Friday, April 4, 2014

The Spirit of Fear

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. -2 Timothy 1:7

For today's sermon, I would like to address a certain disconnect I have observed in the secular community. Now, Bill Nye is pretty cool. And personally, I laud his performance during the recent debate between himself and Ken Ham on the viability of Ham's creationist model of the world. But something bothers me. This isn't a hesitation exclusive to this debate. This discomfort is of the same sort I have experienced time and again as I've watched the clash of world views between the religious and the rest of us.

This discomfort is not due to any objection to the Science Guy's efforts to educate the public; I think the time is right for the scientific community to descend from its ivory towers and directly engage creationist ignorance and inanity in the public square. Nor is it due to any particular element in the content of Bill's arguments; I think he did quite well in delivering a clear presentation of sane science. My discomfort stems from a certain naïveté of his that I wish to address in this piece. Many secular people, including Bill Nye, do not understand the Spirit of Fear.

I. The Frustration

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. --Psalm 14:1

There is a question I see many non-religious people wrestling with privately. They don't want to articulate it, for it is an obnoxious question with overtones of arrogance, intolerance, and guile: Why do religious people sound so goddamn stupid so much of the time?

There it is. Are you glad I said it for you? Breathe a sigh of relief, for I have borne your cross of political incorrectness. Nye submits a tree with 10,000 rings. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. The earth is 6,000 years old. Nye submits an ice core from the antarctic displaying over half a million summer-winter cycles. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. 6,000 years. Nye submits a fossil record demonstrating the evolution of life from trilobites to mammals over billions of years. Ham: Jesus. The Bible. 6,000 years. Rubidium and Strontium? Ham: Don't care. Jesus...

But the religious aren't inherently stupid. Many of them manage to put their pants on in the morning and go to work or school; a very small percentage of them are even renowned scientists in their field. What's going on here? Why are people like Bill Nye forced to furl their brow in frustration when trying to communicate fact? It's not that hard, right? This tree is older than you say the earth is. This tree is of the earth. Therefore, you are wrong, Ken Ham. QED. Doy.

As evidenced by Bill Nye's presentation, as evidenced by so many polemic endeavors by so many skilled elucidators of knowledge, there is a fundamental disconnect going on here. How can irrationality persist when assailed by evidence so sound? Why aren't the religious swayed by your ineludible command of reason and evidence? Well, I shall tell you.

II. The Background

There are different types of religions. Some religions, like Shintoism, could be best described as organized systems of paying respect to our elders. Buddhism has its serious problems, but at its core it is more of a practice than anything, a methodology giving instructions for escaping the suffering of this world. Hinduism has a deplorable caste system, but one does not incur bad karma for not believing in the concept of karma.

As for those who do not believe in the life to come, We have made their deeds seem alluring to them, so they wander blindly: it is they who will have the worst suffering, and will be the ones to lose most in the life to come. You [Prophet Muhammad] receive the Qur'an from One who is all wise, all knowing. -Surah 27:4-6

Islam and Christianity, on the other hand, are fundamentally different in terms of their soteriology (albeit not completely unique; there are a few others like them). Soteriology: the theory of and instructions regarding salvation, from the Greek “σωτήρ” meaning savior and “λόγος” meaning word or study. I don't mean to belabor an obvious point, but before one can declare the Shahada and become a “saved” Muslim, one must first sincerely believe that there is a god, that Muhammad is his final prophet, and that the Qur’an was composed by God and revealed to Muhammad by the angel Jibril (Gabriel). Before one can become a “saved” Christian one must first sincerely believe that there is a god, that he incarnated himself as Jesus of Nazareth, that he died and rose again, and by doing so atoned for our sins. These are specific claims about specific events in history.

If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. --Romans 10:9

In other words, although this point is not always clearly and explicitly articulated in these spiritual circles, the first step in their version of salvation is to accept a set of assertions. Do you believe George Washington chucked a silver dollar across the Potomac? Do you believe Paul Bunyan created the lakes of Minnesota stumbling around in a snowstorm? YES or NO? Your eternal disposition depends on your answer. “Creed” comes from the the Latin credo, meaning “I believe”, so I call these “creed-based religions”.

