* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Religious Faith Is Often Just a Synonym for Fear

One sometimes hears the argument that morality cannot exist without a god.  There is an often aggressive and even belligerent claim among believers that religion is necessary for society to keep on existing.  They claim that religion does more good than harm.  Many people have enumerated the horrific acts of violence that were fueled by religious fervor throughout humanity's history, and such acts continue today.  While the homosexual lifestyle is mostly verbally attacked in the United States, there are places in the world where suspected homosexuals are being killed, largely because of faith-based prejudice.  Women may be killed or mutilated without consequence in some parts of the twenty-first-century world because of the religious beliefs of the society into which they are born.  Moral behavior does not follow from religious belief.

Despite massive evidence against it, the mythical link between religion and morality remains so strong that many Americans would have a problem voting for an atheist president.  Presumably, they would prefer a leader who believes that he answers to a higher power, who embraces a responsibility to lead righteously.  And yet, faith has justified wars, excused oppressive laws, and masked hatred and bigotry.  Rather than ask whether there can be morality without religion, one must question why the two were ever rationally linked to begin with.  Religious belief may allow for unquestioned forgiveness, but it doesn't prevent abominable behavior.  Some people would also claim that religion provides a number of services as well, that faith motivates people to do good, and that good outweighs the evil that is done in the name of religion.

Fear is in some way the motivator for most claims of faith, however.  People believe in salvation because they fear damnation.  People believe in faith healing because they fear dying.  People believe in prayer because they fear all sorts of things: personal responsibility, medical procedures, collection agencies.  Groups who become targeted by religious leaders are actually the groups those leaders fear.  Homosexuals are denied the right to marry out of fear.  Women are denied the right to make decisions about their own bodies because of fear.  National healthcare is opposed because of fear.  Dire predictions are made about "what will happen if...", and a segment of the population trembles.

Some of the fear gets expressed as righteous indignation or moral outrage.  Fervent believers fear that their faith will be marginalized in society, so they have to fight.  Religious leaders fear that they will have control over a smaller sector of the population, so they have to pronounce judgment loudly and foster more fear in those who still cling to their words.  In turn, believers are infused with a fear that the Others (homosexuals, atheists, Muslims, etc.) will somehow harm them just by existing.  They become afraid of letting their children be taught science by an atheist.  They become afraid of allowing a homosexual couple to move in on their street.  They become afraid of doing yoga because it is somehow connected with worshiping Hindu gods.  They become afraid of anyone with different clothing or accent or skin color, because different is somehow threatening.

But fear doesn't really convince anyone to change.  Yanking your child out of the atheist teacher's biology class won't ultimately keep your child from learning science, and it won't change the teacher's beliefs.  Denying a young single mother the opportunity to decide for herself whether she can realistically take care of an unwanted child doesn't guarantee that either person's life will be improved.  Prohibiting the homosexual couple from attending neighborhood social events won't convince them to change their lifestyle, although perhaps the belief is that your spot in heaven will be secure because you have refrained from socializing with heathens.  Look around!  Churches are full of people doing deplorable things.  Sinful things.  Immoral things.  Why don't they warrant a little fear?

Ah, but if we had to admit that immorality co-exists with faith, we'd have less of a reason to judge those scary Others who believe and behave differently from us.  Fear can make people just a little bit crazy.  Fearful people can fire a weapon without thinking.  Fearful people can start a hate campaign against someone without letting the truth get in the way of juicy accusations.  Fearful people can act without worrying about the consequences in someone else's life.  Fear is a very selfish emotion.  It doesn't allow room for much else, even though a person may believe that they are being compassionate or loving in some twisted way while doing something entirely motivated by fear. 

Fear is not exclusive to people of faith, however.  The wealthy are afraid of being impoverished.  The employed are afraid of being jobless.  Everyone has to deal with fears.  When the fears are justified by belief in a perfect higher power, however, there is little one can do to combat those fears.  If one realizes that the fears are all a product of one's own mind, they can be much more easily dispelled.  In many ways, religion relies on people being afraid.  The more conservative a sect is, the more fear is fostered in its faithful.  It's particularly strange for believers in an all-powerful deity to be so fearful.  Their fear suggests that perhaps their god is not powerful enough to handle the existence of atheists and homosexuals, that they somehow have to take matters into their own hands.  Or perhaps their fear is that their god will turn on them in wrath and judgment if they don't take action.  Either way, people who live with such fear paint a very strange and primitive picture of their god.

