The Fear Factor

In his book Mortality, the late and great Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Either our convictions are enough in themselves or they are not.” Simply put yet strikingly wise, Hitchens knifes the central premise of religion: that we must not only do good, (according to god’s will) but, much more importantly, we must believe. And that belief, regardless of our deeds, will be the deciding factor in our final judgment; as if a lifetime’s worth of bad deeds may be atoned by a last-minute declaration of fear and cowardice. This precept represents the damning – if you will – flaw of religion, in that our convictions are hollow if not accompanied by the complete submission to god. In other words, god cares more about his subjects glorifying him than the way in which they lead their lives. As much as the faithful may be inclined to argue, they cannot wholly disagree if they truly believe in their holy books. God’s chief concern, in the three major monotheistic religions, is that we bow at his feet and adulate him, as if bearing us upon the earth without our consent was a gracious gesture worthy of our eternal gratitude.

So what does this say about the role of religion in general? That our deeds and moral outlook are deemed of far lesser value than our willingness to obey not just god, but the right god, sadly represents the characteristic nature of humanity: fearfulness. And unfortunately, this succumbing to fear has cost us countless lives on the claim that one god is more true than another. Imagine a world in which religion was stripped of its petty requirements of dogmatic belief and blind obedience. A world in which the fine moral values, which religion has at least had some hand in evoking, were detached from the rigid boundaries of a jealous god and his threat of eternal damnation. How many lives could have been saved if our convictions were placed ahead of our submission? If our responsibility to morality and reason trumped the childish fear of torture after death? It is hard to say, but almost indisputably, many a war could have been settled if our commitment to each other superseded our commitment to the invisible entity above, whose demands of unbridled worship have driven far too many to pick up the sword.

If not for the fear factor inherently tied to religion, god would quite likely have no role in our world. The spiritual relationship that people draw comfort from forming with him could undoubtedly be experienced in different and more healthy ways. (After all, doesn’t the fact that reports of spiritual experiences are found abundantly in every religion sort of negate the notion that one person’s god is the true godwhile all other relationships with the divine must somehow be insincere?) Plainly, god is the product of cowardice. Our creation of him stems from the woeful uncertainty of death, and has proven to be the greatest and most usable excuse for people to betray their fellow humans.

It is said that our society could not function without the moral bedrock that god provides. As I hope I have articulated, this merely reflects humanity’s lack of trust in itself; that it could not survive if not for an all-contorlling dictator. But really, would our society self-destruct without him? Or would our faculties of common sense and reason be enough to shed light upon right and wrong? I sincerely believe the latter would be true, yet my religious peers may tend to think the former. The German poet Heinrich Heine offered an astute analogy: “In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.” I like to think that humanity is equipped with the adequate knowledge and good sense to make sound moral decisions without looking to god for guidance. In fact, I know it is possible. I see plenty of friends do it all the time. Some of the most morally responsible and conscientious people I know do not seek direction from god in order to live their lives. Of course, some do, and I respect them equally on the grounds of their decision-making – but I would contend that common sense and reason play a much larger role in their morality than they think.

It seems such a simple proposition: taking the functional aspects of  religion, i.e. community, generosity, and morality, and discarding the decree of absolute subjection to a god that serves only to create a burden of moral expectations for us to carry and sets rigid limits within which our minds are restricted from freedom of thought. Yet people remain glued to god, as the fear and inconceivability of death lingers hauntingly and incessantly. In my opinion, life can be cherished more fruitfully and grasped more fully when god is removed as the solution to all problems. Fear is an inevitable human condition. Let us accept it for what it is, live boldly beside it, content in the mystical uncertainty of life and death, rather than tempering it with fallacies that produce childish feelings of comfort and distort the full and direct experience of this life – the only one we know we have. And may we have the integrity to hold our convictions, and the courage to allow that to be enough.



4 responses to “The Fear Factor

  • Noah Ketterman

    Let me begin this response by correcting a gross misrepresentation of the Christian faith. The “damning” precept that Mark speaks of concerns the nature of God. God is love. Above we read of a sinister, back-breaking dictator who cares for nothing and nobody but himself. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am sure you are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve. God creates paradise in the Garden of Eden and in it he places the first man and the first woman (who I do not believe were born, “upon the earth without (their) consent” – isn’t THAT a frightening but entirely atheistic stance on the value of life?). In God’s presence, Adam and Eve lack nothing, and worry about nothing (some dictator). God gives them COMPLETE freedom to enjoy His creation alongside Him. God gave them one and only one rule, and a pretty easy one to follow at that. But they freely chose to disobey and as such were no longer allowed to enjoy His presence.

