Something for Nothing: the Fear at the Heart of Christianity.

Something for Nothing: the Fear at the Heart of Christianity. April 23, 2015

Today and Saturday we’ll be talking about the two elements of the something-for-nothing mindset: fear and greed. Today, I’ll start with fear.

No.fear
Fear can be conquered–but anybody saying that it’s easy to do so is trying to sell you something. (Credit: Vincepal, Flickr, CC license.)

“Something for nothing” isn’t just a Christian concept, of course. Even animals seek to maximize pleasure or success and minimize effort. People learn that habit very early on–even children try to find easy ways to complete unpleasant tasks (as any parent dealing with a bath-avoidant child can tell us). The mindset plays upon our greed, yes, but it also plays upon our fears–our fear of missing out, our fear of getting hit with a penalty we hadn’t known was coming, our fear of not listening to warnings. And the mindset also encourages us to address those fears as cheaply as possible.

When I think about all the accusations and strawmen, all the gloating and smugness that seem such a great part of modern Christianity’s interaction with non-believers, I realize suddenly that beneath them all is fear–and most of that fear is stuff that every human being alive has to deal with on some level. The way these Christians are dealing with their very human fears is probably the worst possible way. They want the fear resolved, but they want it resolved as easily as possible and at the lowest possible cost of effort that can be managed.

There are constructive and less-constructive ways of dealing with fear.

Sometimes we just avoid the source of the fear. If avoidance doesn’t cause problems, then in my opinion it’s a perfectly valid and acceptable way of handling a fear. The problem is that most of our fears aren’t that easy, and the answers to dealing with those fears aren’t that easy either, so avoidance often brings its own troubles.

We may retreat into self-delusion and denial, by going in for magical thinking like prayer or indulging in pseudoscience “solutions” like alternative medicine or abstinence-only (mis)education. But these, too, only forestall the inevitable confrontation we’re going to have with our fears, provided we don’t accidentally hurt ourselves in the process of denial. I personally frequently heard people told to “give their fears to Jesus” — as if praying would magically cause one’s fears to vanish. And sometimes it did feel like my fears subsided a little after prayer–but they always returned after my euphoria wore off, and often with a vengeance. No surprise at all that I ended up diagnosed with PTSD after my deconversion: the only way I had of dealing with fear was classic magical thinking.

We might start asking those around us to handle our burdens for us. For example, for many years I was stark terrified of driving. I ended up relying on others to ferry me around. It wasn’t fair, but even the most fair-minded and level-headed of people can dissolve into selfishness in the face of crippling fear.

When even that starts to get to us, then we have a tough road ahead of us to resolve and defeat our fears. And it really is hard work. Acquiring fears can happen in an eyeblink, but losing them can take weeks or months or even years. We discover that our fear became a reflex somewhere along the way. It becomes hard even to remember a time when we weren’t afraid or when our management tactics weren’t woven into the fabric of our lives. Some of us may even need outside help to get over our fears, they’re so ingrained. But one way or the other, the choice comes down to either staying hobbled or busting through the walls we’ve built around our own lives.

Where Others Fear to Tread
Minstrel is a pretty cool cat. Eh walks in front of dogs and doesn’t afraid of anything. (Credit: Paul Townsend, Flickr, CC-NoDeriv license.)

I’ve tried just about every tactic possible in dealing with my own fears. My experience leads me to realizing that there is a lot of fear in the worst types of Christianity, and those fears are ones that its sufferers are trying to soothe in the most laziest and selfish ways possible: by denying them, by avoiding them, by forcing others to cope with them on their behalf. But the religion does not encourage the healthy resolution of fears–and I’m pretty sure there’s a reason why it doesn’t even want to.

We non-believers mainly interface with Christian fear when believers proselytize at us. When Christians ask non-believers where we get our morals, or how we find meaning in life, or what we’d say if we found out that Jesus was real after we deaths, we may well be hearing a serious projection of their own fears.

“How do you find a purpose in life?” cloaks Christians’ terror of finding meaning in life, their fear that maybe life doesn’t have an ultimate meaning, their fear that if they lose their fervor they will instantly and immediately lose their entire purpose in life. Every human alive who isn’t immediately preoccupied with staying alive wants to find a meaning in life, but many Christians don’t want to do the hard work of figuring out what their own personal meanings might be. They grab for the super-simple way: “a god is handing me my purpose.” It’s no different from a Sorting Hat telling a boy wizard what house he’ll join, or a computer simulation telling a teenaged girl what faction she should pick. We’ll talk more about life purposes soon, but for now, I’ll just stress that fear drives this question. Christians have been taught that non-believers don’t have purposes in life, or if they insist that they do that their self-chosen meanings are vastly inferior to the “real” one that this god of theirs hands people, or else they are the wrong purposes–unlike the true, real, and perfect purposes that believers think they have. Sometimes. If they understood the “still small voice” and all the portents correctly. Maybe.

