Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why We Believe: The Arsenal of Fear

I've been doing a lot of thinking about why religious people believe the things they do.  Having been religious in the past, I've of course looked at my own reasons for believing.  I think there are two primary groups of believers: the indifferent believers and the conscious believers.  Those who are indifferent are easily explained; they don't really think about their belief, it doesn't affect their lives at all, they just believe in god because they do.  Perhaps they were brought up in a religious household, and indoctrinated into their belief system as children.  But they don't really have reasons for their belief.  What I'm interested in are the conscious believers, the ones who think about their beliefs and hold them for a reason.  And I think I've puzzled out what that reason is, in pretty much all cases.


Now, assuming I have some religious readers, they'll tell me that I'm wrong.  They have all kinds of justification for their belief, plenty of support from their holy book, their own personal experience of the presence of a divine being, and of course for many of them the idea that "God is love."  A loving god wouldn't make you believe out of fear!  But I don't think I'm wrong; I think that as an outside observer, I can see the weapons of religion more clearly than those who have been defeated by those weapons.  And that's what we're dealing with here: weapons.  Religion uses fear as a weapon against the minds of human beings, and not just as a single weapon.  Fear comes in many flavors, and religion has no qualms about using each and every one.

The opening salvo in the religious assault is the Fear of Hell.  This is the initial barrage, it is a direct threat against the enemies of the religion in question.  It tells people, believe what I say, or you will be burned forever. Now, the vast majority of us have been burned at some point in our lives.  A burn hurts like no other wound.  Even when you know that all of your pain receptors are on the surface of the skin, and thus it can't actually hurt anywhere else, a burn feels deeper than other pain.  A bad burn feels like it goes to the bone.  Even the mildest burn is quite painful.  This alone should tell you why religions use fire as a threat, as their most extreme punishment.  Imagine being in a fire, burning worse than you've ever burned, all over your body, forever.  You'll never die, you'll never be released from the pain.  What wouldn't you do to avoid that?

But some people don't fear torture; the religious know that, from the examples of their own martyrs.  Many people, however, may be susceptible to the next weapon in their arsenal, the Fear of Death.  Its a terrifying moment for a child when he or she first encounters death.  Its often not until the teenage years, if not later, that a person truly confronts the idea of their own mortality.  And it is very, very scary.  I exist, and I'd like to put off not existing for as long as possible.  Here, religion steps in and tells you that you don't have to stop existing.  You can live forever; their god can grant you eternal life, if you believe in him and do what he says. Of course, they have to deal with the fact that their believers do actually die, so they promise you life after death.  Something about you lives on, either in an eternal afterlife or in unending rebirths.  The specifics vary, but all the major religions tell you that death is nothing to fear, because it never really happens.

The weaponry is far more extensive, though.  Maybe an enemy doesn't fear their own death, maybe they have something they would die to protect.  To deal with that, religion has learned to wield the Fear of Loss.  Most people have others in their life that they love and care about, people that they like to be with, their friends and family.  Knowing that we ourselves are going to die one day may not be quite as scary as the fact that our loved ones will also die.  They are just as mortal, just as subject to death, and being without them is something we don't like to contemplate.  Here is where the attack from religion becomes insidious.  If your loved ones were believers before their death, then they have eternal life already; if you believe too, you can see them again, and be with them for all eternity.  If they are still alive, but they don't believe, then even if you live forever, you'll still lose them.  Shouldn't you try to convert them, too?  From pets to parents, we all want to be with our loved ones forever, and religion promises to help with the fear that we can't, and in doing so uses that fear against us.

What about right now, though?  All of these weapons have had to do with the future.  Religion can deal with the fears you have today, and the next thing it draws from the armory is the Fear of the Unknown.  We humans, even if we accept that we are amazing creatures, must also accept that we are limited.  We do not know everything about the universe, and for that matter we don't always know what's around the next corner, or what's going to happen in the next five minutes.  Uncertainty scares a lot of people.  Who knows what dangers are lurking in the tall grass?  And we have lots of questions, which can be overwhelming at times.  What am I?  Where did I come from?  Where did everything come from?  Is there a reason I'm here?  Religion offers a balm against these fears; for the dangers of the world that we aren't aware of and can't control, there is at least one all-powerful, all-knowing god looking out for us and protecting us.  And all of those questions can be answered, most likely from the holy book, and by a priest if the book is somehow lacking.  Religion claims to be able to make the unknown known, if not to you, then at least to god.

