That thought came to me while listening to a decent podcast from the BBC called "Living with the Gods." It's a series of 15 minute episodes about some of the core aspects of religious belief throughout history and across culture. The first several episodes are great, and generally it's way above average for podcast/radio shows, but I score it a mere "decent" thanks to commentary in several episodes that is simply PC bullshit of the 2017 vintage.
"After this ostentatious cruelty we might think of ourselves as entering a calmer, more rational embrace" to turn to examine classical Greek sacrifice, "and with a sigh of relief relate a little more calmly, but there's brutal violence here as well." He then goes on to describe animal sacrifice.
Rather than see Aztec's ritual as a distinct category, (humans killing humans), he makes a false kinship between that and Greeks (humans killing animals, which they already did to survive). Even if you object to the eating of animals, it's ahistorical to look at ancient society and reprimand it for not going soy. It's one thing to tell me that, quite another to tell Pericles that.
Worse, it's a hypocritical analysis because he uses a more generous interpretation of animal killing in a different episode called "Dependence or Dominion?" Here, he compares the three great Western religions, (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), where they see man as having dominion over animals, per the book of Genesis, with Yupik people in Alaska, who see the world as interdependent. Such a distinction certainly exists, but it's not as stark as he might think. MacGregor trots out many of the tropes about how Yupiks use every part of the animal, and imagines the dominion creeds as fairly indifferent around the animals they raise and eat (and the environment they exploit, etc.).
Most religions encourage offering a thanksgiving before every meal, and for many people in dominant religious societies-- I'd bet for most before like 1800--it is not a perfunctory act. Time and again I wonder if religion is an abstract topic for him, or if he has any personal familiarity with one. Maybe that's critically irrelevant, but it's a distracting thought that his leaps in logic create. (I.e., ""Has MacGregor heard of 'grace'"?) People in "dominant" religions before the Industrial Revolution knew hunger better than we do, and definitely knew they were dependent on the things they were granted dominion over. And that's what sacrificing an animal which you have dominion over is doing: acknowledging that dependence.
MacGregor's analysis is also inconsistent between the two episodes in a way that he Noble-Savages one culture while knocking another. According to Yupiks, seals consent to being slaughtered, and MacGregor presents that as a novel, admirable idea. The Greeks also believed that their sacrificial animals consented, but MacGregor dismisses that notion with the cliche, "in theory at least."
Further, though MacGregor tells us the Yupik use every part of the animal, they gloss over the fact Greek sacrifice was part of a meal. I mean, they did not just throw out the ox once they let the gods have a whiff. They ate it. I bet they used the skin for leather. I bet they put the horns on antique Cadillac hoods. In other words, I bet most humans in pre-modern subsistence societies used every part of the animal. After all, oxen ain't cheap.
In creating the false analogy about sacrifce, I assume MacGregor's intent was this: we should not look back at the ancient religions that used sadistic rituals with modern eyes and simply condemn them as evil. At least, we should not be condescending about something we no longer understand. I'd agree with that, but that's not what he does. Instead is portrays all ancient-premodern sacrifices as the same.
There are 30 of these podcasts and as I said, overall they're a fine use of a quarter-hour. Some episodes are excellent. Unfortunately, what feels like a post-religious skepticism of traditional Western religious practices mars an otherwise interesting series.