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Fear and the Bondage of Religion

By RickO ~

Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. It serves as a vital survival mechanism triggering the fight-or-flight reaction in most living creatures, ourselves included, when faced with imminent danger. We feel fear physically as our bodies release chemicals like adrenaline.
Fear of the DarkImage by stuant63 via Flickr
We can sense it in others in a way that is often compared to the sense of smell. We have adapted it for use it as a weapon, not only to intimidate, but to motivate. Fear is one of the most powerful copy drivers used in marketing. And we’ve all seen the political campaign ads where the opponent is cast in grainy black and white while his or her positions are grimly outlined by a deep sinister voice intended to make us afraid.

Fear is also defined as a sense of awe and reverence, a profound respect, such as the common term, “Fear of God”. But these two uses of the term “fear” are not mutually exclusive. In fact they are directly related. For example, one can feel awe, reverence and respect for a brilliant scientist or a brutal dictator simply because of what they have managed to accomplish; the nature of those accomplishments an altogether different matter. While I cannot imagine a reason for anyone to fear Albert Einstein (apart from his students, perhaps) I certainly understand the complex feelings people had who lived under Saddam Hussein.

The dark nature of fear raises the question: can someone genuinely love what they fear? Sure. It’s true that many people (I, for one) love Great White sharks, but are reluctant to jump in the water with one because of the obvious risk. Sharks are not evil, but the really big ones are indeed fearsome. But what I’m talking about is love as a relationship. Again, though, the answer is yes. Many people go through life terrified by a violent and abusive spouse, twisted into grotesque emotional contortions because of their love for that person, a feeling often impossible to justify, but real nonetheless. Psychologists spend a great deal of energy trying to understand how this works. A well-studied paradoxical phenomenon called “Stockholm Syndrome” is a psychological state in which a hostage develops positive feelings toward their captor, despite the danger and potential violence of their situation A striking example of another sort is the fictional, yet infamous, Ministry of Love, imagined by George Orwell. The Ministry of Love was a place where loyalty to the dictator was enforced through terror and torture. It was a windowless building where bright lights were never turned off. “The place where there is no darkness.” As the story goes, the victim was exposed to such intense fear that they learned to genuinely love their abuser because, ultimately, the two physical emotions were made indistinguishable from one another and, given the choice, love was the more desirable feeling. Orwell was not inventing something new. He was merely fictionalizing, to an extreme, the application of a real human capacity for psychological manipulation. One needn’t look further than the cult-of-personality found in North Korea to see a real example of Orwellian love.

Religion has always relied on fear as its own strong nuclear force. Fear, more than any other characteristic, is what perpetuates religion and keeps it from falling apart. The bible uses the word “fear” more times than the word “love” although, to be fair, there are two different uses. One use is as in “fear God” and the other as in, “fear not”. However, it is merely two uses of the same word and, in both cases, it has the same meaning. Why fear God? He is all powerful, capable of great wrath and terrible vengeance if you don’t show him the proper respect. But if you give him what he wants, namely unconditional devotion, you won’t need to fear other perceived threats. By the way, this is how a Mafia protection racket works. But ask virtually any Christian and they’ll tell you they love the Lord. Fear is masked by love.

In my own pursuit of answers, decades spent “Searching for Certainty”; I became very aware of the absurd logical fallacy of my adolescent Christian beliefs. And as I read the bible in more detail, I began to question why anyone would love this deity, let alone feel any real admiration beyond the natural feelings of awe toward something that had such power; a power expressed so often through terrifying malevolence. But I also had that familiar taste in my mouth; the fear of coming to my own conclusion, using the best of my ability to think and reason; the fear that the conclusion I reached would not be pleasing to this deity. I was already beyond belief and certainly absent any love for it, but the fear lingered like a now-exposed raw nerve that had always been there.

Religion has always relied on fear as its own strong nuclear force. Fear, more than any other characteristic, is what perpetuates religion and keeps it from falling apart. I would often wonder: As we who once bleated worn and rote platitudes among the incurious flock of compliant Christian sheep become awakened to the truly comforting reality of our temporal lives in a natural universe, free from the bondage of unknown terrors that lie in wait for the slightest miscalculation of dogma or the insufficiently penitent, can we ever indeed be free from the physical harm done to our young developing minds, instilled forever with abject irrational fears, yet seemingly hard-wired to carry them for life, despite our better knowing?

Fear is the last tactic of the prognosticating evangelist. When all else fails to make an adequate case, an appeal to the most primitive and highly-tuned aspect of our animal firmware is either what keeps someone in the fold or causes one to consider hedging their bets to be on the safe side. No matter who we are, fear is one of our lives’ earliest emotional experiences and certainly one of the last we will have. We are all too often easy prey for those who would use fear as a weapon of coercion. Fear shouts over reason’s murmurs. When we do, at last, walk away from the fictions of belief, we cannot expect those instilled fears to remain behind. They stay with us longer than our feelings of love, our desire for social acceptance and our false hopes for that strangely nebulous eternity. Our best therapy is to continually reinforce our reason with knowledge and thoughtful observation. Over time, fears of angry gods will go the way of monsters under the bed.


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