Finally, religion has one deadly weapon, one final blow against the human mind.  It wields, almost paradoxically, Fear of the Known.  This weapon is a two-pronged attack in itself.  The first part is targeted at those who know a little, and it is based on heaven.  Religion promises us that if we believe, there is an afterlife waiting for us that is glorious, wonderful, perfect.  There is no pain, no suffering, no strife, just pure happiness and contentment.  Heaven is a beautiful place, even if they can't give you specifics.  In comparison, we can look at the real world, and see that it is dull, boring, and most importantly frightening.  Compared to heaven, the real world is a very scary place; religion wants you to yearn for heaven as an escape from this fearful world.  Secondly, for those who know a lot, there's an additional element of fear.  When you see how incredibly big the universe is, or even just the Earth, you feel insignificant and pointless.  Your life will be short compared to the grand sweep of time, and in comparison even to a planet like ours, an individual human almost disappears.  The mind recoils from the vastness, and in that moment, religion springs its trap.  God made all of it, and he made it just for us.  You are important, you are loved, you are special, because god says you are.  You're afraid for good reason, but god can comfort you.

I think that these weapons, the Arsenal of Fear, are at the root of why every single conscious believer follows the dictates of a religion.  Whether they fell to one attack or many, when you dig deep enough, you'll find that religion is based on some form of fear.  Its an impressive armory, a nearly insurmountable force.  Humans are fearful creatures; whether you believe we were created that way or evolved that way, the truth is that today, we are often filled to the brim with fear.  And religion knows that, and it uses that, and it conquers millions by attacking with that fear.

But we aren't always afraid.

We can defend ourselves against the attacks of religion.  We have within us the power to overcome fear, to weather the blows and come out stronger than when the attacks began.  The defense that works best, that is most effective against the Arsenal of Fear, is reason.  Knowledge, rationality, skepticism, the amazing capabilities of our minds; these are what religion seeks to conquer, because religion fears them!  So, how can you fight back against these fears?

First and foremost, look at the commonality among every single weapon.  They all propose something beyond our reach, something that we cannot ever detect.  For the Fear of Hell to work, you have to believe that you will live on after you die; you have to believe in hell.  I'm not afraid of hell, because I know hell doesn't exist.  Even if we assume that we live on after we die, wherever we go, we go there without our atoms.  If I don't have atoms, how can I have nerves to feel fire?  For that matter, how can there even be fire?  Firelight is the light emitted from excited atoms as the electrons change energy states.  If there is fire, then there is electricity, and atoms, and natural laws that we understand.  If there's fire in hell, I can build a fireproof room, and an air conditioner.  The religious will tell you that its not like real fire; it burns your soul (which can feel pain without nerves), and it doesn't need fuel, or oxygen, or atoms.  In short, the fire in hell is magic fire.  I don't believe in magic, so hell isn't scary.

The Fear of Death and the Fear of Loss also depend on an afterlife.  Before religion can help you assuage those fears, it has to convince you that there is an afterlife.  But there's no evidence of that; we can't detect a soul, we can't detect an afterlife, and the religious can't really even tell us what's so good about it.  This also takes care of one half of the Fear of the Known.  When someone promises you heaven, ask them for details.  What am I going to like about it?  Will there be great meals, good TV shows, amazing sex?  Will I even have a body?  Why should I look forward to simply praising god for all eternity?  No one has ever reported back from heaven.  All the evidence points to the fact that when we die, that's it.  Yeah, its still scary.  But it isn't noble to hide from that fear by believing in a reassuring lie.  The best way to face these fears is to life our lives in ways that we enjoy, to make the most of the time we have.  Tell your loved ones you love them, make memories with them and keep those memories as you see fit.

Most importantly, for the Fear of the Unknown and indeed every weapon, religion asks you to believe in god.  Their god is a judge who can send you to hell, who demands your worship, who has infinite power and knowledge.  But what can he actually do?  If god has such power to judge me for my supposed sins, why has he not already struck me down?  Why must he wait until an afterlife that we can't prove exists anyway?  The best evidence most religions have for their supernatural god is the natural world, which is ridiculous.  If god was really all-powerful, we would be able to see some manifestations of that power; things that should be totally impossible should actually happen, with no explanation.  And yet, everything we see appears to follow the invariable laws of nature.  There are no broken rules, no E that does not equal mc^2.  If god is really all-knowing, then why does his book, supposedly either written by him or made at his direction, regardless of what holy book you're talking about, get so much stuff wrong?  Every time the supposed creator of the universe says something that we can independently test, even most of the time when his book records historical fact, it is verifiably incorrect.  The supernatural god proposed by every major religion not only has absolutely no evidence supporting his existence, he also appears to have none of the traits that he is claimed to have.  Its far simpler to say that no such god exists at all.

