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The Role of Fear and Guilt in Religion
By Jim Coufal of Cazenovia, NY
In the pre-scientific age it was easy to believe the creation story of Genesis was true; it was told to you by authority figures that you held in awe and there was no reason to believe otherwise, except for those who knew the creation stories of other religions and why theirs was no more valid than the others. In our scientific age, if you believe the creation story is Genesis is true and also believe science finds there is no evidence to support this belief, you are left in a quandary. You have what psychologist Leon Festinger identified years ago as “cognitive dissonance”, a feeling of uncomfortable tensions, which is the result of holding two conflicting thoughts in minds at the same time. The tensions increase with the importance of the subject, with how strongly the thoughts conflict, and with our inability to rationalize or explain away the conflict. This example is an entry into looking at the role of fear and guilt in religion.
Rationally, to deal with the dissonance in the example above, one must be willing to be open minded and to go where the facts leads. But, as Joseph Kieffer II writes, “Some religions hold absolute sway over those who accede to their dogma by establishing a frame of reality for them, a matrix of belief within which they define themselves and their affinity with the world.” Kiefer is not saying religions define reality as experience and science show it to be, but rather paint a picture of reality, as they want it to be. They are unwilling or unable to go where the facts lead. Thus cognitive dissonance.
We are appalled that Islam strongly discourages or even forbids followers from analyzing their holy book and theology in light of the modern world, saying they are living in the ancient world. Yet, fundamental Christianity asserts the bible contains all the answers to any of life’s situations and that studying other books is unwarranted because they do not contain any truth and can lead a believer into sin. Fundamentalist religions of all sorts employ this technique.
So why do modern people accept such notions? Because of fear of punishment in this life and in an expected after life, or conversely because of expected rewards in heaven. In this life there is the fear of being socially ostracized, even to the extent as when the Amish and Jehovah’s Witness practice, a “shunning” of the apostate, cutting him or her off from church, friends, and even family. For the afterlife there is fear of hell.
This is especially interesting in light of religious people believing that non-believers can’t be moralistic or ethical when research has shown they are just as or more moral and ethical than believers, often more so. Since non-believers act moralistically out of a more solid altruism—a compassion for others—without any hope for a reward or fear of punishment, it can reasonably be said they are more moral than believers. More cognitive dissonance.
On a large scale, as neuroscientist Sam Harris points out, studies show that “Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands—which are the most atheistic societies on earth—consistently rate better than religious nations on measures like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations, etc.” The United States, among the most religious of countries, rates middling to poor on most of these scales. Facing such facts, how do most religious people deal with the cognitive dissonance created? It appears they do so by ignoring the facts and staying with the comfort zone their religious beliefs give them. No guilt may show, but fear of rocking the boat clearly does.
It is curious that religions tend to forbid most things that people are naturally attracted to, first and foremost anything to do with sex. Pre-marital sex is forbidden, as are birth control, abortion, masturbation, and homosexuality, in many cases making human physiological constitution a sin. When a Catholic couple wants to engage in sex, they are limited to ineffective birth control methods. But in view of economic, environmental, and other considerations they may want to limit their number of children. Most of them appear to simply disregard the Church’s rules and practice effective, but banned, birth control methods. One might say this solves the problem of cognitive dissonance, but it does so by leaving a large residual of guilt, and even makes them hypocritical. Add to this the feeling of guilt for “impure thoughts”, thoughts largely out of the control of the human mind, and the notion of religious guilt—in this case, with repression and feelings of shame–is clearly manifest.
Jewish parents often use guilt as a way to force their children to marry within their religion. Jehovah’s Witness have a list of 141 things a member can’t do. Many religions create feelings of hypocrisy when a member knows and loves neighbors who are not members of their church and are condemned to hell for it despite their obvious goodness because only members of a given church can go to heaven. Fear of beheading or stoning keeps many Muslim women “in their place.” Cartoonists are threatened with death for drawing an “offending” cartoon. And so it goes.
None of the above says anything about the big items, which have and are occurring. Fear of the inquisition, fear of witch burning, fear of terror and subjugation in religious wars, and other such acts history provides so much evidence of.
Without the use of fear and guilt, religions would lose much of their power over human minds. As Albert Einstein said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” Humans are exploited by fear and guilt, and only by trusting themselves can they break free of politicians, clerics, and others who exploit them.
* This article recently appeared in the Madison Courier (NY) weekly newspaper