I can tell that I’ve been far too busy when I don’t have time to prepare for Halloween. I don’t mean commercially—running out and buying decorations and the like—but mentally. For reasons perhaps only understood by psychologists, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love the comfort of being with my small family on Thanksgiving and Christmas, huddled inside while the cold whistles against our windows. The sense of relief at not having to go to work even though it’s a weekday, and that increasingly rare luxury of simple breathing space. Still, Halloween takes me back to a childhood with which I resonate in a way against which other holidays only vibrate in sympathy. The days are undeniable darker. My fears, I’m told, are not unfounded. I wear a mask and am free to be myself.
Commuting prevents me from getting out to see the decorations for which some neighborhoods have become notorious. The large, billowing, air-filled frights, however, are just hot air. Even the younger generation at the office, whispering among themselves that this is also their favorite holiday, decorate their cubicles in a way that’s more cute than chilling. No, I’m not a fan of gore—this is more subtle than that. Those who’ve long dwelt with existential angst are connoisseurs of dread. We know, for example, that it will be many months now before we step out into the morning light or come home from work able to see our way clearly. The shades of darkness aren’t always the same. There’s a texture to them. To prepare properly, you need time. The very commodity of which I’m being drained.
Those who know me as a mild, “uncomplicated” sort of person don’t know me. They’ve only become accustomed to the Halloween mask that I wear almost constantly now. Life can do that to you. Instead of the creepy novels which generally crowd my autumn, I’ve been spending time with the existentialists, listening to them reflect on death and its meaning. Or lack thereof. Religions, of course, hurl themselves into that void offering plans of escape. And yet in October that man who walks his dog before dawn wearing a white bathrobe sure looks like a ghost to me. And I’m standing on this street corner utterly alone as the wind blows down the avenue, chasing frightened leaves past me, sending a chill down my spine. I’m looking forward to sitting on a bus to get out of the cold. I’m complicit, I realize, in the death of Halloween.
One of the surest signs of hope for the world is that academics are beginning to notice monsters. A trickle began some time ago and it’s probably best to call it a trickle still, nevertheless, the quality of the trickle is improving. Some serious publishers are now counted among the mix of those who pay attention to the lovable unlovable. Greg Garrett’s Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse is one of the more recent approaches to the undead that looks for religious themes among them. They’ve been there from the beginning with zombies, of course, but few with tenured positions bothered to look. It’s an open question how long the current fascination with the undead might last, but Garrett’s treatment finds them useful sources of theological thought.
Perhaps the aspect of my own fascination that I feel most often compelled to explain is why fear has such an appeal. Garrett makes the point that fear often causes people to make bad choices, and I would have to agree. It is, however, the fear of fear that takes a greater toll. You see, fear is a survival instinct. Without fight or flight we’re all zombie food. Some of us learn this harsh lesson early in life, and if we manage to survive long enough we might even become nostalgic for it. It’s not that I like be afraid, but I do know that if we fear fear—if we avoid looking at what scares us—we put ourselves in danger that the flight response might well prevent.
Garrett’s treatment is helpful in demonstrating that there is a reason for such stories. In fact, according to his analysis zombies can leave you with a profound sense of hope. He uses the living dead as a means of thinking about community, ethics, and apocalypse. Not all end of the world scenarios are that bad. How we treat the living dead may tell us quite a bit about our own rectitude or lack thereof. In other words, zombies are more than their puerile thrills might suggest. There’s something of substance here. I don’t agree with all of Garrett’s conclusions, but he offers a stimulating tour of the current media frenzy around the living challenged and is surely correct that there is more going on with monsters than many of our parents would like to have a religion expert admit. Those childhood years might not have been wasted on monsters after all.
Holidays have diverse origins. Some appear to have been made up in a fit of madness, bearing no particular relevance to anything. When I saw a publisher offering an “International Panic Day” sale, however, I supposed it was a joke. A quick web search indicated otherwise. June 18, for reasons nobody can really identify, is International Panic Day. I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode where Marge, liberated from her phobia of being mugged, runs past grandpa calling, “I’m not afraid!” to which he replies, “Then you’re not paying attention.” Fear and panic, while not the same thing, live in the same neighborhood. Many analysts point to fear as the primal emotion behind religion. We may never be able to prove that with any certainty, but I can’t think that panic has a religious origin. Many panics have emerged from religious fervor, but the panic itself seems not to have conceived religion.
According to Holiday Insights (dot com, of course) no information can be found on the origins of the holiday, which makes it sound like a perfect internet invention. It is a day to feel unsettled. For some of us, that seems like most days. Again citing the wisdom of cartoons, Charlie Brown notes in the 1965 Christmas special, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Holidays can be like that sometimes. But a panic day? I have an amateur theory that International Panic Day derives from Panic Day (about which Holiday Insights also has no information), which falls on March 9.
Some online sources have noted that the choice of June 18 is a strange one for International Panic Day because the next day is already (and has been since 1979) World Sauntering Day. This holiday is believed to have begun at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Apparently W.T. Rabe, the holiday’s creator, was reacting to how popular jogging had become and wanted people to slow down for a day. International Panic Day would seem to suggest that running is the best option. Without a goal, of course, other than just to get away. Maybe there is a connection with religion after all. Having long been a fan of Douglas Adams, however, I am a devotee of his contra-mantra: don’t panic.