What about compassionate and loving acts done by people of faith, though?  Isn't there some counterbalance to the fear?  Of course there is, because people who are not overwhelmed by fear can relax and be nurturing to others.  Some people can be very compassionate in feeding the homeless people that they don't fear at a shelter and then turn around and be profoundly dispassionate toward one of those homeless people when they walk into a religious service.  In one instance, the person isn't at all threatening, and in the other, the person is threatening to upset comfortable norms.  But when fear is put aside, we can see the humanity in other people much more clearly.  We don't actually need a god to tell us to clothe people and feed them and treat people like human beings.  The absence of fear leaves room for compassionate behavior.

We have the ability and the responsibility to question our fear.  When you find yourself in judgment over someone else, what is it you're honestly fearing?  When you feel violently toward a person, or a group of people, what are you afraid they will do to upset the norms of your life?  When you become indignant or outraged about something, what are you really afraid of?  And is that fear in any way reasonable?  It is rational in that instance to be afraid?  Is it possible to set aside irrational fear -- no matter where that fear comes from -- to see another person's humanity?

Unfounded fear won't lead you to do anything good.  Believe instead in your ability to see that the people you're tempted to fear are just like you in so many ways, and believe in your ability to treat them with love and compassion.  You don't have to agree with everything about another person in order to treat him with love and compassion.  There's really nothing threatening about someone being different from you in some small ways.  Without fear, there is no cause for violence or oppression -- although it's important to realize that the whole world will not become rational and fearless all at once.  In the end, though, violence and hatred work against faith, even when they seem to be fueled by it.  You could be a vanguard for rational fearlessness, even if you believe in a higher power.  After all, wouldn't a reasonable god want you to be fearless in your faith?


  1. Unfortunately I can't agree with most of this. Religion is used as justification for all of the bad stuff; it is not the cause. Extreme violence is caused by regional instability fueled by unfulfilled human needs and political corruption. In these cases, you cannot extricate religion from political and ethnic tensions.
    Also, you essay seems to be focused upon the major monotheistic religions, especially as the concept of salvation is a major base for your argument. There's a lot more out there.
    Lastly, tolerance needs to go both ways. You are making the very same broad characterizations about religious followers as you say they make about those of different ethnicities. You mention economic and other fears, but your mistake is in thinking that these are distinct from fear-based aspects of religion. Nobody makes active choices based on religious beliefs. They makes choices and then justify them with religious beliefs. It is an exact parallel to the thought process that allows our Individualistic ideals to blame the poor for being poor.
    But I could go on forever about this. I'm not attacking you, just pointing out discrepancies :)

  2. I don't take your comments as an attack. I know some atheists are vocally hostile toward any religious person. I am not. As I have stated before, I think the world would be an incredible place if everyone who claimed the label "Christian" actually lived by Jesus' example.

    You're absolutely right that religion becomes entangled with other cultural tensions. I wasn't meaning to imply that religion actually makes people do any of the bad stuff, although there are some religious leaders who encourage intolerant behavior. The point is that people treat religious justification as unassailable. As in, if my god approved of what I am doing, then my actions are beyond reproach. Take the approval of a perfect external authority out of the equation, and people become more clearly personally responsible for their actions.

    It's true that my basic argument is against the major monotheistic religions. By and large, it is within those systems that I have most clearly seen hatred and bigotry encouraged by representatives of a faith tradition. There are certainly individuals within the major world religions that are more thoughtful in their approach to others, who do not succumb to fear mongering. Likewise, there are some spiritual traditions that blatantly strive to foster a compassionate worldview.

    While I think some people do make some choices based on religious beliefs, I agree with you that religious beliefs are often used as justification after the fact. My essential point is that without those seemingly unassailable religious beliefs to justify behavior, people are more likely to be confronted with the irrationality of their behavior. My hope is that people facing that reality would prefer not to behave irrationally.

