Monday, August 1, 2011

Fear and God

While out and about this weekend, my wife and I happened to be driving along in Little Suamico, when we came upon something that I found rather upsetting. Specifically, a church, with the weekly message on a board facing the road. Nothing unusual there, except the content of the message, which read:
Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking
Aha!  The old "God as fire insurance" card is still being dealt from the bottom of the deck by believers.  Between this and the hilarious Christian radio broadcast I caught a few months ago (I listen entirely due to the phenomenon of Hathos - look it up) which praised Jonathan Edwards' comically hyperbolic fire-and-brimstone screed "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as the greatest sermon ever conceived, I've noticed that Christian rhetoric seems to be ramping up everywhere, taking us back to the scare tactics of yore.  What's next?  Catholics praising Torquemada and calling for a return to the ways of the Inquisition?

Now that I've had some time to reflect upon it, I don't quite know what to make of the message outside that church.  My initial reaction was to take it as a taunt, and an incitement to fear, which has been the greatest ally of religion since the earliest humans saw the bright, hot orb in the sky and began to worship it.  The subtext seemed to be, "Come inside, for we are the only way to avoid burning in Hell after you die."  It's exactly that sort of claim of impossible knowledge, and the presumptuousness that goes along with that claim, that I and other unbelievers find so incredibly offensive.  "We have the truth.  Turn or burn.  Accept Christ or die."  How can anyone take such stuff seriously?  It's as sophisticated as the message you'll see on many such church message boards that reads "Good without God becomes 0."  You don't need to think at all to refute such nonsense.

Having thought about the "Smoking or Nonsmoking" line a bit more, however, I'm starting to think that I'm not really the intended audience.  I mean, sure, if a few atheists see the sign, experience the fear of judgement that I've written about before, and come inside, I'm sure the faithful would be ecstatic.  But I think the real intended targets are the churchgoers themselves.

A person who doesn't believe in God, or is a believer, but not of the Christian variety, is more likely than not to be massively turned off by such a crude message, particularly with its casual, almost nonchalant invocation of torture for all eternity.  That kind of message even irritates more mainline Christians who are either uncomfortable with the idea of damnation or disbelieve in it altogether.  The people who are most susceptible to fear-mongering about the afterlife are the people who believe that Hell is a very real place, and that there is a very real chance that they might go there.  And so the followers go through the vicious cycle of guilt over and over,* constantly trying to assuage that gnawing fear that their God (who "abhors" them, to quote Jonathan Edwards) will discard them into the Pit for all time.  And the clergy of that church are complicit in not only NOT helping to relieve that anguish, but making sure that it continues over and over.  It is simply not good enough to go to church, to do good things, to tithe, and on and on.  Fear is the only prescription.

And so, while I feel the same contempt for whoever conceived of the nasty and brutish little blurb outside that church, I also feel something else: sympathy.  Sympathy for those who are trapped in the cycle of fear made worse by the people and institutions they turn to for consolation.  Someone once said something like, "There's a mean streak in anyone who would shake someone else's faith."  After reading that sign and thinking about it, I must reply, Au contraire.  There's a downright evil streak in anyone who would terrify already frightened people with the threat of Hell.

*Brian Flemming's film The God Who Wasn't There dramatically tells of his own personal struggle with this cycle of fear, and I highly recommend it.