Thursday, May 1, 2008

Religions based in Fear (FSTDT)

Browsing around Fundies Say The Darndest Things, I found this quote:
For many years, I've been tip-toeing through life, afraid that if I
make the wrong move, God will punish me horribly. Whether or not that
is theologically accurate, I do not know. But it's like everytime I do
something that I think might be bad in some way, no matter how small it
is, I start thinking "Please God, don't hurt me. Just don't hurt me!"
It's just gotten worse in the last year or so, and I don't want to live
my life in utter misery and constant fear of God spiritually hitting me
over the head. Any advice?
The commentators who critiqued this quote were pretty hostile. A sampling:
  • You have no idea of theology.

  • Get therapy for paranoia and religious indoctrination.

  • Yes. stop believing that God will hurt you. God never will.

  • A perfect example of how effective religion can be at controlling people through fear.
For all these commentators, fear is not a legitimate aspect of religion. Must are antagonistic, but the third espouses a God that is sympathetic. Is fear just tangential to the process of religion, or is this 'Fundie' onto something?

Some time ago, I watched a documentary on North Korea on the National Geographic channel (which now refers to itself in a too-hip manner as 'NatGeo'). This is solely my opinion, but based on what I have heard and read in books, the internet, television and news reports I believe North Korea is the most oppressive regime and governmental system in the history of humanity. I believe that it has, more than any other organization since time began, come close to actually controlling the thoughts and actions of its citizens as much as is possible.

It is supposedly communist, but not in a way Marx might recognize. The official philosophy is 'Juche' - self reliance - which means North Koreans are doin' it for themselves, mostly. This means that crop failures inevitably lead to famines and that while South Korea has become a truly modern country, the North may actually have declined since the end of the Korean War.

It's also somewhat anti-religious, as many communist regimes are. Yet Juche and deification of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il act almost as a substitute religion. A picture of one of the Kims is found in almost every building. Near-godlike powers are ascribed to the Eternal President and his son. The NatGeo documentary concluded that for North Koreans, fear and worship aren't such different things at all.

So while the governmental system may be unique, is the concept of a religion in which a primary motivating factor is fear also new? Not at all. In fact, fear may be more fundamental in the history of religion that the standard given answers. Many historians, trying to explain the universal religious impulse in humans have said that religion 'explains the natural world' or 'allows people to order their lives with regard to some higher organization'. I think that these reasons are important, but that fear is a fundamental part of primal religion that is often left out.

The fact is that even mainstream Christianity has a vocabulary of fear. Until recently, many people were self-described 'God-fearing' men and women. More apocalyptic versions have emphasized the terrible wrath of God's judgment. The best modern example of Christian fear is found in the last book of the Left Behind series, an evangelical account of the End Times in a trashy action-movie format. This last, The Glorious Appearing, has taken a lot of criticism because the returning Jesus is a judgmental conquerer who physically punishes the enemies of God. I see this not as a new development in Christianity but rather a hearkening back to pre-Christian ideas about deity.

Most religions in the modern world have toned down or muted the fear aspect. There is one historical example of a religion that, like Juche/Kim Worship, was based primarily on fear. That is the polytheism of ancient Sumer. Sumerian religion isn't well known, and most people have only barely heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It does reveal aspects of the religious system, however. Like Greco-Roman gods, the Sumerian gods each had a domain. They were flawed beings who ruled because they were powerful, not because they deserved to rule. They demanded sacrifices, which the people gave. Unlike Roman sacrifices, the Sumerians offered their not out of the hope of favor from a particular god but because the failure to do so would be horribly punished.

Sumerian religion is older as a systematized setup than Greco-Roman faith. It was also practiced in a much harsher climate. While maintaining many structures, all the polytheisms that eventually flowed from Sumer seem to have slowly toned down the role of fear in the relationships between gods and humans. Yet we should not forget that the Old Testament contains a healthy dosage of near-threats from God to his chosen people.

Then again, maybe North Korea's system is unique - it's one of the few religions in modern times to put fear front-and-center. However much certain strains of political Christianity have tried to inject 'fear' back into their theology, that aspect remains one of the more embarrassing for evangelists of this brand of Christianity. For one reason or another, fear-centric worship is rare and rather disliked in today's world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

fear guilt, guilt fear? the jews have it down to a system, GUILT