  3. I usually don't comment on these, but I just wanted to point out that telling people not to let fear take the place of genuine faith doesn't come across as intolerant to me. At lease, it isn't comparable in any way to the intolerance shown toward gays (and other groups) by a lot of so-called religious people.

  4. I really enjoy your blogs, when I get around to reading them. I need to save up for a tablet, I guess, so I am more portable, and can have access no matter where I am. Between the 15th to the 23rd, I was once again 'imprisoned' at one of our finer institutions of higher healing to keep an infection on my Rt foot's second toe from going nuclear & and causing the possible loss of a very dear friend (At one time in later childhood - all my toes were named...but I can no longer recall their individual names. So I'll just call ole' #2 on my Rt foot...'Bubba' in honor of my being a true Texan, 'spose -- but I so easily digress).

    But to return to the point of my comment (Yeeeesss, there actually IS one!) I find myself frequently a wandering to whom, exactly, your blogs are aimed at elucidating? Is your point of view meant to be shared merely with others of your own ilk, those of us at least relatively intelligent whose own points of view are already pretty much on the same page as your own, though perhaps, who have not necessarily pondered certain particular thought patterns so thoroughly, and therefore invariably enjoy not just your writing (incomplete sentences et.al.) but your oft satisfying conclusions of logical thought proceses?

    Or...OR, do you aspire to actully reach those who might never have leapt beyond the thought patterns and behaviors instilled since early childhood, in the hopes that you might bring actual enlightenment to a group of people? Do you, in fact, aspire to inspire: leading the world's close-minded peoples reach beyond themselves and look at the world in new, non-threatening ways, perhaps bringing the spark of an idea that there are, indeed, other ways of looking at the world and dealing with life?

    The reason I ask this is because among the people it would SEEM you might hope to reach would be the 'We've always done it THAT way beFORE' religious, who are somewhat set-in-their-ways; yet not without ability to listen to an intelligently set-out different point of view (at least in the privacy of their own homes) with an open mind and think about it honestly with calm, even curious open minds.

    But, could it be that your hopes of putting forth your arguments in a winning way to this segment of the population might be stymied without ever giving any real credence to your points if you continuously write the word god with a small g? While many of us may understand the correctness of that usage - I think for those who are just that firmly implanted and raised by generations of church-going predecessors, this might be just offensive enough to leave a bad taste in their mouths. There may be instances where in would be ok, even correct to write God and keep 'those readers' tuned in and NOT have them blow you off....Bubba. Not that I think of you my 2nd toe, Rt Ft...but you ARE both very dear friends of mine!

  5. Your question about audience is one I've considered more than once since I started writing these. Where I usually land on the issue is that I am writing with the intention of inspiring some thoughtfulness, even if that thoughtfulness doesn't lead to agreement with my point of view. I do think that human spirituality is important. I do believe that people's lives are enriched when their spirituality is intentional. I also believe that there are many people who don't really examine their beliefs critically. Some people don't want to examine their beliefs. Some people don't really want to be thoughtful. I'm writing for the people who do.

    While there may be an unintentional inconsistency, my capitalization of the word "god" depends on the context. There are feasibly many different gods people could believe in. Many of these gods have proper names, like Zeus or Odin or Coyote. When I refer to "the Israelite god," or "the Christian god," I typically use the lower-case form of the word to indicate that there are other options. When I cite references to the proper name of the monotheistic deity in Christian mythology, I do capitalize the word, just as I would capitalize "Allah." So I would write, "Moses prayed to God," but "The Israelite god was angry."

    I haven't made my atheism a secret, but my capitalization isn't meant to alienate anyone any more than the rest of what I write. If someone chooses to be offended by whether or not I capitalize a word, I'm sure it won't be the only thing that raises their ire. I'm not intending any disrespect for any person's beliefs by my capitalization choices, but it is an honest indication of my own personal beliefs. I think that belief in an external god of any kind generally does more harm than good. I also respect that there are some wonderful, thoughtful, compassionate people in the world who disagree with that point of view. I don't expect those people to keep their beliefs a secret around me, and I also will not compromise my own just to avoid offending someone.

