On Fear and Seeking

Slacktivist, a progressive Christian blogger whom I read regularly, has some words of advice for the new atheists on how best to win converts. You’d wonder why a Christian would want to give advice to atheists about how to do this – indeed, such “advice” is usually just concern trolling when it comes from the religious right – but Slacktivist is a different kind of Christian, emphatically not a member of that political group, and his advice is doubtless in good faith and worth considering. In this post, I’ll say a few words by way of reply.

According to these Dawkins- and Hitchens-style arguments… religious belief arises from a core emotion of fear — fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear that the universe might be an unjust and meaningless place.

I’m sure that there are some believers and some forms of religious belief — particularly those unsatisfying, white-knuckled varieties — that are in large part motivated by fear. But not all forms or all believers. And not most. And never entirely.

I think there’s ample reason to believe that many forms of religious belief are motivated by fear – not necessarily metaphysical fears about death or meaning, but more tangible phobias. Consider the evidence I cited, in posts like “Groundhog Day“, that many who call themselves Christian consider legalized gay marriage the worst disaster that could possibly strike a society, worse than Hurricane Katrina, worse than 9/11. They say this because the god they believe in is a psychopath, and they consider themselves hostage to his whims; if they don’t succeed in ordering society the way he wants it, he will strike that society indiscriminately with disaster and catastrophe, causing them to suffer as well as many others. This dynamic of vicarious punishment, of causing the innocent to suffer for the sins of the guilty, is prominent throughout the Bible, as Slacktivist surely knows.

Or take the many charismatic churches, popular in Africa but also some of high prominence in the West, that see daily life as a continual struggle against demonic attack and worldly culture as an ever-present source of temptation to sin, and believe that putting even one foot wrong can lead to an eternity of damnation. Fear pervades every aspect of their belief system and forms the background of their daily lives. And what is the point of books about the Rapture if not to evoke terror in people at the thought of being left behind?

Or, again, take the Muslim world. What motivates so many Islamic states to force their women to veil and shroud themselves, to forbid them to drive or get an education? What is behind this if not fear – fear of women’s sexual power, of their autonomy, of their independent thought?

The first problem with this diagnosis is that these arguments don’t follow through on it. They’re not providing a prescription to match their diagnosis. It does little good to argue that religious believers are responding to a core emotion of fear unless you’re also willing to address that fear.

Very much to the contrary, I think atheists do offer an antidote to the irrational fears described above. Our solution is the simplest imaginable: the recognition that there are no gods, no demons, no hells, that there are no divine overseers standing over your shoulder with whips at the ready, that society will not be punished if we recognize the equal rights of gays, and that you will not be boiled in oil for eternity if you vote Democrat, have premarital sex, or learn about evolution in school. For people afflicted with these superstitious terrors, atheism is a release and a source of peace and contentment, as many former believers have testified.

To disabuse us of belief in the transcendent, you will need to convince us that we are seeking the wrong thing or that we are seeking in the wrong place.

But again, this is a major part of the new atheists’ campaign. Sam Harris, for instance, extensively discusses mindfulness meditation, Richard Dawkins the awe and wonder of knowledge gained through science. Though we lack belief in supernatural beings, we do find ample reason to believe in the transcendent, and say so; we just believe it’s found in different places than traditionally conceived. And why do atheists continually cite the absence of evidence for the existence of God, the contradictions and flaws within all the major holy books, the lack of clear answers to prayer, if not in an effort to persuade theists that they are seeking in the wrong place?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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