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.