    At that time, we created for ourselves a great chasm between us and God; a chasm that we could not cross on our own. But God loves us deeply and in a very sacrificial manner (literally) offered to restore our relationship with Him. He didn’t have to, but we are His children and he wanted to. There is a requirement on our end though (aha, he must be getting to whatever it is that makes God a dictator!). Our relationship with him must be a two way street, otherwise it is no relationship at all. God has done all the work for us, all we need to do is believe in our fallen nature (which is easy to do if you look around and take note of the horrible things men and women are capable of doing) and accept His gift to complete the relationship. Show me a dictator in all of that.

    Now that that is out of the way, I would like to consider your separation of belief in God and any willingness to do good. To insinuate this is makes me question whether or not you have read any of the teachings of Jesus or his followers. Now, I can personally attest to the fact that you have, because during a discussion that you and I had in person over the holiday break you asked me: wouldn’t it just be easier to accept Jesus as a moral guide (paraphrasing)? This very question, though, confirms that the teachings of Jesus were inherently good even if you choose to reject His reason for presenting them.

    In fact, this is a good time for me to confirm, at least partially, something Mark said I would have to. Yes, I do believe that the chief purpose of man is to glorify God. Jesus says as much when asked what the greatest commandment is: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” However, Jesus does not stop because the VERY NEXT THING he said was this: “and the second (commandment) is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” This intimately ties the act of doing good to our relationship with God. However, it is not so much a requirement, but rather is an outward expression of our relationship with Him. I think the evidence of this outward expression is substantial with all of the faith based organizations that exist for the sole purpose of doing good. Therefore, I think it is ridiculous to place “far lesser value” on moral living than simply glorifying God while in a relationship with Him.

    Personally, I do not think that belief in God is a requirement for a functioning society. If I am asked to consider a world of humans that God created exactly like he created us but in this alternate universe God chose not to reveal himself, I would be fine with admitting it could still function. I would, however, never choose to put my trust solely in our “faculties of common sense and reason.” We are capable of doing good things as humans, but our capacity for evil is far greater (if you feel I need to defend that statement, watch the news for an hour). If you remove religion from the equation, our capacity for evil remains but a very significant catalyst for proactively doing good does not. I am not talking about choosing not to do evil, I am talking about proactive good. The news telecast we considered earlier would not be that different in this hypothetical world, but the atheist is appealing to the exact same faculties that brought on all of this evil to put a stop to it. We would be in a constant state of moralistic civil war and there wouldn’t need to be a reason for a clear winner.

    You close your post by encouraging us to cling to our convictions. However, I think that is inadequate. What if your convictions are those of Charles Manson, Adolph Hitler, or Stalin? You offer no qualifier to your closing statement so did those people act appropriately when they clung violently to their convictions? Those are extreme examples, but I think it demonstrates the fact that we cannot simply appeal to ourselves to define morality. If that were the case, we could define it any way we would like. Who is to say that one man’s morality is truly better than another? If you attempt to make that argument, then you claim to be the person who gets to decide that. Instead, I believe we would do well to consider looking elsewhere for a true moral authority, one that isn’t tainted by our flawed human nature.

  • Mark McHugh

    Noah, first of all thanks for reading and responding. I value your viewpoint and appreciate the fresh insight you provide.

    I have many issues with your response, however. I will attempt to start from the bottom up. You say “we would do well to consider looking elsewhere for a true moral authority, one that isn’t tainted by our flawed human nature.” In calling our nature “flawed,” you already assume access to knowledge that you don’t have, that being an alternate nature by which we can be compared. To what, though, in comparison, are we flawed? To you, it is likely the nature of god. However, this is an assumption you make strictly on faith, without reasonable evidence. Our “fallen nature” and our strong impulse to do evil, which you reference in earlier paragraphs, are very narrow-minded judgments of humanity. Good and evil are evolutionary mechanisms humanity developed in order to survive. Our “fallen nature” suggests that there is a nature greater than ours, which you simply cannot claim with any proof. Essentially, you speak as though social constructions are fixed truths, which is an assumption supported by no evidence. There is, however, good reason to believe these things are social constructions developed naturally by evolution, and although we cannot say so with certainty (science tends to not make assumptions until the evidence is indisputable), we have developed enough knowledge about how life works to deem this a reasonable theory.