Without an afterlife, and without a god, religion's Arsenal of Fear is broken.  The weapons are duds, the swords are pitted and dull.  There is nothing to fear from the threats of religion, and nothing religion can do to truly assuage our very real fears about the world.  Fight for your mind, face your fears; you're armed to the teeth, and religion's armory is all flash and no substance.


  1. Matt, I commend you for speaking your mind. I know you've struggled a long time in the past for the ability to be comfortable doing so. I do however feel that you have clumped every religion into a big ball and have tried to pigeon hole it into a box that is too small to do it justice. You criticize and belittle the faith of millions, no billions of people because of what they believe and how they chose to live their lives. Yet say they do so out of blind ignorant and fear? I don't believe in god per say and you know that, but even I RESPECT and even admire people who teach of their faiths compassion, and yes even the discipline to follow their faith. It really makes me wonder if I even know you anymore to hear you talk like this. Arsenal? Assault? Reading this felt like reading Dune. I resolve to live every day like it's my last, no regrets, no fears, but belief that there is something greater out then than myself, and to stand in awe of that. Enjoy what is around you love. Not everything is brainwashing fundamentalism.

  2. I beg to disagree sitarkube... Fear is primal... You look at the news and commercials on tv, internet, and magazines... Anything and everything around us eventually will graze across a child's eyes and they will be influenced in some sort of fear. If it is fear of failing, or fear of loneliness, fear of aging, fear of the afterlife... People study these fear buttons to make millions, and control great masses of people. You speak as if teaching a faith should be respected. Nothing respectful about a mormon religion that disregards actual history to golden tablets. Nothing respectful about teaching christianity is the most superior moral understanding, when you don't need religion to know killing is wrong. Also, it wrong to say that the incarnation of right is to wash hookers feet as jesus did. the writer of this blog nailed it on the button. People can talk the about the "love" and fluff of a particular religion all day long... But when it comes to the actual truth the believe in because of fear. Because christianity has made people believe... THAT THEY ARE SO AWEFUL AND TERRIBLE THEY MADE SOME god kill himself... a god they don't have evidence for, a god with many different versions of different interpretations of religions. Islam, Jews, etc. This blog was expressive and had every wright to blanket all religions as a whole, because truth is simply truth when the majority is not on your side, but reality reveals it.

  3. I think it just does the same thing many accuse religious organizations of. Blankets many things into one big mess. I don't buy it. It's too narrow minded, just like many religions. But hey you're entitled your opinion as am I. I just have to live with Matt. So I'm sick of being preached at.

  4. Loved this reading! I agree completely, inflicting fear on someone doesn't have to be obvious for it to work. Most religious people feel free, that is the biggest illusion, they truly believe that they are choosing what they believe. But the truth is they couldn't imagine their lives without religion, as it's embedded in their brains since childhood, it's an invisible chain they can't see, feel, or get rid of.
    The greatest accomplishment religion has had is making believers think it's their choice.

  5. Think of it this way.. At least his so called narrow mindedness does not have you burning forever and ever. He thinks the best of you no matter what happens to you in the end. If you live with him... You should be grateful you have a roommate that can think. If you want someone who doesn't give advice, which i hardly would call it preachy... but advice then you should get a new roommate... Take that advice, other than that I am sure you couldn't come up with anything better to say on the subject.

  6. Matt,

    nice analysis of religion. Every big organisation like church or government is run by people who make mistakes, use FUD (fear uncertainty doubt) tactics, are corrupted etc. I may agree with you on some points there. But the real issue is elsewhere.
    We share awe of everything (universe), yet this awe of our amazing universe leads me to totally different conclusion regarding the question of God's existence. Atheists say there is no God but that goes against my basic logic, my understanding of latest science and my intuition. What logic, science and intuition did you use to conclude there is no God? This is just curiosity, like I said I don't know any atheist personally.