Let us step back for a moment to reflect on the fundamental ridiculousness going on here. Ultimately, whether or not you spend an eternity in Islamic or Christian Hell is determined by a post-mortem pop quiz. Did you believe Jesus was the earthly incarnation of God? Whoops. “Say, 'He is God the One, God the eternal. He begot no one nor was he begotten. No one is comparable to Him.'” -Surah 112. You thought God begot a son via the virgin Mary in Bethlehem? Blasphemer! Sucks to be you. Oh, you didn't get the memo about the Holy Qur’an? Too bad. Enjoy Hell, motherfucker.
   
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. -John 20:29

Assertions. Really try to pick up what I'm laying down. In creed-based religions, salvation begins with believing claims, by acquiescing to ideas. That is first base in the creed-based religions, Islam, Christianity, etc. Now, there are other steps, other tasks, other ingredients involved in avoiding being on fire forever. (Catholic confession, The Five Pillars of Islam, etc.) But you must first be convinced by these claims in order to be saved from the eternal torture I discussed last time.

III. The Fear

So to return to our question, why do religious people sound so goddamn stupid so much of the time? Well, here it is: If your salvation from eternal Hell depends on your belief in a set of claims, then to believe in that set of claims becomes the highest of virtues. To cease to believe becomes the most terrible of tragedies. To convince others to believe becomes the ultimate moral good. To persuade others to abandon belief becomes the height of moral failure and transgression.

"If anyone causes one of these little ones-those who believe in me-to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” - Jesus, (supposedly), Matthew 18:6

The values of science such as freedom of expression, open-mindedness, critical thinking, questioning assumptions, embracing life's opportunities to discover one's own errors, and to take joy in gaining better insight-- these are wholly antithetical to the very essence and foundation of creed-based religions. We can see the evidence of this today in the Islamic world with its censors, Sharia Law, and thought police. And until modern secular thought began to inch its way into Western society and take civil authority away from Christian churches, we saw this Spirit of Fear manifest itself in inquisitions, witch-burnings, pogroms, and heresy trials.

They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach...” -Titus 1:11

Although, thankfully, Christians are now prevented from killing non-believers in our country with impunity, they still suffer from and foment the Spirit of Fear in America. Christians see their neighbors, their friends, and their family, discarding specious claims and convictions previously held, and it frightens them. These apostates used to be just like them. (Gasp) “Could such a terrible thing happen to me?” they wonder. Christians and others in creed-based religions do not have the luxury of entertaining other ideas, other opinions, or other perspectives which could potentially threaten their faith. When salvation begins with a belief in a set of assertions, changing one's mind becomes the ultimate existential threat to one's eternal disposition. There is literally Hell to pay for thinking too much.

IV. The Evolution Hoopla (an aside)

This Spirit of Fear manifests in many ways, but I would like to address the specific topic which I mentioned earlier:  young earth creationism. Why do so many literalist Christians get stuck on this one issue? Why don't they get hung up on the Bible's assertion that there is a great ceiling in the sky, or the firmament, “hard as a mirror of cast bronze?” (Job 37:18) Why aren't they worried that one of NASA's rockets might accidentally bump into one of the “floodgates of the heavens” (Genesis 7:11) precipitating a deluge once again as holes are punched in the firmament which “divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament”? (Genesis 1:7) (God wouldn't let that happen, of course. Genesis 8:21. But still.) The evidence for evolution is just as solid as for a heliocentric solar system and a “roofless” outer space.

The answer is Jesus. Or, more specifically, why Jesus' death and resurrection have the effect of saving people who believe these two events occurred. Many in the Christian laity may not have asked these questions, but their leaders who promote creationism certainly have. Why do Jesus' death and resurrection supposedly atone for our sins and reconcile us to God? Why didn't Jesus' death and resurrection conjure some other magick like ending all suffering, or curing all disease, or bringing world peace, or turning the moon into a giant purple raspberry?