    Furthermore, your theory completely disregards the fact that humanity didn’t simply plop onto the earth as you claim it did with Adam and Eve. It evolved over thousands of years, the first humans being barely capable of making a moral decision in the first place. Yet we bear the consequences of these incompetent individuals’ decisions still today, according to your theory. And still, you insist that your god is loving and compassionate, with the plain injustice and sheer lack of viability squarely in front of you. Again, you speak as though theological theories are simply true. However, no substantiative claim can be made about such theories, as no evidence can be demonstrated on their behalf. This applies to your references about the nature of god and about human nature as it was conceived by god, both of which you cannot talk about with any credibility, as they are purely imaginative and subjective, and cannot be analyzed on any sort of logical level.

    I find it quite disconcerting that you think so little of humanity as to assert that we cannot discern between the rightfulness or wrongfulness of certain convictions. Hitler, Stalin, and Manson, as you referenced, may be morally wrong only if there is a fixed judge of moral correctness (god), according to your view. Are we not competent enough to judge, given certain circumstances, what is right and wrong? Using even our weakest faculties of common sense, we know that Hitler’s extermination of Jews, Stalin’s purges, and Manson’s murders were founded upon convictions that were not morally sound, to say the least. But we do not need god to tell us that murdering masses of people is wrong. We need reason. Those acts were not conducive to the common good of humanity and do not represent the way in which we should treat each other if society is to function peacefully and happily. Again, this is common sense deriving from a rational evaluation of how humanity can best flourish. Yet even if one conceded to the necessity of god, from where does the perception of god come from? It comes from human nature itself. And you cannot claim otherwise with any degree of factual credibility. Therefore, as I touched upon earlier, the morality you associate with god was developed by humans themselves, as were your theological theories. Consequently, the perfect, objective morality that you claim only god can produce is subjective in itself, as it is interpreted by humans and, I would argue, was developed by humans in the first place. Claiming otherwise cannot be done with any sort of proof or evidence.

    Furthermore, I think you misrepresent me a bit in your last paragraph. Yes, I do believe that we must stick to our convictions, but that does not mean I espouse all convictions as being good. The point I was trying to make was that we should not feel the need to give some fictional entity our undivided praise merely for the rewards that we may reap in a future life. It is far more honorable and wise to do good merely for the prospect of helping humanity. We simply should not need a god demanding it out of us. I titled my post “The Fear Factor” because I view fear as the only rational reason for worshipping god. If not for the fear of death, what would be the need for god?

    You remind me that Jesus taught his followers to love their neighbors as themselves, and you essentially use that as support for the emphasis he places on glorifying god. What you do not answer, however, is why worship is necessary. What good will praising god do to humanity? Why can we not simply love our neighbors for the sheer reason of loving them? You might say that only through god can we attain this sort of love. But I remind you that this again crosses the line of claims that are made with no substantial credence. We know we can love our neighbors. There is nothing that tells us that love in its truest form comes from god and there is nothing that says we cannot lead admirable lives without him. Again, given this, why worship if not for fear? Additionally, I don’t think personal experience/spirituality can play a role in such an argument in support of god, as it is just that: personal. It is a subjective emotional experience that is shared by even nonbelievers, though they likely would not classify it as something that reaches beyond the bounds of the material world. Also, if you want to make the claim that only Jesus held the key to true morality and for that reason we must believe everything he said, I’d simply invite you to look at all the other moral teachers whose teachings have been equally great. Of course most of Jesus’ teachings were inherently good – but that says nothing about his status as the son of god, particularly because he was not the only one, or even the first one, to preach that same sort of wisdom.

