Had the Numenoreans sacrificed human captives to Illuvatar, it would have been morally far “better” than worshipping Morgoth. Even worse than worshipping Morgoth, breaking the ban of the Valar and attacking Valinor would be the ultimate possible sin. It is for this reason that the Numenoreans are unpunished for all of their ‘evil deeds’ until they sail to Valinor, at which point Illuvatar utterly destroys their civilization.
These claims might seem controversial, but they actually follow quite directly from Tolkien’s conception of Good and Evil. In Tolkien’s mythology, the prime source of evil is rebellion against God, and seeking to usurp his divine authority is the ultimate sin. This follows from a Christian (and particularly Augustinian) belief that “good” is conformance to divine will, and “evil” is deliberate divergence from divine intentions.
Tolkien makes this point quite clear in letter 183. He argues that the “rightness” and “wrongness” of a side is determined by the cause that each side fights for, rather than by actions undertaken in the pursuit of the cause. Tolkien claims that “in The Lord of the Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God … Sauron desired to be a God-King … if he had been victorious, he would have demanded divine honor”. Thus, the central conflict in LOTR is a religious conflict, with the West indisputably on the right side (since they fought for the true God). Tolkien goes on to say that even if the West had bred orc armies to ravage Sauron’s men allies, their cause would have remained “indefeasibly right”. Even if the West had lived in squalor and fear while Sauron’s allies enjoyed “peace and abundance and mutual esteem and trust”, the West would still have been Good and Sauron would still be Evil. The fact that the good people were “kind and merciful” is “quite besides the point”.
Thus, if the Numenoreans had made human sacrifices in honor of Illuvatar, they would have been, in some important sense, “on the right side”. Worshipping Morgoth, on the other hand, was evil no matter how they conducted themselves. Certainly, the Valar and Illuvatar would (probably) not have been overpleased by the human sacrifices, but it would not have been much of an issue: had they followed Illuvatar, he (or the Valar to whom he had delegated divine authority) could have simply told them to stop. It would have been a mistake moreso than true evil.
Breaking the Ban of the Valar was far worse than either the human sacrifices or the worship of Morgoth because it broke the only divine edict upon the Numenoreans. Illuvatar never demanded worship, nor gave the Numenoreans moral commandments. Because the Ban was handed down by the Valar, to whom Illuvatar had delegated Authority, it was the only divine law upon them. Breaking it cemented their rebellion against God in a way that human sacrifices and Morgoth-worship could not (because Illuvatar had never really told them not to sacrifice people and not to worship Morgoth). Thus, doom hung by a thread when Ar-Pharazon wavered before setting foot on Valinor. Up until the Ban was fully broken, he still could have repented and be saved.
Now, if this moral view seems problematic to you: I agree. In particular, framing the Lord of the Rings’ conflict as a religious war strikes me as quite problematic. The vast majority of the “good people” were fighting for their homes, or families, or freedom from Sauron’s oppression, etc. Perhaps Elron and Gandalf were privately motivated by a desire to see Illuvatar given due honor. But given the lack of overt religion it seems strange to see the conflict as basically about God. Frodo certainly wasn’t motivated by theological concerns – he wanted to save the Shire (and all free people) from Sauron’s malice and oppression.
To drive the point home: it seems to me that if Sauron had been patiently and genuinely working to uplift the peoples of Middle Earth while simultaneously positioning himself as a God, then the people of the West would not have opposed him. Similarly, if Sauron had tried to conquer and oppress everyone without involving a religious agenda, the war would have happened pretty much the same. So it seems to me that characterizing the war as religious in nature doesn’t describe the causes of the conflict well.
I can think of two possible ways that Tolkien would respond to this. The response would be that my hypothetical is impossible and misses the point. Tolkien might argue that Sauron could not have patiently worked to uplift ME while advocating his own Godhood: that as a consequence of claiming to be a God he would inevitably become a repressor. Likewise, given that Sauron was seeking absolute dominion over Middle Earth it was inevitable that he would seek to usurp Illuvatar’s divine authority.
The second response is that even if religion does not characterize the causes of the war or the motivation of the actors, Tolkien is fair to say that it is basically about religion because religion is morally the most important matter at hand. Essentially, Illuvatar’s right to divine honor is way more important than the specifics of whether or not Hobbits are enslaved, so regardless of how Hobbits feel about the dispute divinity is still the heart of the conflict.
I think that within Tolkien’s Augustinian moral framework these responses hold up pretty well, but I also think the whole exercise serves to reveal the flaws inherent to a ‘divine will’ understanding of morality. The structure is too rigid and too absolute to conform with human moral intuition, and leads to seeming contradictions like “sacrifice isn’t totally evil so long as you sacrifice to the right God”.
Tolkien dodges these issues by having the “good guys” behave morally like “good guys” (forgiving and merciful) while the “bad guys” behave in morally bankrupt ways. Thus, we aren’t forced to face the contradiction between divine and human-intuitive morality. However, they’re lurking in the background, in the moral and philosophical fabric of the text. How do you feel about these issues? Can Tolkien’s morality be reconciled with our feelings that human sacrifice is bad in all cases, that the ends do not always justify the means, and that hobbits can fight for freedom without really fighting for Illuvatar?