God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” -Rep. Paul Broun, 10th Congressional District of Georgia

The New Testament is clear in its explanation of the “physics” of salvation. There is a poetic beauty, an almost mathematical symmetry to the apostle Paul's explanation in Romans 5, reiterated again in 1 Corinthians 15: If death entered the world through the sin of one man, then the sacrifice of one man atones for the sin of the world saving us from death. The curse of the original sin of Adam, which vicariously condemns us to eternal Hell, is lifted by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, which vicariously redeems us into everlasting life.

How cute. It's not difficult to see why this quaint narrative has been compelling to many over the centuries. The trouble is, evolution decimates this narrative. Evolutionary biology shows that there were no Adam and Eve in a garden 6,000 years ago, and thus no original sinner to commit the original sin. It shows that we form a continuum with all life on Earth, that we share a common ancestor with horses, chimpanzees, lizards, and onions. The record of our kinship is engraved into the DNA of every cell in our bodies.

So whose sin did Jesus die for? If there was no concrete point in our history where humans began, if we share a common ancestor with all life, should we send missionaries to the bonobos to tell them to stop fornicating so prodigiously? Can walruses accept Jesus as their personal savior? Do bananas go to heaven? Will I spend eternity with the bacteria I just killed by washing my hands with soap? Hopefully penicillin goes to heaven too, because there's going to be a lot of vindictive microbes there with a grudge. To what subset of the continuum of life does Jesus' saving grace extend?

Catholics have a way out of this particular problem, because they have an infallible pope to “imagineer” the Bible as being open to the compatibility of the theories of salvation and evolution. The Pope can just declare that God guided evolution and started injecting souls into our ape ancestors at some unknown yet distinct point, and abracadabra, ex cathedra, the creation story now becomes an allegory to a point. (For further reading on this topic, see the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis) But for those who adhere to a strict philosophy of sola scriptura like Ken Ham and other young earth creationists, this presents a damning, faith-invalidating conundrum.

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"; -1 Corinthians 3:19

The Spirit of Fear. That's what Bill Nye and many others do not seem to understand. In his Big Think video entitled, “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children,” Nye demonstrates this disconnect in his comprehension. He said, "I say to the grownups, 'If you want to deny evolution and live in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we've observed in the universe that's fine. But don't make your kids do it.'" What the fuck, Bill? He’s not asking them to let their children choose a different career track rather than follow their parents into the circus. He’s not requesting that parents kindly refrain from smoking crack in front of their kids. From the point of view of the audience he is addressing, he is asking parents to let their children pour gasoline on their own heads and light a match. Only worse, since “the fire never goes out” in Hell. (Mark 9:43)

When you come to a point where you realize presenting one more transitional fossil, one more red-shifted star, one more radiometric sample will be futile, your understanding of your task must adapt. Many complimented Bill Nye on avoiding theology during his debate. I think those expressing this sentiment are woefully ignorant of the situation. We must acknowledge that we will be ineffective at communicating science until we first put on a psychotherapist’s hat and deal with the deeply ingrained anxieties seared into the psyches of the indoctrinated. In order to perpetuate and preserve itself, Christianity must instill a deep Spirit of Fear into the minds of its adherents, an inoculation against reasoning and questioning too much. That damage must first be undone.

V. The Big Picture

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. -Proverbs 4:23

This Spirit of Fear is not always confined to matters directly affecting soteriology. The glorification of recalcitrance and assholery, being necessary to the security of an irrational belief system, can often be seen radiating into other, often bizarre areas of religious life. When thoughts become threats, anything, real or imagined, could potentially open the doorway to danger.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. -Ephesians 6:12


Growing up in the church, there was always something weird and irrational threatening us in the heavenly realms. I remember the church committee formed to try to exorcise the 2-D Nintendo arcade games from the local Pizza Hut, the sermons urging a boycott of ABC for airing the show “NYPD Blue” due to its racey (at the time) content, and the meetings about homosexuals surreptitiously infiltrating other churches in our Mennonite conference. There was “Adventures in Odyssey”, a child-oriented radio drama produced by Focus on the Family which warned us about the dangerous demons we could unwittingly summon if we were so foolish as to play RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons. The cast of the show even included a token “unsaved” smarty-pants scientist named Eugene Meltsner to teach us that even smart people could be so stupid as to not believe in Jesus. (Of course, later, he learned his lesson when he foolishly ran a high-tech computerized death simulation. Since he was not a Christian, he inevitably wound up screaming in a virtual reality Sim-Hell. Completely traumatized and terrified by the horrific experience, he finally came to his senses and toed the religious line. Yay wholesome Christian kids’ shows!)

