No Worship Without Skin in the Game

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Published in
6 min readApr 15, 2017


Symmetry, symmetry everywhere — Belief and worship requires an entry fee — The Gods do not like cheap signaling.

Note: I am posting these excerpts from SKIN IN THE GAME as I am ending the grueling Greek-Orthodox lent period which, for the most part, allows no animal products. This diet is particularly hard to keep in the West where people use butter and dairy products. But once you fast, you feel entitled to celebrate Easter; it is like the exhilaration of fresh water when one is thirsty. You’ve paid a price. Your holiday is different from that of others who stole it.

Fasting is one of the human sacrifices that make like different from an experience machine — or, worse, a hedonic, pleasure-seeking mercenary pursuit. Recall our brief discussion of the theological necessity of making Christ man –he had to sacrifice himself. Time to develop the argument here.

The main theological flaw in Pascal’s wager is that belief cannot be a free-option. It entails a symmetry between what pay and what you receive. Things otherwise would be too easy. Accordingly, the skin in the game rules that hold between humans also hold in the rapport with the gods.

The Gods do not like cheap signaling

Altar in Saint Sergius

Figure x shows a church altar in Saint Sergius (or, in the vernacular, Mar Sarkis) in the Aramaic speaking town of Maaloula. I visited it a few decades ago, sparking an obsession with that ancient and neglected language. The town still spoke at the time the version of Western Aramaic that was used by the Christ. Western Aramaic is the original language of the Levant: for those into Talmud, it corresponds to “Yerushalmi” or “Jewish Aramaic”, as opposed to the Babylonian Aramaic closer to what is now Syriac. It was mesmerizing to see children speak, tease each other, and do what children usually do, but in an ancient language. At the time of Christ, the Levant spoke Greek in the coastal towns and Aramaic in the countryside.

When a town holds the remnants of an ancient language, one needs to look for vestiges of equally ancient practices. And indeed there was one. The detail that I will always remember is that the altar has a drain for blood. It had been recycled from an earlier pre-Christian practice. The appurtenances of the church came from a reconverted pagan temple used by early Christians. Actually, at the risk of upsetting a few people, it was not that reconverted: early Christians were sort of pagans. The standard theory is that before the council of Nicea (4th Century), it was common for Christians to recycle pagan altars. But there turned out to be evidence for what I always suspected: Christians and Jews in practice were not too differentiated from other Semitic cult followers, and shared places of worship with one another, along with some pagans. The presence of saints in Christianity comes from that mechanism of recycling. There was no telephone, fax machines, or websites financed by Saudi princes to homogenize religions.

Altar in spoken Levantine and Aramaic is still madba7 from “DBH=ritual slaying by cutting the guttural vein”. It is an old tradition that left its mark on Islam: Halal food requires such a method for slaughter. And qorban, the Semitic word QRB for “getting closer (to God)”, hence via sacrifice, is still used as a word for sacrament.

In fact in Shiite hagiography, Husain addressed God before his death by offering himself as sacrifice: “let me be the qorban for you” — the supreme offering. And his followers show literal skin in the game during the commemoration of his death, the day of Ashoura, engaging in self-flagellation. Self-flagellation is also present in Christianity, as commemoration of the suffering of the Christ –while prevalent in the Middle Ages, it is now gone except in some places in Asia and Latin America.

So, in the Eastern Mediterranean pagan world (Greco-Semitic) no worship was done without sacrifice. The gods did not accept cheap talk. Also, burnt offerings were precisely burnt so no human would consume them. Actually, not quite: the high priest got his share; priesthood was quite a lucrative position since people in the pre-Christian, Greek Speaking Eastern Mediterranean, the high priest position was often auctioned off to bidders.

Physical sacrifice even applied to the Temple of Jerusalem. And to even later Jews, or early Christians, the followers of Pauline Christianity. Hebrews 9:22: Et omnia paene in sanguine mundantur secundum legem et sine sanguinis fusione non fit remissio. “ And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.”

But Christianity ended up removing the idea of such sacrifice under the notion that the Christ sacrificed himself for others; but if you visit a Catholic or Orthodox church on Sunday service, you will see a simulacrum. It has wine representing blood, which, at the close of the ceremony flushed in the piscina (the drain). Exactly as in the Maaloula altar.

Christianity used the personality of the Christ for the simulacrum; he sacrificed himself for us.

“At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again,..” [Sacrosanctum Concilium, 47]

And the end of sacrifice by making it metaphorical:

“I appeal to you therefore brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” [Romans 12:1]

As to Judaism, the same progression took place: after the destruction of the Second Temple in the first Century, animal sacrifices ended. Before that, the parable of Isaac and Abraham marks the notion of progressive departure from human sacrifice by the Abrahamic sects –as well as an insistence of skin-in-the game. But actual animal sacrifice continued for a while –though under different terms. God tested Abraham’s faith with an asymmetric gift: sacrifice your son for me –it was not as with other situations of just giving the gods part of your yield in return for future benefits and improved harvests, as with common gift-giving, with tacit reciprocal expectations. It was the mother of all unconditional gifts to God. It was not a transaction. And it was the last such transaction –about a millennia later Christians had their own last transaction.

The philosopher Moshe Halbertal holds that, post the simulacrum of Isaac, transaction with the Lord became of a reciprocal gift-giving style of transaction. But why did the animal sacrifice continue for a while?

Canaanite habits die hard. Maimonides explains why God did not proscribe immediately then-common practice of animal sacrifice: the reason is that “to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used”; instead he “transferred to His service that which had served as a worship of created beings and of things imaginary and unreal.” So animal sacrifice continued — largely voluntary — but, and that is the mark of Abrahamic religion, not the worship of animals, or the propitiation of deities thru bribery. The latter practice even extended to the bribery of other tribes and others’ gods, as continued to be practiced in Arabia until the sixth century, with a central United Nations-like communal marketplace for various bilateral worship such as Mecca.

Love without sacrifice is theft (Procrustes). This applies to any form of love, particularly the love of God.

The ScapeGoat

Sometimes such sacrifice can take a different form. The theory behind René Girard’s scapegoat, the bouc émissaire, is also about sacrifice, but as a purge, like letting blood to improve one’s health. For Girard, a contagious mass movement, reaching a paroxysm of violence, would select an arbitrary victim, developing a widespread hostility towards it or him, and spreading by a process of “mimetism”. The elimination of the scapegoat would assuage the violent tendencies of the group.

The Evidence

To summarize, in a Judeo-Christian place of worship, the focal point, where the priest stands, symbolizes Skin in the Game. The notion of belief without tangible proof is not existent in history.

The strength of a creed did not rest on “evidence” of the powers of its gods, but evidence of the skin in the game on the part of its worshippers.[1]

[1] Thanks to Baruch Gottesman, Gil Friend, Mark Champlain, Aaron Eliott, Rod Ripamonti, Zlatan Hadzic