When my wife saw Dominic Johnson’s God Is Watching You on the top of my pile she said “Are you sure you want to be reading that?” Her question was justified, of course. I was raised in a religion where the punishment of God was very much on the surface. Heaven’s carrot was nothing next to Hell’s stick. I still suffer from that religious outlook in innumerable ways. Johnson’s subtitle, however, is How the Fear of God Makes Us Human. Johnson, who holds doctorates in evolutionary biology and political science, is well placed to try to untangle what those of us with just one doctorate in religious studies deal with constantly: what is religion? The main idea of the book is deceptively simple—we have evolved the way we have because we feared (and continue to fear) supernatural punishment.
Johnson establishes that sociological and anthropological studies have shown that humans respond much more readily to punishment than reward. Reward is like icing—you can eat a cake without it and still enjoy it—while punishment is like the threat of all food being removed. You see the difference? One has a far greater motivating factor than the other. This idea spins out into many aspects of religion, and even perhaps hints at the origins of religion itself. I have often written on this blog that animals exhibit religious behavior. We don’t speak their language so we can’t know for sure, but some of what various animals do seems very much like what we do in church, synagogue, mosque, or gurdwara. Accusations of anthropomorphism fall flat, to me. We evolved, did we not? Then why do we resist pointing out in animals where that behavior sticks out like a sore opposable thumb?
Human societies worldwide share the fear of divine punishment. Interestingly, even a significant portion of atheists admit fearing it too. Often those who know me ask about my preoccupation with fear. It sometimes shows in my writing about horror, but I think Johnson may well have the key in his pocket. Religion is about fear. It’s not just about fear, but it clearly is about avoiding divine (however defined) wrath. Lose a job or two broadly defined as religious and disagree with me. Am I sure that I should be reading this book? Now that I’ve finished it I can definitively say “yes.” While I don’t agree with everything in it Johnson has clearly hit on something that all people who study religion should know.
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