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. -James 1:6-7

It was much the same at home. By some arbitrary metric, one educational PBS show was permitted, another was taboo. All secular cartoons were evil. “Star Wars” was evil because, “The green guy with pointy ears looks like Satan.” I always wondered how Mom knew what Satan looked like. Secular music was shunned unless it fell into certain understood categories like classical music or ole' timey tunes. Books which would be considered innocuous to most would disappear from my bookshelf. When traveling my dad would pray a “hedge of protection around the doors and windows of this motel room.” This was in case some of the previous occupants had committed some sinful act which might have opened a magical portal to the spiritual plane enabling demons to squeeze through and haunt us. And don't even get me started on the Halloween shenanigans.

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. -2 Corinthians 10:5

Many American children grow up in environments so extreme in their psychological sheltering, Orwell himself would be impressed. Their parents have hermetically sealed them against anything that might induce any trace of cognitive dissonance between their indoctrination and reality. They live in rural areas, cut off from the internet and other media. They are homeschooled. Their only contact with others outside their family is in churches filled with like-minded individuals. If they are permitted to go to “college”, they often end up at an institution like Bob Jones University or Liberty University, where the shielding from reality continues.

Unless you’ve been living in a shoe, you've probably seen the Spirit of Fear at work in American culture. Just turn on your local Christian radio station, and you will hear Professor Haywood Jabuzoff from American Bible Patriot NASCAR University somberly discussing with the host whether the antichrist will be a Jew or a Muslim, or how to drive the gay demons from your child. You may even see it in your daily interactions. Last week, a religious person I know sent me a Christian apologist’s “book review” for Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. Had the person read the book in question? No. He couldn’t have, because that would have been too scary. He could only dare to  defer to authority and pass along to me the brain scat of Christian “experts” qualified and trained to endure the tribulation of cracking the pages of an evil so potent. 

The greatest dangers for Christians are not real threats, but rather the phantasms of their own minds. When Pat Robertson warns that homosexuality causes earthquakes and hurricanes, when Jerry Falwell claimed that feminists and pagans caused 9/11, when you hear Christians attributing school shootings to the fact that kids aren't being forced to participate in state-mandated obligatory prayers, the easily accessible evidence that these claims are not true cannot assail their mental edifice of irrationality, fortified as it is against reason.

VI. The End

Before you can fill a jar, you must first take off the lid. Before Bill Nye, or any of us for that matter, can succeed in educating those stuck in a creed-based religion, we must first approach the problem as psychologists dealing with fear psychoses before filling minds with real knowledge. The Spirit of Fear affects the religious in a way unique to each individual and community. You will find some whose soteriology is not challenged by evolution, but think zygotes in a petri dish have the same value as a fully developed person. You will find some who think being gay is okay, but gay marriage is an existential threat to society. You will find some for whom religion plays almost no visible role in their lives, but who will lash out at you for speaking an ill word about whichever belief system they belong to in those moments of their lives when a superficial display of piety is required. Each religionist is different, terrified of diverse spectres. But the origin of the fear is the same. Thoughts and ideas are a threat to salvation.

Years ago I was confident that if I laid out a perfect, logical, irrefutable case for why evolution is true or Christianity is bullshit, etc. the person with whom I was speaking would melt under the power of my superior reason. This was quite naïve of me, and having been trapped in a "relationship with Jesus" myself, the folly of this mentality should have been obvious to me. In fact, a perfect argument could foreseeably have an opposite effect to that which was intended. Why? A common theme accompanying creed-based religious indoctrination is the idea that doubt itself is an attack of the Devil.

