Fear of an Idea Redux19 May, 2009
I am, I must admit, afraid: I fear disability, accident, death, normal things. I fear natural occurrences which happen randomly to all humans (and all animals and plants but that’s somewhat outside my bailiwick). I know that I will die — that does not actually frighten me. Well, death doesn’t. Dying does. I don’t fear the idea of death. I fear the actual death itself.
Many (not all) of the Christians I know, or have known, though, have a whole new level of fear: fear of ideas (I guest blogged this almost a year-and-a-half ago at VJack’s Atheist Revolution (but I am not rewriting that blog, just revisiting the same idea from a different angle)). Why would true believer Christians fear ideas?
Early Christians came up with a truly remarkable idea: salvation does not depend upon the proper propitiation ceremonies, the proper sacrifices, the proper incense, the proper fasting. The early Christians came up with the rather radical idea that salvation came through grace: “unmerited favour” from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). (Orthodox Judaism (a fairly recent invention), based at least in part on the teachings of Maimonides, does recognize certain activities as heretical, but I am (at this point in my studies) unsure when this recognition of heresy developed).
We are all, accordingto most Christian churches, sinners. We are conceived in sin, born in sin, live in sin, and die in sin. We are, basically, a bunch of worthless humans who corrupt everything we touch through one individuals failure to listen to God (thanksa shitload, Eve!). Our salvation comes from believing the right things and asking God and Jesus to pull our asses out of the fire (literally).
Which means, of course, that if you believe the wrong thing, or the right thing about the wrong thing, or the wrong thing about the right thing, you are eternally and truly screwed. Christians invented heresy: a theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the doctrine of the a specific Christian church (it has to be a specific Christian church because to almost every church, all the other versions of Christianity are, by definition, heretical). And heretics belong in hell, right?
So what happens when a new idea develops? As nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientists explored the age of the earth through geology and, later, radiometric dating, they were (and still are) opposed rather strongly despite the thorough and falsifiable data which points to an earth aged at around 4.5 billion years. No contrary evidence has been found.
Charles Darwin, and other nineteenth-century naturalists, developed the Theory of Evolution which is strongly denied by Young Earth Creationists, Biblical literalists, and fundamentalistChristians and Muslims. Attempts to force creationism (under multiple names) into the classrooms are still creating court cases nationwide. Despite new fields such as genetics, the theory has not only survived, but every bit of data adds to the surety of evolution by natural and sexual selection.
Alfred Wegener’s Theory of Continental Drift faced opposition from both religious leaders and geologists of the day. The discovery of sea-floor spreading gave the mechanism to Wegener’s theory and continental drift is now accepted as fact by the vast majority of geologists. Of course, because it conflicts with Genesis, the same anti-evolution and anti-old-earth groups are heavily involved in drift denialism, too.
The three examples above are new ideas for which there is ample positive evidence (and virtually no contrary evidence). Yet, in America, more than half of us deny one, two, or all three of these ideas. Why? Because they conflict with a genesis myth dating back to the the pre-scientific Bronze Age. never mind that these theories are based on incredible amounts of physical evidence. Never mind that new discoveries are constantly reinforcing the theories (and, by the way, that is why they are theories: we are still discoveringand refining the basic idea). Belief in any of these new, man-made ideas risks heresy. And heresy, of course, risks hell.
I am, as I said above, afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of death itself because, though the physical matter of my body (the atoms which give me mass) will continue, the electro-chemical processes which allow for respiration, digestion and thought will cease. I will have no awareness after death, just as I had no awareness before birth. I did not exist and will not exist. Nothingness holds no fear because it really is nothingness.
Christians, though, have a special level of fear. What if they believe the wrong thing (which is a real possibility for every Christian sect as they are all heretics in the eyes of at least some other Christians)? What if the Gnostics were right? What if the Arianists had the right idea? What if the Dualists, the Cathars, the Bogomils, or the Trinitarians were the true Christians? What if understanding electricity (not, of course, mentioned in the Bible) is wrong? Or studying tropical fish? Or accepting evolution as a viable description for the diversity and diversification of life?
Fear of new ideas is, if one is true to the doctrines and teachings of almost all forms of Christianity, part and parcel with being a Christian. Which in itself, wouldn’t be that bad. Except that they try to stop the rest of us learning about the new ideas. They try to force their Bronze Age myths down the throats of all people, not just the believers. Their fear of (possibly) heretical ideas threatens my right to knowledge, my children’s right to knowledge, the right to knowledge of all school and college age students.