What are you afraid of?

I’ve had this topic sitting in the background of any number of posts, and have been meaning to address it in detail for at least a year. In the wake of even more muslim-related violence and a long string of christian hand-wringing, now is as good a time as any.

While I’m going to concentrate on the big two which display this so readily, feel free to notice how often it comes up in any other religion. Let’s face reality: fear is an overriding facet of both christianity and islam. And I’m not talking about the fear of ultimate consequences, but exactly the opposite: the fear that there aren’t any at all, and that it’s all just utter bullshit. This is demonstrated so often that I think we’re used to it, and never realize just what it says, but think about it: if someone really believes they are on the side of ultimate good and an almighty creator, what could they possibly have to fear? Shouldn’t they be the most mellow and confident people to be found? Would they possess the slightest desire to force their will on anyone else, or even fret about the number of “bad” people in the world? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that what those immortal consequences are supposed to be all about?

Yet, this is far too frequently not what we see at all. When muslims leap into apeshit riots over cartoons and propaganda films and some redneck sheepfucker burning qur’ans, what exactly is driving this behavior? When millions of neurotic christians chew their nails over gay marriage and teaching evolution in school, what are they worrying about? Isn’t christianity a strong enough argument on its own? But no, we deal with these on a constant basis because, very bluntly, they’re scared out of their minds. It’s far too easy to see their religion as just another ancient myth in a world that was once full of them, but has no need of them any longer. While one might logically think that supreme beings would be exceptionally easy to prove to someone, the very fact that they’re not is not only rather damning, it is precisely why any devout radical feels the drive to protest, to bully, to force, and to outright kill. They have no other means at their disposal. These are nothing but temper tantrums of insecurity.

To be sure, there have been countless attempts to build a Potemkin’s Village to disguise this fear, from the incessant whining that anyone’s choice of religion should be respected to the mountains of sophistry that excuse the lack of proof or evidence or even reason. All of this says, very distinctly, “I don’t have anything to convince you, so I need to find a way to dodge this failure.”

None of this really works. Sophistry is unconvincing to everyone except those that already want to be convinced, but much worse, radicalism is the worst recruiting tool and the worst argument to which mankind has ever resorted. Nearly everyone knows about the existence of the book, Satanic Verses, and they know only because the Ayatollah Khomeini had a hissy fit over it, which did more for promoting it than anything the author or publisher could have. Burning a qur’an only demonstrates that you’re scared of it – if it really wasn’t of any concern, why bother? It would be like burning a book of Greek mythology. And of course, all of those who wail about “Hollywood agendas” and conspiracies to take away their faith aren’t attracting a lot of people who idolize such views. Not to mention how little it says about their ability to recognize agendas…

The potential of the self-fulfilling prophecy is quite large, as well. While muslims are being overreactive and paranoid whenever they voice the fear that christians are forcing their will on others, violent demonstrations and attacks of US embassies become increasingly more likely to merit armed response – which simply confirms their fears, especially when such a vocal percentage here insists that this is a christian country. And christians in the US who continue to try and push through legislation granting them special privilege, in recognition of their magnificent accomplishment in donning a cross, will see more and more court cases denying this. To small minds, anything that denies christian dominance is denying christianity, donchaknow. It is rather astounding how being among the majority in this country still leads to martyr complexes. Curiously, this works very well for the religious leaders throughout the world who need righteous indignation to propel their flock towards radical actions. Who better to manipulate than a class of people who are taught that they are being oppressed, and that answers should be mysterious, and that blind faith is a virtue? Even the preferred use of “flock” doesn’t seem to register…

Censorship, of any kind, is a response solely of fear, open admission that knowledge is dangerous to someone’s ideology. Banning books and promoting religious persecution and even having ‘special’ schools and colleges is evidence that people know they cannot win the debate of free ideas. Every time these have appeared throughout history, it has never been to promote better behavior or standards; it has been an attempt to control the populace, and to mask the failures of the current regimes.

Also notably, it has never succeeded. While free expression might be reduced, usually with the application of force, thought cannot be. One of the very reasons that freedom of expression, and freedom of religion, is incorporated into the governing documents of this country is that it was established long before that repression would not work – and that repression was extremely likely in any kind of religiously-backed government. The only way to create a strong society (and I have to grin at this) is by natural selection: in the competition among countless ideologies and approaches, only the most beneficial can survive. There will always be those who wish to tip the scales in their favor by finding ways to push away the better competitors, and by this shall we know them.

Now, to play devil’s advocate. Could the exact same motivations be applied to my post here? Could it be said that atheists and humanists fear religion, and therefore want to suppress it? Wouldn’t atheism survive the competition of ideologies if it were better, and therefore need no argument or support? And I admit, these are good questions. I feel obligated to point out that blog posts, and public speaking and publishing books, are not really comparable to violence, suppression, censorship, or legislative pressuring, much less special schools or selecting the information that people can access – free speech does not mean shutting up, curiously enough. Promoting a viewpoint is exactly what that ‘natural selection of beneficial ideologies’ requires.

So, won’t atheism and/or humanism thrive on their own without the need of leverage? Admittedly, this remains to be seen, and while I can point out that the numbers of non-religious people are rising, they’re still a far cry from demonstrating popular acceptance. Yet much of what I draw attention to herein is not just the social structure that has been built up around religion over the centuries, causing people to believe that age and tradition are meaningful (and recall ‘faith’ and ‘virtue’ above,) but also the subconscious appeals of religion, or at least certain aspects. To all indications that I have seen, religion is structured (subconsciously for the most part) to take advantage of various traits and desires that we gained over the millennia. This doesn’t make it beneficial, any more than eating rich foods is, despite our desire to do so; succumbing to desires, and acting in a beneficial manner, are two (often wildly opposed) things. If this can merely be pointed out and result in a better approach, that’s the selection process at work again.

It also bears noting that ‘religion’ is only prominent when we use such an overreaching term – the vast number of competing sects and denominations throughout human experience demonstrates that only broad generalizations can be credited with the appeal of religion in the first place. Just like how sports tribalism is very common, but this doesn’t mean everyone supports the Red Sox. There is an automatic association of the word ‘religion’ to someone’s own devotion, deliberately ignoring the countless other practices worldwide that are the wrong religions. While most people can look at other devotions, sects, and observances and enumerate all of the bad behaviors within, from a standpoint of what’s beneficial and what isn’t, somehow they rarely ever apply this to their own…

Finally, is the effort (by atheist/humanists/etc.) to demote religious influence a sign of fear? And to that I can only respond personally, but I will say: yes, it is. I have seen enough of human nature to know that we do not always act in our own best interests, and most especially not always from reasoned and rational choices. It is remarkably easy to find a method of appealing to someone’s base emotions, and thus manipulate them through this. I am constantly scared of such things – as well as annoyed, disgusted, and outright angry over them. But again, this is not the fear that a humanist standpoint cannot compete against any particular religion, and therefore those religions must be suppressed, but the fear that far too many people will not even allow themselves to contemplate such a standpoint, and ignore critical thinking in favor of emotional supplication. And so at the very least, my own efforts are towards presenting the case as distinctly as possible, so that the free exchange of ideas can actually take place. This is a far cry from attempting to silence others, or block competing information – it is, in fact, the exact opposite.