The truth they may find one day is that if someone stops believing in a religion’s claims, one might have to shift purpose–especially if that purpose involved the religion in some major way, like ministry does–but you don’t just lose your whole purpose. Nor do you even lose your ability to find purpose. People who deconvert know to their bones just how irrelevant religion is to that whole process. Religion can make that process easier, in the same way that it’s very easy to buy Christmas presents for someone who is way into dollhouses or video games. But it’s not like you can’t find something to give someone who isn’t into super-present-able hobbies.

“How do you figure out morality without an objective morality-giver?” cloaks a genuine fear of grey areas and uncertainty. Real morality isn’t about the imposing of external rules; it’s about causing as little suffering as possible while advancing and enhancing humanity and one’s own personal life as much as possible. That process can be difficult sometimes, yes, but Christianity’s subjective, might-makes-right conceptualization of morality leaves me cold. If Christians had an objective morality-giver then we might be able to talk about the idea, but as it is, even their mythology doesn’t have that from a purely metaphorical sense. But they have been erroneously taught that their purely subjective, might-makes-right morality is neither of those things–that it is actually objective, divinely just, and merciful. If they lose their fervor, then they fear descending into chaos and violence, as if their fervor is all that is holding them back (and many will say exactly this in explicit terms). Similarly, they have been taught that if a society loses its religious affiliation then it will descending into chaos and violence. They are afraid of that chaos and violence so much that they are willing to use force of law and lying-for-Jesus if need be to force others to follow their rules–rules that they themselves cannot even follow consistently while under the threat of eternal damnation (which sounds pretty chaotic and violent, but apparently mortals are not allowed to judge these things–which is convenient, really, for those imposing the religious rules, isn’t it?). Going through all the effort needed to work out why something is moral or immoral is very complicated. It’s much easier to avoid the whole question by grabbing for religious leaders’ easy, simplistic bumper-sticker sayings.

When someone asks this, what I hear is “How do you know what to do if someone isn’t telling you what to do?” And the answer is painfully easy: “The same way people figure out what to do when they grow up and are no longer under their parents’ control.” There are some lessons about adulting that I had to learn on my own, stuff my parents hadn’t even known in the first place to teach to me–and in the same way, when one leaves religion behind, one discovers all sorts of stuff that must be un-learned and re-learned anew. Is it easier when one has a list of rules just smacked down on their heads? Yes, probably. But sometimes those rules aren’t the right thing to do. Most of the stuff people think is moral as religious folks, they’ll think is moral as non-religious folks. There’s some shifting of specifics, but most of the moral framework remains. And people who leave religion behind may well discover that their religious worldview actually violated a lot of their own moral framework–but they didn’t see that at the time.

“What if you discover after death that my religion’s claims are really true?” is obviously about Christians’ fear that they will in fact discover that their religious claims were false after death. This question comes off as a request for validation in the most overt way possible. I’ve never yet seen a Christian ask this question without an expression of rapt terror on his or her face, though they tend to brush off our inevitable return question (“what if you discover something else happens after death than what you expect?” or “what if you die and nothing happens because we simply die and that’s it?”) by chirping about how happy they are to live in fear, alienate and ostracize beloved friends and family members (even their own children!), and to sacrifice significant time, money, and energy to their religious ideals. Rare indeed is the Christian who is content with anything they hear in response besides OMG I’D BE SO UPSET AND SKEEEEERED! 

And we can’t talk about Christians’ fears without mentioning the Rapture and all the end-of-the-world masturbation that fundagelicals deal with. Sometimes it feels like at any given time they’re facing an active threat of the end of the world. What else is this fantasy except a genuine terror of death? They’re so scared of death, the most universal human experience in the whole world, that they’ve evolved an entire theology built around avoiding it. But the fear doesn’t end at death. They’re more frightened of what happens after death than they are of death itself–and that’s saying something, right there.