To mere mortal eyes, a traffic barrel on a Manhattan street might seem like a pretty gritty object, hardly worthy of religious veneration. Seeing leaflets advertising eternal life taped to these barrels might suggest a profound disconnect—what hath Heaven to do with traffic control?—unless one is familiar with the ardor of religious devotion. And besides, many construction sites in Midtown bear the infamous “Post No Bills” warning. When I spotted a few of these informal fliers over the past few days, however, I couldn’t help but think about religious conviction. As someone raised in an evangelical tradition, it is difficult to convey the fear in which I found myself living. Hell seemed like more of a constant threat than Heaven was ever a promise. And my young experience in a blue-collar setting had taught me that you seldom get what you hope for, no matter how hard you work for it. Somehow, no matter how good I tried to be, Hell seemed more likely than Heaven. And the Bible does suggest that if you don’t try to tell others, you’ll be held eternally responsible.
Religious conviction and fear are not far apart. I recently spoke with a Roman Catholic believer who suggested that the fear of God has been under-emphasized of late. I do suspect that it has been parodied quite a bit, but it is difficult to assess if it has truly gone underground. Perhaps among theologians it has. Like most people, I don’t read theology. For the average believer, however, fear probably plays some part in the equation that keeps her/him coming back week after week to hear the same message over and over. My daughter sent me a flier that has been appearing all over her college campus. It is a bit ambiguous, but from my own college days I recall that the young are especially vulnerable to religious coercion. Conviction is like that.
From my own college days I recall the earnest discussions about how far one should go to convert others. The underlying motive was always fear. Getting into Hell is so easy—we were born to it, according to some. If you just live you life as a good person, helping others and trying to improve the world, you’ll still end up there. Such is the power of eternal punishment. One of my friends, when he went to restaurants, would leave a religious tract instead of a tip for the working-class waitresses. “It’s far more valuable,” he explained, without a trace of irony. I wouldn’t be surprised to find one of those tracts taped to a dirty old traffic barrel these days. Sometimes the ardor with which we approach religion simply overlooks the more obvious implications.
CNN’s Belief Blog, apparently open to contributions only by “successful” (i.e., university employed) religion scholars, nevertheless occasionally comes up with a thoughtful story. One of yesterday’s posts focuses on the fact that Stephen Hawking says Heaven is a “fairy story.” First of all, I have admit being surprised to see that Hawking is still in Cambridge—I could have sworn he was working in the Princeton public parking garage because it is his voice that comes out of the ticket machine. (Times being what they are for academics, I figured he might have needed a second job.) Ah, but appearances can be deceiving! I have had great respect for Stephen Hawking for many years. My own scientific interests must be relegated to a decidedly lay position among the collegiums of scientists, but Hawking writes books that people like me can (mostly) comprehend. Echoing an idea I stressed earlier—we came to the same conclusion independently—Hawking noted in a recent interview that Heaven is an idea devised to cope with fear.
Cosmologists, such as Hawking, speak with authority on the literal heavens. Ironically, the word “heavens” continues to retain its usefulness, even among scientists, for describing everything that is out there. Humans are assuredly small and our place in the universe is miniscule. In our heads, however, we conceive lofty ideas that seem to place our own consciousness outside the unlimited bounds of this universe. Is it any wonder that we can concoct gods? As deeply as they peer into the cold, dark recesses of outer space, astronomers and cosmologists find no room for Heaven. This cosmic inn, no matter how many aliens there may be, is largely empty.
What I find interesting is that journalists of religion find skepticism among scientists newsworthy. While being a rational thinker, as science demands, does not necessarily forego divine entities, using gods as explanations and having trans-dimensional heavens tucked away behind some far asteroid does somehow devalue the power and majesty of our eternal home. We expect our scientists to be skeptical—we wouldn’t often visit a doctor who sacrificed a goat on every office visit to consult its entrails concerning our health. And yet it is newsworthy when a scientist says in a forthright statement that Heaven does not exist. It would be like an evangelical preacher saying evolution never happened. The biggest miracle of all may be that whether it is Dr. Hawking’s doing or not, I actually manage to find parking in Princeton.
Billions and billions, but no angels with harps...
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” These bold words from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address could just as readily be applied to religion. Frequent readers of this blog will have no doubt noticed the recurring references to horror films and the occasional scary novel. Aside from everyday fears, (such as yesterday’s when I learned that my summer course, my only source of income for next month, had been cancelled) there are more deeply seated phobias that lurk in our subconscious minds. A reasonable conclusion might suggest that this undercurrent of fear is what buoys up the horror movie industry—people really are afraid. Fear is, in the final analysis, the original basis for religion.
Along with the evolution of consciousness, humanity has also acquired the knowledge of uncertainties and troubles ahead. We project to the next day and realize tomorrow is never secure. In desperate hope we beg the higher power for protection. If we were in control of our own destinies, we would not need the gods. Over the course of civilization, there have been luminaries who’ve tried to wrestle religion from the realm of fear into a more pleasing sphere. Jesus, for example, tried to stand religion on the basis of love. Within a couple of decades, however, Paul came along and managed to twist it back into the domain of fear once again. Fear of Roman persecution, fear of Hell, fear of life itself.
Religion is an embodiment of our fears. Many today choose to place their trust in reason and technological development. No doubt these arenas of human endeavor have improved life for many people. Yet, even with our growing global awareness, fear creeps in and we use our technology for weapons to keep us safe. We don’t call it religion any more, but national security, or the defense industry. Or, God help us, the TSA. The end result is the same: we fear more than fear itself. We place our trust in something we can’t fully comprehend. No matter how rational (or unemployed) we become, religion will never go away.
This is the 9th podcast for this blog. The topic under consideration here is why fear is so closely associated with religion. I ponder the origins of the concept of deity and try to make a connection with other dark areas of the imagination.