Who Watches You

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.

2 thoughts on “Who Watches You

  1. Hi Steve,

    You know what they say about fear right? It along with pain, are great motivators. And pissing off the Almighty, all over the Good Book, is highly detrimental. God makes it pretty clear across the book, that if you aren’t following, and sinning, and not doing what is right by God, punishment will follow.

    We’ve been reading over the last little while, the Psalms. And sure enough, God adores David, and his zeal for God. But David’s enemies sure pay dearly for their abuse they heap on David throughout the Psalms.

    I heard this long ago, during my Biblical studies, that in the OT, God was antagonistic and very angry. The Israelite’s pissed him off continuously, and so did Cain for that matter. And he did not last long before he took out his anger on them. But in the NT, God softens, through his son Jesus Christ, but even with Jesus, Jesus got angry as well. Several times.

    God gives concrete examples of men God respects and protects, to the bitter end, while he floods the earth and kills all the sinners and those who are not “Of God.” Piss off God, at your own detriment, I say …

    i just know for myself, that if I step off the path, on any given day, I get bitch slapped by God, almost immediately. You know, those days, when we want to take our wills back, and tempt God by spending an afternoon sinning …

    I think one has to have a healthy fear: of Fear and Pain. Darkness and Light, you cannot have one without the other, right? The dichotomies are part of our existence. One just has to know, intimately, how not to go down the fear or pain rabbit holes.


    Liked by 1 person

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