    In your second to last paragraph, you claim that there is simply no reason for proactive good without god. I wholeheartedly disagree. Why would one not be encouraged to do proactive good merely for the purpose of improving others’ lives, helping humanity, and making the earth a better place? It seems to me that these are the reasons many religious people do good, yet they use god as motivation to spur them on and for the illusion that their deeds are improving their standing with the all-powerful deity. Question: why is god a better reason to do proactive good than the three reasons I mentioned above? Again, I think it is very clear that god is used here as an illusory figure meant to provide blind hope and comfort in the face of the unbridled fear of death. Proactive good can be produced through basic compassion and a willingness to improve the world. God has nothing to do with that.

    As statistical evidence that god is not needed for proactive good, I’d like you to consider these facts. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are among the most atheistic nations in the world. Religion is viewed as minimally important in these countries; less than 20% of the population consider religion important in Sweden and Denmark, and less than 25% do in Norway. Ironically, all three of these highly secular nations are among the top five most charitable in the world (not to mention three of the most happy). Charitable, in this circumstance, was defined by The Economic Organization for Co-operation and Development as how much money a nation gives relative to their gross national income. This money was donated by people from that country, and is used to help the needy. The results of the research found Sweden to be the #1 most charitable country, with Norway second, and Denmark fourth. What more could you ask for in questioning whether or not god is needed for proactive good? These people clearly do not hold religion in high esteem and are generally not influenced by god, yet they contribute to the well being of society more than anyone else. I would argue this stems from sheer compassion and a desire to help those in need.

    The first few paragraphs of your response deal mainly with identifying the nature of god, which you say I strongly misrepresent. All of your theological reasoning, however, begs the question: is it actually more likely that people have correctly identified the nature of an omnipotent deity outside of the material world? Or is this merely a social construction, devised and refined by humans seeking life after death? This leads me to my ultimate qualm with all of your theological talk: none of it is founded upon anything. It is all a creation of human thought that is founded upon imagination and emotion – stories and myths created to alleviate the fear of death. However, there is no way to disprove that which is incapable of being proven in the first place. For that reason, religion will likely stick around for a while, as religious people will continue to accuse atheists of not having the answers, while atheists will continue to point out that just because the answers are beyond our reach does not mean we can, or should, create them ourselves.

  • Noah Ketterman

    You keep talking about proof claiming that it doesn’t exist. You know full well (because you wrote blog posts about it) that it does exist; you just chose to scrutinize it using criteria that would cause almost all events from history (especially the ones from the same time period as Jesus) to be viewed as myths. However, when we consider the fact that there are thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament written in multiple languages dating to within a few hundred years of Christ’s life, eye witnesses to Christ’s resurrection (and no discovery of a body by anybody in the days following His resurrection), archeological discoveries that repeatedly validate the credibility of the New Testament writers (see, for example, the Pool of Bethesda), and the fulfillment in Christ of prophesies that can be clearly dated (with the help of the Dead Sea Scrolls) to before Christ, we begin to see that reality paints a different picture. However, that is not the subject of this post, we have already discussed this but I am sure we will again.

    I don’t think you have adequately defended your reliance on human faculties to promote morality. When you place your reliance on those faculties, there is plenty of ambiguity as to who to turn to (and in which situations) to consult as a moral guide. You say that all we need is reason to tell us that the murdering of masses is wrong. Really? Truman thought it was a good idea when he dropped two atomic bombs on a nation killing about 90,000 over three days. Was he wrong to do so? He accomplished his goal and one could argue that he promoted the greater good when he did so. So now how do we define the common good? Japan probably thought very little good came of that, who acted correctly in that situation? Additionally, it was human nature that started both world wars in the first place; which one of all of those nations involved was acting on behalf of the common good?

    I do believe worship is necessary. I also think it is incorrect to think that worship is something that is exclusive to religious circles. I believe that God instilled within us a desire to worship, and that is evident by the fact that almost every ancient civilization inherently realized its need to do so and did. You would be right to think that they all thought up something different (as none of those religions are the same) but they all existed as an outflow of our need to worship. Even today, everyone worships whether we realize it or not. When we worship, we adore someone, or something, else. That object of worship doesn’t have to be God. When we reject God, we focus our worship on other things like athletes, politicians, money, or rappers with nasally voices from Detroit who make awesome pop songs with Pink.