  7. @Eugen: The reason I am an atheist is because I see no convincing evidence for the existence of god. A divine being is not necessary for anything we see in the natural world; the universe appears to be exactly as we would expect it to be were it simply the result of elementary particles following the strict underlying laws of nature. Science is the study of reality, and in all of its examination of reality, it has found no evidence of a supernatural god. The skeptical viewpoint is to only believe that which has sufficient supporting evidence, and the supernatural of any sort, including god, has none. There may still be a creator, I don't rule that out entirely; to do so would be unscientific. But I'm reasonably certain (99.something%) that there is no god, and any god that does exist appears to never interact with reality. For any of the gods proposed by major world religions, I have to say I'm 100% sure they don't exist, just as I'm sure there is no Superman or Frodo Baggins. They're fictional characters, and the Abrahamic god is a particularly poorly written one.

    Now, my wife does bring up a good point. I am taking a rather broad brush to religion in this post. I still think I'm right, because I'm not aware of any religion anywhere in the world that both holds to supernatural claims and does not use these fear tactics. Even Buddhism, a religion without a god, posits supernatural forces in the body and reincarnation. I just happen to be most familiar with Western culture, so admittedly my point of view will be based around what is most well known there.

    I certainly respect people who do good things, regardless of why they do them. I respect many scientists from Enlightenment-era Europe who called themselves Christian; I respect Martin Luther King, Jr and Gandhi; I have a basic level of respect for all human beings. Which is why I am not attacking people, I'm attacking religion as a whole, as a concept. There's nothing special about religion that makes it not subject to analysis, that exempts it from being examined critically and ridiculed if its wrong. I believe that religion is based in fear, lies, and/or ignorance; these are not things I respect. Religious people who are able to rise above these things, and become kind and compassionate and loving, are a different matter; I respect them quite a lot, but because of their actions, not their beliefs.

  8. Matt , first of all you are a lucky man. Writing all that about religion and your wife “brings up a point”. If I wrote all that my wife wouldn’t feed me. That itself is a good reason to keep religion in my case.

    Now seriously, it seems you are very much against organized religion. Did UCC do anything wrong to you?

    It would be hard to provide direct evidence you probably would like to see. It is possible to present few points hopefully leading to reasonable clue. Example:

    1 Cosmology is showing us the universe had beginning at Big Bang.
    2 Examining supernovas astronomers established the universe is accelerating expansion.
    3 This is pointing to an important clue. It’s a one-time event.

    “the universe appears to be exactly as we would expect it to be” Something like Dawkins?

  9. My church experiences weren't particularly bad; I have a lot of good memories from the church-sponsored camps and from various events at the church. It wasn't any particular action on their part that pushed me away or made me "angry at god". They just tried to attack my mind as I outlined in my post, tried to get me to believe things without any evidence. They had the best of intentions; they wanted to save my soul. But like most organized religions, they were far more concerned with my soul and with how much glory I gave to their god than they were with my well-being in this life.

    That the Big Bang is a unique even in the history of the universe is not evidence of divine intervention. At best, its evidence that such an event is highly unlikely, with a probability so low that it has only occurred once that we know of in 13.7 billion years. Its fascinating, but it doesn't require the existence of god for it to have happened.

    And yes, I'm a fan of Richard Dawkins. I've got a significant reading list, but I'm part of the way through The God Delusion, and I've got The Greatest Show on Earth planned after it. He's certainly a proponent of the idea that the universe shows signs only of mechanistic causes, although he's far from the only one.

  10. It's good you'll retain nice memories from church camps etc. I remember religion quite differently from what is practiced here. It was more about keeping tradition,religious holidays were not about religion but excuse for a party. For example St.John was religious holiday but it's also a time when farmers open wine barrels that were sitting since wine making previous fall. Everybody tries each other's wine and comments on quality and next thing you know it's a massive party. Everyone drunk and singing traditional songs.

    Here (in N.America) I see more of a serious and business like practice. Also, there are more extremo - freaks here who turn everybody off like that minister saying Apocalypse this Friday.

    What do you think of this clue:

    1. Quantum entanglement experiments prove instantaneous action at distance

    2. No materialistic effects can explain instantaneous action

    3. It appears to be another, non material layer to our reality.

    These clues sound simplistic and silly but they are extremely condensed ideas for quick presentation.

  11. I think you have the fear of death part right, but you miss another basic topic common to every religion of which I can think: the desire for punishment of evil. People have a strong drive for justice, and since some criminals escape punishment in life, we invent a way for them to pay for their crimes after death. Every religion features this, from the ancient Egyptian weighing of the heart to the Buddhist cycle of rebirth to the Abrahamic day of judgement. This seems less a function of fear to me and more a function of anger.