Those who turn on their heels after being shown guidance [from the Qur’an] are duped and tempted by [Shaitan]. -Surah 47:25

This creates a paradox, as I painfully experienced when I first began escaping the trappings of Christianity. As the case for changing religious belief becomes stronger, one's conditioning exacerbates the Spirit of Fear, inflicting the doubter with a sense of paranoia. The more compelling an argument for belief change is, the more the doubter's conditioning induces a counter-reaction, a terror of besiegement by the evil forces he was guaranteed would try to deceive him into altering his beliefs in the first place. Creed-based religions have been cleverly engineered with this self-fulfilling circular prophecy: The fact that you are doubting confirms what you are doubting, because what you are doubting predicted you would doubt. Aha!

The concept of God has given them the Spirit of Fear. Without developing a compassionate sensitivity to these individuals and their ensnared state of mind, you will gain little ground. Fear breeds resistance to rationality. Unless you address the fearful, emotional element, you will always be presenting the 101st reason Sheik Hussein Obama is not building concentration camps for Christians in Montana, the 1,001st scientific paper demonstrating abstinence-only education is useless if not downright harmful, the 10,001st example of why gay marriage does not cause society to implode, the 100,001st astronomical measurement showing the universe to be billions of years old, or the 1,000,001st fossil proving evolution. It is not enough to regurgitate fact. The manacles of the Spirit of Fear built into the very fabric of Christian faith, and other faiths, must be addressed before progress can be made. Good luck with that.

All scriptural quotes come from M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation of the Qur’an, and the NIV and KJV translations of the Bible.

4 comments:

Sarah Jacoby said...

What a great article! You certainly know your stuff! The one thing I was thinking, in defense of poor Bill Nye, is that perhaps he feels the way I do about most Christians in America, which is that a vast majority of them don't even come close to actually believing what they claim to believe. It is not their soul they are trying to save, it is their power and position. If they claim to believe in the Bible, they don't really believe that Noah built the Ark, etc., but they can judge you and me and their neighbors and pass laws based on what they want, i.e. against gays, against women, against anyone who is not like them. So it is based in fear in that respect, but it is a fear of no longer being dominant. I grant that the family in which you grew up sounds like the minority who actually believed what they said! As do most Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a few others. But in my opinion, most garden-variety Christians don't believe what they say they do, not really. If they had that much fear, they would not break almost every commandment, then say "Whoops!" on Sunday. They do what they do - premarital sex, getting drunk, stealing, whatever - because they don't REALLY believe they will get in trouble in the afterlife. They just say they do because of what it GETS them. Maybe Bill Nye and I give most religious people less credit in the sincerity department than you do because you grew up with authentic religious people. Or maybe I'm totally wrong! But I agree completely with your article for those religious people who actually do believe what they claim to believe and live in that kind of fear. Do you see a solution? Or is that your next article? :-) Great job!!! A very informative and enjoyable read!

Matthew King said...

@Sarah: I do mention in Section VI that many aren't stuck on evolution or gay people specifically; they're attached to some other issue. However, in general I'm not in the habit of considering someone insincere by default. It's complicated, and sometimes people veil some of their beliefs for various reasons; but when Gallup reports that 40% of Americans believe God planted us here in our present form less than 10,000 years ago, I have no a priori reason to suspect that a large number of those polled are trying to screw with the pollsters. That sort of thinking borders on the conspiratorial.

As for their behavior, Christianity does not have a cogent moral system in the first place. Sure, it presents a list of sins. But, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." With one exception, any and all wrongdoing can be wiped from the slate. As long as you still believe and repent afterward, anything can be rationalized. They aren't specifically told it's okay to sin. Paul even tries to address this issue in Romans 6:1, but ultimately, as long as we believe and are contrite, the practical implication is that "nothing can separate us from the love of God." So we can't really point to "sin" as evidence that they're insincere. Check out Dr. Darrel Ray's book, "Sex and God" for a more in depth discussion of this. They may have just as much sex as the rest of us, but they definitely are paying a real price for it with shame and guilt, a byproduct of their beliefs.

Sarah Jacoby said...

If 40% of Americans truly believe that, then I'm Mary Magdalene! Not all conspiracies are false! :-) I do question their sincerity. As for the rest - yep, I get your point. They sure have tried to work out all the little kinks so that they can sin and be saved at the same time, as long as they continue to "believe." As Church Lady would say, "How convenient!" Great job!

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