    So we need to channel this need that we all have in the right place. Here I want to consider your claim that the Christian faith was made up. There is no way that is true. First of all, the Messiah that the Jewish race was expecting didn’t come. We had expectations of this Messiah being a mighty warrior to lead the Jewish faith out from under Roman oppression. What we got was something entirely different than what we did make up. In fact, I think it is ridiculous to think that the early church fathers made anything up because they had absolutely nothing to gain from doing so. In fact, almost all of them paid for their convictions with their lives. And not just quick kills, a lot of them died of crucifixion. I don’t care how much it would hurt me to admit I was making something up, if that lie was going to cost me my life by death on a cross, I would relent. It is tough for me to even make up a more horrible way of taking someone’s life.

    Each time I write one of these I tell myself to be brief. For both of our benefits, I have gotten feedback that our posts are interesting but long to read. There is more I want to say, but I will save it for now. So I will close this post after one last consideration. Typing “god” as a proper name and failing to capitalize the word is grammatically incorrect. It doesn’t matter whether or not you choose to believe in Him. I would never type “zeus” with a little z (in fact, I am writing this in Word and am being asked to correct it). You don’t have to do EVERYTHING Christopher Hitchens does.

  • Mark McHugh

    I will try to continue your attempt at brevity.

    Admittedly, I have not done enough research about the resurrection to know if there were reliable eyewitnesses. But it does not matter to me. We have delved into this discussion before, but undoubtedly, people from that period of time interpreted events in an incredibly different manner than we do today. Even the most reliable historians from this period must be analyzed with the understanding that not everything they say can be taken literally. For example, the historian Gerald of Wales claimed to have seen fantastical creatures and beasts that we know could not have existed in his chronicles of the topography of Ireland. However, we still consider him a reliable source; it was commonplace for people in those days to interpret natural events in a supernatural manner and with an excessive amount of imagination. Their lack of scientific understanding made these wild conclusions seem plausible. However, Christians do not hold the Jesus myths up to the same scrutiny. For some reason, these fantastical events are deemed true, while other events unrelated to the Christian faith are interpreted differently. You even modify your approach to this when analyzing the Old Testament, where the demand to kill is frighteningly prevalent. These passages are interpreted by Christians in ways that are conducive to the acceptability of their faith. But when claims such as those asserted by the chroniclers of Jesus are made, they are accepted without question. The NT writers could have all the credibility in the world – their supernatural claims would still not be taken literally, by me at least. For this reason, I contend that you still do not have any proof that Christianity is true at all, just as we don’t have proof that the creatures Gerald of Wales claimed to observe were real.

    To the notion that Jesus existed at all, I have shifted my stance a bit in light of a discussion with one of my professors. I’m still not willing to say he definitely existed, but there is a stronger possibility he did than I had originally suspected. With that being said, there is still no reason to take any of the metaphysical claims made in the Bible seriously. I struggle mightily in understanding how you can accept them to be true given their outrageous nature. If events such as these would occur today, then I would certainly give Christianity a second look. But they reek of the same imaginative qualities that characterized many writers and historians of that time period.

    To your argument about the faculty of reason: you are 100% correct in saying that reason itself does not give the answer to all moral questions. Neither does Christianity. The atomic bomb was controversial, and yes, it can be said that he did the right thing – in fact, I argued in an essay this past semester that he did (though I now disagree). But tell me, what better approach to the issue does Christianity give? I actually think this is a good example for which reason had to be the central aspect of the decision. Truman quite literally reasoned his way into dropping the atomic bomb, given an evaluation of the factors for and against. How would Christianity pragmatically help him here? You use reason even when interpreting Christian morality. The only difference is that Christianity serves as a major influence in how you use your reason, and history has been quite clear in proving that it can be quite the negative influence indeed. I argue that rationality and common sense would be a better moral guide.

    I understand your point about worship, and could even understand how you could assert that I have worshipped a nasally rapper from Detroit who makes awesome pop songs with Pink. The difference I try to embolden is that I do not try to emulate everything Eminem does; of course, he exhibits some traits I do not consider admirable. However, I love his music and do admire some of his qualities. God, to you, is an entity worthy of unbridled worship, for which you find no reason to question at all. There is a fine line between worship and absolute obedience. My point was not that worship is bad – it was that god’s demand that worship be placed above all other things is inherently wrong.

    You’re right about the “god” thing. Hitchens is just someone I think is worth emulating. Far more than Jesus, in fact. Because never did he claim to be powerful beyond his peers and never did he demand my worship at the price of eternal damnation.

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