“Aren’t you afraid of Hell?” is totally the wrong way to ask that question; it should run “Aren’t you afraid of this Hell idea that scares me so much?”  There’s a breathless quality to the question, always. It’s never asked with disinterest or casual curiosity. It really couldn’t be. If it was real, then it would be indeed very terrifying. Christians who buy into the doctrine of Hell are very frightened of it. I’d be concerned to run across a Christian who did who wasn’t! Oh, their leaders are stuffed full of rah-rah about not fearing Hell–about how TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never fear it, about how TRUE CHRISTIANS™ have absolutely nothing to fear from it–but I can absolutely tell you as someone who was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, who was involved in ministry and married to a preacher, that they are either talking out of their asses or seriously delusional. The preachers and pastors who crow the loudest about not being worried about Heaven are the ones I personally saw breaking down and crying in private out of fear, and then getting up, putting on a big Jesus smile, and leaping out onto the dais to preach again about how terrifying Hell is. The big problem is that for every Bible verse about not being afraid, there are oodles more about how yes, Christians should be very afraid. The real boogeyman here is Matthew 7:22-23, which advises that even Christians who do miracles and preach in Jesus’ name might be turned away from Heaven–and that they won’t even realize they’re not up to his standards till that moment.

One favorite tactic of emotionally abusive predators is keeping their standards totally hidden from their victims. Victims of emotional abuse rarely ever feel secure or certain. An action that is lauded one day might be punished the next. Victims who get too sure of themselves get slapped down hard. And they never know if they’re doing something right or wrong. There’s a method to abusers’ madness; by acting this way, they slowly undermine their victims’ self-esteem and make those victims feel more dependent on the abuser. As a manipulation tactic ensuring compliance and docility, abusers couldn’t do better than the current Christian conceptualization of Hell.

So when a Christian asks me if I’m afraid of Hell, I know that I’m dealing with Christian who is hugely afraid of Hell. I remember what that was like. When I was Christian, I was hugely terrified of Hell (and being “left behind” by Rapture, but SSDD, amirite?). I never knew if I was doing enough, if I was fervent enough, if I was devoted enough, if I was good enough.

And that was the point of the whole doctrine of Hell: to inspire fear no matter what else happened, and especially to use fear to inspire obedience and compliance.

There sure is a lot of fear in Christianity, despite Christian party-line newspeak about not being afraid. Fear is used to convert people, and the game doesn’t end there; it’s then used to keep people in the pews–to stop people from leaving. Most of it’s centered around our very real and human fear of the unknown, and a lot of it plays on our equally very-human fear of being a day late and a dollar short. We fear missing out on something good, but even more than that, we fear accidentally landing in the middle of something bad we hadn’t foreseen, and we fear not heeding a warning that turned out to be correct. When we get scared, we’re more likely to make bad judgments or mistakes (that’s why wise investment gurus tell people not to make big financial plans from a place of fear). And we’re more likely to trust people who say they know a way to resolve that fear, especially if their suggestion sounds simple and easy.

And these fears take the place of evidence for claims. When someone tries to make me afraid of the unknown, then I know that person doesn’t have a bit of proof for anything being claimed–or that person would have already provided it. And I know that person wants the easy way out of those fears.

When we tell these Christians that no, we’re not afraid of their god, or their Hell, or whatever it is they’re trying to spook folks with in lieu of providing evidence for their claims, they give us one of two reactions: either they’ll think we’re lying or perhaps unaware of how bad the threat really is (which is the route I took as a Christian), or else they’ll be confused. If we short-circuit the standard proselytization script, which tries to inspire fear and thus willingness to listen to a religious blandishment, then they’re not really sure what to say next. Their script needs us to share the same fear that the Christian feels. If we cannot be inspired to terror, then nothing else in the script is going to make much sense to us.

This fear Christians peddle and suffer from is another symptom of the disease infesting their religion–but it is one of the oldest symptoms, originating with the Gospels themselves and manifesting over and over again through many centuries. It’s hard even to imagine a Christianity that doesn’t try to terrorize anybody by preying upon human beings’ fear of the unknown. I know some progressives are trying to create a religion wearing Christian trappings that doesn’t terrorize, and I think it’d be nice if they succeed, but take the fear out of the religion and a lot of its demands and assertions start looking awfully silly.

Leaving Christianity made me very sensitive to similar attempts to frighten me rather than persuade me with evidence, or to play upon my human fears, or to encourage me to take the cheap way out of resolving a fear. I’m glad of that at least.

A lesson hard-earned is one not soon forgotten, and a fear defeated through hard work is not likely to return.

"The only philosopher I trust to do math is Bertrand Russell."

Cold Reading, and the Christians Who ..."
""Libya is better. So is Lithuania."And yet Twitler has the gall to call anywhere else ..."

Cold Reading, and the Christians Who ..."
"OT: PZ has a post about the folding of the Pangburn Philosophy Corporation which promoted ..."

Cold Reading, and the Christians Who ..."
"https://uploads.disquscdn.c... I just remember I played with an Ussuran guy and not much more except ..."

Cold Reading, and the Christians Who ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment