on it, and tied his son down. But as he was about to plunge the knife into his child and kill him, an angel stopped him, informing him that his actions showed that he feared God. In other words, he was given a test and he passed it.

When I was a child and indoctrinated into Christianity, the story was told to me several times. I also read it for myself in the Bible, including illustrated versions where Isaac was depicted lying on the altar with his father about to stab him to death. But I was told that Abraham was someone to be admired because of his obedience and willingness to do what God told him to do, even it if caused him pain. Being indoctrinated, I bought the story and was in awe of Abraham.

Now, having walked away from the faith, and being an adult, and a father of children whom I love dearly, I find the story to be very disturbing. Abraham was not just an extra on the set of the Old Testament epic. He was one of the lead actors. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are referred to as Abrahamic religions, as they all worship the God of Abraham, the same God who told him to kill his child. I have a problem with that.

Apologists from these faiths will offer different takes on the story, such as that it merely a test and that God had no intention of allowing Abraham to murder Isaac. However, when Jephthah offered his only daughter as a sacrifice to God, He was okay with it and did not stop him (Judges 11).

What disturbs me is the message the story of Abraham and Isaac sends: that appeasing and obeying your god, or gods, trumps the comfort, safety and lives of others. Based on this principle, countless people were killed in the Crusades and the Inquisitions and many other acts of aggression by religious people against non-believers or ‘sinners’.

Doing ‘what God wants’ caused Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman living in Ireland, to die from sepsis, after having a miscarriage, as she was denied a life-saving procedure based on a law influenced by religion. ‘Obeying God’ has also made Jehovah’s Witnesses deny life-saving blood transfusions to loved ones, allowing them to die, and to shun family members who leave the faith, causing them great emotional distress, which has even led to suicide.


In her article, ‘The One Reason Religion Is Harmful’, published in the AlterNet on November 13, 2009, Greta Christina eloquently makes a brilliant and sobering point. She states, “Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgements that happen after we die. It, therefore, has no reality check. And it is therefore uniquely armoured against criticism, questioning, and self-correction. It is uniquely armoured against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality … and extreme, grotesque immorality.”

The validity of her point cannot be overemphasised. The gods that religious folks speak of are not seen. There is no way of verifying the claims of those who say they have heard them speak, and their edicts in holy texts were written by mere mortals whose agendas we cannot be certain of.

If I tell you that women who have Pap smears done regularly have a lower risk of developing cervical cancer, and you ask me to defend my statement, I can refer you to hundreds of studies published in peer-reviewed journals in many countries over several decades.

On the other hand, when I ask Christians, for example, how they know that the Bible is the word of God, they direct me to 2 Timothy 3:16 which states, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” This is one verse, written by one man (Paul), who was entitled to his opinion but was still a man, capable of error.

And when you dare question stories, dogmas or doctrines that are obviously irrational and nonsensical, you are likely to be told that “earthly people cannot understand spiritual things”, or “you have to be filled with the Holy Spirit to understand”, or be given Proverbs 3:5 and be told to “ Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

This is an example of the “unique armour” Greta Christina spoke of. It is this armour that allows people to hurt others and use their beliefs to defend it. This armour not only acts as a shield to protect the beliefs of the faithful but also acts as a barrier to compassion and empathy. For the sake of humanity, this armour that religion enjoys needs to be removed. Those of us who are sceptical, and desire the truth, should be able to freely question and call out harmful beliefs without judgement and condemnation.

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator and human rights advocate. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.