…Another error against which I want to caution is to ignore the spiritual and religious meaning and motivation of factually destructive and cruel acts. Let us consider one drastic example, the sacrifice of children as it was practised in Canaan at the time of the Hebrew conquest and in Carthage down to its destruction by the Romans, in the third century B.C. Were these parents motivated by the destructive and cruel passion to kill their own children? Surely this is very unlikely. The story of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac, a story meant to speak against sacrifice of children, movingly emphasises Abraham’s love for Isaac; nevertheless Abraham does not waver in his decision to kill his son. Quite obviously we deal here with a religious motivation which is stronger than even the love for the child. The man in such a culture is completely devoted to his religious system, and he is not cruel, even though he appears so to a person outside of this system.
It may help to see this point if we think of a modern phenomenon which can be compared with child sacrifice, that of war. Take the first World War. A mixture of economic interests, ambition, and vanity on the part of the leaders, and a good deal of stupid blundering on all sides brought about the war. But once it had broken out (or even a little bit earlier), it became a “religious” phenomenon. The state, the nation, national honour, became the idols, and both sides voluntarily sacrificed their children to these idols. A large percentage of the young men of the British and German upper classes, ehich were responsible for the war were wiped out in the early days of the fighting. Surely they were loved by their parents. Yet, especially for those who were most deeply imbued with the traditional concepts, their love did not make them hesitate in sending their children to their death, nor did the young ones who were going to die have any hesitation. The fact that, in the case of child sacrifice, the father kills the child directly while, in the case of war, both sides have an arrangement to kill each other’s children makes little difference. In the case of war, those who are responsible for it know what is going to happen, yet the power of the idols is greater than the power of love for their children.
E. Fromm, 1973.