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.
There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”I’ve found that to be true, largely.I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.
Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.Those who grow up poor know fear.Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.They are not few.Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.
Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.Yes, people were afraid.The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.For now.Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.
There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.
As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.It was, upon retrospect, odd.Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.In the land of plenty we tremble.
The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.There’s fear in these billboards.Fear that another religion may take over.Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.In this country we have more than enough.Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.
“Theology” is a word that means very different things in different contexts.I dislike labels in general and I seldom call myself a “theologian” since that implies a systematic or “dogmatic” theologian on this side of the Atlantic. (And a better paying job.)In the about to exit Britain “theologian” tends to mean someone who studies religion and can be used regardless of discipline.In any case, I avoid the use of the title since my interests tend toward the history of religious ideas, not making them into a workable system.I was a little surprised when I received an invitation from the journal Horizons in Biblical Theology to contribute a piece on horror and the Bible.The issue in which the article was published (41) has just appeared.Ironically, invitations to contribute seldom came when I was employed as an academic.Of course, “independent scholar” is now a fairly common avocation.Especially in theology.
I won’t post any spoiler alerts for the contents of the article—I don’t want to quell the stampede of those eager to read it—but the basic idea is that biblical studies has embraced horror.Like long-lost cousins, they have come together at last, realizing that they are both pariahs.People generally don’t know how to carry on a discussion with a biblical scholar, as if those of us who spend time with the Good Book are constantly judging others.I can’t say as I blame them since that image is reinforced fairly constantly.Horror scholars, on the other hand, are thought to be weird examples of arrested development—stuck in the juvenile phase.Social respectability isn’t their strong suit, although horror movies do well at the box office and one of the most successful writers ever is Stephen King.
Religion and horror share more than being associated with troglodytes, however.Both address primal human fears.Religion may not be “all about” fear, but a healthy dose of it is.If life was peachy all the time, would we have any need of religion?We need help coping with our fears, and religion has a long history of dispensing it.Knowing we’re going to die, and in all likelihood will experience some suffering before that, whether physical or psychological, is a heavy burden to bear.Religion has always been there to provide meaning and sometimes even solace.Horror, or at least the best of it, does so too.I’m not sure I would call it theological, but if you’re interested you know where to find my latest musings on it.
Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.
Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.The response?A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.
See what I mean?
The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.People ask me why I “like” horror.I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.Why?Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.We are probing the very origins of religion.And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.Let those who read understand.
Every politician knows that fear wins elections.Just how deep into Orwellian territory we are became clear at 2:18 p.m. on Wednesday.A man I loath and distrust, who happens hold high office sent out a national presidential alert to cell phones everywhere.After being awakened at odd hours a time or two over my cell phone owning years, I’d turned off my smart phone alerts.I wasn’t out driving to spot amber alert situations in the middle of the night.If there’s a severe thunderstorm coming, I’m already awake.The idea that if everyone with a phone is on the lookout we’ll all be safe seems a bogus one to me.There is, however, no way to turn off a presidential alert.Like most Americans I was working when my phone went off.I wasn’t afraid.Just annoyed.
Random scary sounds are among the most frightening things people experience.I recently started writing in the attic (if you read this blog regularly you won’t even ask why).As I was writing this post a gust of wind blew and it sounded like the roof might collapse upon me.Sudden load sounds make us look for comfort in a strong person.On a national scale that means, God help us, politicians.When my phone alert goes off, it’s telling me to vote for the party in power.There’s psychology afoot here.This was no accidental coincidence.Midterm elections are just weeks away.
I know something about fear.Not only do I write about horror films, I grew up with so many childhood phobias that my mother wondered how I would ever get along.Those phobias may have gone underground when I became an adult, but they never truly left me.I don’t encounter them on a daily basis, but I can draw on them for my fiction.I don’t, however, appreciate my government using them against me.Perhaps this sounds paranoid.If paranoid it’s by design.Even if 45 can’t see beyond his own proboscis, those on his team know the fear factor works.Winston will come to love big brother.Fear robs rationality.We’re mere primates, after all.Was it coincidence that there was what appeared to be an impromptu Trump rally later that afternoon?There is a difference between paranoia and naiveté.We’re a wired nation and the Republican Party has the phone number of each and every one of us.If this is not a drill, you know where to find me.
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.