Fear of an Idea Redux

19 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.



  1. Last weekend our band played for a church service at camp, and after it was over (I recommend attending one like it every now and then, it keeps you from getting too warm and fuzzy about religion)I heard a discussion by a couple of the twice born.

    I’m sure that each regarded the other as “heretic”, but the fear mongered by the preacher was the subject they were disputing.

    At the end of their ‘discussion’ one waved his arms about and said, “But you HAVE to have fear or you can’t have religion”!

    I was stunned. How profound can such a simple statement be? The whole philosophy, the entire construct in a nut shell. Just like the Hokey Pokey, ‘That’s what it’s all about’.

    At the same event some of us ‘infidels’ had to console one of our number who feared that he ‘backslid’.

    Our division was formed, and our colonel (an atheist but still in the closet) readied us to fire off before we went down to the spectator event.

    Close to 400 people lined up, loaded, and he gives the command, “Ready…aim…” and never got to “fire”.
    There was a ‘boom’ followed by some very ragged shots and after a full second pasuse and one more. It was a volley by intent only.

    Everyone is looking everywhere but at each other, sheepish toothy grins, Colonel standing there eyes wide, mouth hanging open…if I ever hear the words “appalled” or “aghast” I’ll see his face at that instant.

    He yells, “JEE zuss, Mary, and JOE zuff! What th’ hell wuz ZAT”??!!

    We did better by factors of hundreds next try.

    He talked to several of us fellow “infidels” later and apologised for so forgetting himself and using religious imagery. We told him not to worry, it was an appropriate response and something everyone understood. But he is a meticulous man…

  2. Sarge: I agree wholeheartedly: that theist has it right. Fear is necessary for religion. Whether it is fear of ideas, fear of death, fear of the natural, fear of the imagined, or numerous other fears, named and unnameable, fear creates the need for the religion and propogates it. Brilliant.

    You can also tell your colonel that his religious imagery, phrased in that manner, was historically correct, though no officer worth his salt would have used it. Now a sergeant-major? No problem.

  3. Billy your post is right on the money.

    Sarge, the point you bring up about fear being necessary for religion is correct depending on how you define fear.

    Now, fear plays too big a part in our lives – but sometimes it is healthy if it restrains us from doing something bad.
    There have been times that I would not have got up and gone to work – except for fear. Fear of making an employer upset or fear of losing money. Other times I’ve gone to work out of love – making an extra effort to get work done when the customers needed it.

    Thomas Edison said, “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” (Now that might include his earlier jobs as telegraph operator where he frequently slept through the night and repeatedly got fired. He even made a device to send the regular codes at the regular times that were supposed to prove that he was awake.)

    What one person considers fear another person just adopts to without the emotional torment of fear. Whether it be going to work – or how careful we are when we drive – fear might play a role.

    Some people need “fear” in order to drive responsibly or to restrain them from hurting or taking advantage of others.

    Now, one person may drive carefully with fear. We are afraid to drive too fast lest we crash, hurt ourselves, run over a child or even we are afraid of getting a speeding ticket. Now, this fear that leads us to stop at STOP signs and red lights isn’t usually an emotional fear, but is a real motivation even if we don’t normally consider the ramifications each time we stop at a red light. The fear some initially have when learning to drive is rather thought of as something like realism or common-sense. The emotion of fear gives way to responsible habits. So there are times that religion has elements of fear and it may be bad or it may be good. Fear of God may lead one not to steal, or in the context of what is taught in some churches may lead people to shut their eyes to evolution, the age of the earth or even make people unwilling to think.

    There is another angle on fear mentioned in scripture that portrays fear as immature.

    In the scripture 1 John 4:18 it is written, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

    Now, many are so busy thinking and fearfully worrying of their own self-interests that they aren’t all that much thinking of others.

    So, maybe some Christians are more “moral” because they see God as the ultimate cop keeping watch on all their behavior.

    But there can also be a moral appeal to Christianity which has lost favor in the Christian church and probably contributes to why it is shrinking today. Christianity is now more associated with teachers who often appear to be (and often are) wolves rather than as an opportunity to be better, to do better, to know God and make a positive difference.

    So there are people today who want to make a difference and find the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” and treat others as we like to be treated as commonsensical. In this context the moral appeal of Christianity can be powerful and authoritative. (Now Atheists vary on whether or not Jesus taught good things.) For some believers like myself our respect for the teachings and life of Jesus and the apostles makes it difficult to see scripture as being built by deceit upon deceit.

    In the context of the appeal of doing right, John 3:21 says, “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

    Sometimes being a Christian means exchanging a fear of man for a fear of God. If this is coupled with a good moral understanding then someone can buck the tide to do something good.

    The belief that we can go to our death doing good and still be rewarded for doing good also gets rid of a certain fear for some Christians.
    In Hebrews 2:15 it says that Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

    A realistic scenario for many today is life in a Muslim country. Unbelievers in Islam might be killed. Those who turn from it risk their lives. Each day there are Christians who disown Islam and risk their lives.

    There is a fear of Islam and its requirements to murder those who blaspheme Muhammad. The same tv people who are eager to jump on someone like Mike Huckabee (if there is a similarity to a cross lighting on a bookcase in the background when he has a tv commercial wishing a Merry Christmas) probably give a wide berth to Islamic clerics who want to establish Islam in the community by all means that are sanctioned in the Koran.
    I’ve read the Koran (skimming quickly over parts of it and reading carefully some sections) and I found it does have a lot of bad things to say about unbelievers. (In parts of the Koran where Christians are mentioned they are given a little slack about 50% of the time – Jews are given almost none – and atheists are on par with the Jews if not much lower and are distinctly portrayed as hell bound.)

    Sixty-nine times in scripture (in the New International Version) it says “Do not be afraid” – but if we are going to be afraid it should of God and not man.

    Now, if I ever become convinced that Christianity is a fraud – I’d still have to wonder about the nature of God and concluding that our universe had to have some order imparted to it. Thomas Edison said “I know this world is ruled by infinite intelligence. Everything that surrounds us- everything that exists – proves that there are infinite laws behind it. There can be no denying this fact. It is mathematical in its precision.”

    Now, Thomas Edison did not have a bit of interest in religion … and I don’t know precisely what he meant by his comment. Still, this special something about the universe I hope would carry me through a specific rejection of any particular piece of religious dogma or teaching that I have.

    A large number of the earlier geologists who discovered how old the earth were Christians who confronted their fear about interpreting the Bible in the standard way – and were willing to let science guide them on scientific matters. Even Darwin who sat on his theory for a decade or two was prompted when a scientist named Wallace (I believe he was a Christian) independently came up with the theory of evolution. Wallace had no fear of telling what he found. Darwin was afraid he was going to be trumped by Wallace and decided to go public. So evolution became widely known because of Darwin/Wallace. The guts of Wallace – a Christian (I’ve heard or read) in not entertaining fears got Darwin out of his lethargy. They jointly unveiled evolution together revealing it on the same stage.

    Billy, I am total agreement with your post. As I thought of each angle on fear this comment got longer and longer and hours went into writing and editing this.

  4. A correction to what I wrote.

    I was just informed by a science writer friend that Alfred Wallace was not a Christian. Either my memory failed me or some Christian once co-opted him and I didn’t verify it myself.

    Alfred Wallace was apparently an agnostic for the first half of his life, and a spiritualist (whatever that means) (not a Christian at all) for the last half or more.

  5. Thomas: An excellent book to read regarding this conflict: “Mysteries of Terra Firma: The Age and Evolution of the Earth.” It covers the discovery of the age of the earth, continnental drift, and catastrophism, including the internal misgivings of some of the scientists.

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