    And I appreciate that you keep reading and thinking. It means a lot to me.

  6. "People believe in salvation because they fear damnation."

    Yer darn skippy! If you believed in eternal damnation, you would fear it, too. It is healthy and expected to fear God.

    That being said, the kind of fears that you are pointing to in this post are of the irrational sort, and therefore have no place in Christianity. Rationality and reason are gifts from God, and we are meant to use them.

    I'm reminded of Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; of whom shall I be afraid?" I fear God, but I do not fear man.

    Also, Jesus spurned no one. He communed with the most reviled members of society in his day. He loved sinners and hated sin, as should we. If someone who claims to follow Christ is ostracizing anyone, then -- if I may be so bold -- they're doing it wrong.

    But here's the kicker: we're all doing it wrong. As the adage goes, "The problem with church is that it's full of sinners."

    That doesn't mean that we shouldn't strive to do it right, though.

  7. I am also reminded of a passage from 1 John:

    "If we claim to have fellowship with him [God] and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another."

    There is no Christian basis upon which to ostracize anyone. That was verse 6 and part of verse 7, but backing up and looking at this statement in the context of verses 5-10 is even better:

    "This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

    If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us."

    Powerful stuff! We are sinners -- if we claim otherwise, we are liars. Fellowship with God means fellowship with each other. We're all sinners and we're all in this together. Amen!

  8. As I may have mentioned elsewhere, not all Christians think like you do! ;)

    Here's the thing though: If people are acting out of fear, whether they are afraid of going to Hell or afraid of going to jail or afraid of getting punched in the face, that fear stands between them and authentic truth. It's a good thing if someone is afraid enough of jail that they don't lash out violently and do physical harm to someone, but if there is never any subsequent examination of what's underneath that desire to physically hurt someone, chances are those feelings will keep coming up. Confession may feel good, but it doesn't resolve the underlying issues. Not to mention, someone has to be able to admit that they've done something wrong in order to confess it.

    There's a lot of emotional baggage wrapped up in the word 'sin'. To say that we are all 'sinners' is to put a layer of judgment and shame on our very existence, and I don't think anyone should be ashamed of being human. You may have an understanding of the word that isn't as loaded, but it has become a tool for power in some religious circles.

    Here's what I would say instead (and probably will when we get to the passage):
    We are all human beings, and there are times when we don't live up to our potential. We don't have to wallow in that, though. We are constantly able to shift gears and head in the direction that reflects our true nature. Sometimes, we may have to forgive ourselves to move on. Sometimes, if we have done something hurtful to another person, we may find it easier to move on by asking for their forgiveness. They won't always let go of their hurt, but our sincere apology can still make a difference. We don't have to be ashamed of making mistakes. One of the most certain things about life is that we will miss the target from time to time. Being willing to forgive and try again is the key toward growth, whether we're forgiving ourselves or other people. This is grace.

  9. You're right, we don't all think alike... which is why it's so important that we come together in enlightened, non-hostile ways, as we do here, do exchange ideas. We all stand to gain when that happens, so thank you for creating a space in which to do so!

    You're also right about my perspective on the word 'sin' being a little different -- but not much. As my creator and Lord, God *does* righteously judge my sinfulness, holding me accountable for my wrongful thoughts and deeds. As a Christian who loves God and wants to do his will, there *is* a sense of shame that I am unable to fulfill his call. But rather than allow that guilt and shame to have power over me, I instead allow it to humble me. Humility is a virtue, one that is critical for even contemplating approaching God.

    And, as with the rest of my theism, it makes me a better version of myself -- which is precisely the point. :)

  10. Humility is only a virtue when it leads people to an authentic presentation of themselves. Sometimes, the admonition to be humble leads some people to play small -- to bring less than their full capability into the world in an effort not to draw attention to themselves. It's important not to think of oneself as more valuable than other people, but it's also important not to think of oneself as less valuable that others.

    It's all well and good for you to have found a way to activate a sense of shame and humility into personal growth and development. I suspect that many more people respond negatively to shame, even when that shame is unnecessary or misguided. I prefer to encourage honesty and authenticity, because I think people are less likely to use those terms as reasons to bring less than their full selves forward. It's also just simpler.