In the late Middle Ages a mysterious illness swept through parts of Europe killing thousands. Then, as enigmatically as it had arrived, it disappeared. Physicians, working with their primitive insights, simply called it “The Sweating Sickness” (though today’s scientists think it was a hantavirus).
The disease manifested itself with sudden, violent, chills followed by headaches, exhaustion, and delirium. Finally, the victim exploded in a wringing sweat – thus the name – and collapsed into a deep sleep. A few recovered, but most never woke again. This was the medieval equivalent of a terrifying zombie apocalypse. And adding to the terror was more terror, as almost every person who contracted this disease complained that their first symptom was inexplicable fear.
Medical experts today call such a symptom, “the overwhelming sense of impending doom.” No longer associated with “The Sweating Sickness,” it is a real condition experienced by those having heart attacks, those with bouts with vertigo, those who suffer anxiety disorders, and yes, those who have been given profuse doses of unhealthy religion.
I say this not only as one who has spent a lifetime in the church, but as one who suffered immersion in a severe, legalistic, fundamentalist branch of Protestantism that produced in me symptoms more akin to “The Sweating Sickness” than “finding rest for my soul,” as Jesus promised. Yes, the “overwhelming sense of impending doom” is the atmosphere created by many religious traditions, and I experienced it firsthand.
God was portrayed to me with such terror and dread, such utter vindictiveness, that the only reaction I could muster was to collapse into a sweaty heap of anxiety praying any prayer or making any promise to make the panic go away. It was a spiritual waterboarding.
Bertrand Russell, the famed British atheist, saw this as the biggest roadblock to faith. “Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear,” he said. “And fear is the parent of cruelty, therefore it is no wonder that cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.”
I can’t argue with Russell’s conclusion. Indeed, religion has been ruthlessly used as a tool of intimidation and conformity, creating “The Sweating Sickness” in those with no reason to feel unwell. Yet, I would draw a stark distinction between Russell’s “religion” and God’s love, as the loving God hasn’t much to do with man’s hardened religions.
The Apostle John, echoing the perennial insight of all the great spiritual traditions of the world, said: “God is love…Perfect love casts out fear.” Thus, any religion that must rely upon fear or coercion to accomplish its intended goals, cannot be aligned with either God or love. It is religion run amok, in both means and end.
We don’t need more religion – and I say that as a committed Christian and staunch defender of religious liberty – if such religion only produces more trepidation. We need more love, and in pursuing that outcome, we find ourselves finding more of God who “forgives our sins and heals our diseases,” especially the disease of fear.