Do you remember a time when you were truly afraid? It won’t take but a moment of reflection for the nervous nausea to return, for we have all been scared out of our wits. Coming in all varieties, ranges, and intensities, fear is necessary to the human experience. Fear tells us when we must act to defend ourselves or escape danger.
Fear is also an eager tool of manipulation and exploitation. If I can make you “afraid, very afraid,” I can coerce you into compliance. I can make you vote for me, follow me, or obey me. Fear is – and always has been – the means and mechanism of tyranny, oppression, and enslavement. Religion has not been immune. In fact, fear is the force majeure behind all abuses of faith.
It was Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell who delivered a devastating lecture a century ago entitled, “Why I Am Not A Christian.” Religion, Russell concluded, was not a heavenly revelation, but an earthly invention, originating from fear. Because we will all die and face the mystery of the unknown, goes the logic, humans created religion as a coping mechanism. Once created, however, religion replaced the fear of death with the fear of God – using the terror of divine consequences to keep people compliant.
Quoting Russell: “Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder that cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.” Even as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, it is impossible for me not to see the integrity of Russell’s critique.
It took me decades to extricate myself from religious terror. I was afraid of God, of hell, of eternal perdition, of the rapture, of Armageddon, of the devil, of the preacher, of disappointing others, of questioning the church’s authority: It was a miserable place to live. And from that experience, I know I am not alone. Hundreds upon hundreds of people have shared similar stories with me over the years.
The answer is not to abandon faith altogether. Bertrand Russell, who diagnosed the problem, also prescribed the solution. Referencing him again: “Fear tends more and more to be banished by love, and in all the best worship, fear is wholly absent.” The dear agnostic (or atheist, Russell couldn’t decide which) was essentially quoting Scripture, for John the Apostle wrote: “God is love, and all who live in love live in God. There is no room in love for fear.”
I am uncertain what the name of my religion is anymore. I sometimes question if I possess any religious beliefs at all, at least any beliefs that fit neatly within a single denomination or creed. But am I more certain every day that the religious and theological fear-mongers have been hoodwinking us all along. Love is the answer, and there is nothing left to fear.