Faith Is Not A Virtue Part III: Fear

My last two posts have discussed why people have faith: lack of scientific understanding, and lack of reasoning skills. Today’s reason, however, is probably the most common reason people have faith: fear.


Fear is one of the most powerful motivators humans experience. Fear is supposed to protect us physically – we will do almost anything to avoid pain, because pain means death, and death means no gene replication. Fear also acts as a social constraint. Most of us fear being ostracized, because humans have evolved to live in social groups. Social groups increase our odds of survival and procreation, so ostracization is interpreted as a physical threat.

Religion makes excellent use of fear to replicate itself in two ways: explicit fear of hell, and implicit fear of being ostracized if you renounce your beliefs.

Religion promises glorious times if you believe, but that alone may not be enough to make you worship a psychopathic god. What could compel you, however, is the fear of hell. Sure, god makes Stalin and Hitler look like doting grandmothers, and it’s really, really unlikely that he even exists, but holy shitballs, hell is the worst thing you can imagine times a billion and then some. Forever. Is it worth the risk? Sure, Pascal’s Wager is flawed – would god really like it if you only worshiped him to hedge your bets? – but what if he would? However infinitesimal the chance that you will go to hell, the fear of hell is a strong motivator. When you couple it with lack of reasoning skills and education, it gets much, much stronger.

Hell is a threat that is inculcated into us at an early age. When I was around 14, I was fucking terrified of demons. I’d been taught all about hell, and how horrible it was, and how Satan and his demons were out to get me, because, you see, this was war. And I could never win it; only Jesus could. The take-home message was that there are really scary things out there, and your only defense is saying a few words and hoping that god wasn’t feeling like building your character that day. Add this lesson to an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and you have a recipe for a 14-year-old who is afraid to go to sleep or even walk around a corner in her own home because there might be demons. Is it any surprise that I was fervently religious at this time?

Even if you can get past your fear of hell, learn how to think, and understand science, you still have a big problem. The vast majority of people believe in god – especially in America, where I live. In America, it’s pretty safe to presume that anyone you meet believes that god exists. The odds go down in my city, since we’re pretty weird, but even if someone you meet in this town doesn’t believe in god, they probably believe in something spiritual. If you decide you don’t believe in god, you become an outsider.

Atheist communities aren’t very readily available to religious people who have lost their faith, mostly because atheists aren’t very numerous compared to the religious. Also, most religious people have a church or another form of religious community. Being in a group of people that share your worldview is a heady thing, and walking away from that is often terrifying.

But even scarier is the fear of how those you love will react. Disapproval, disgust, social rejection, or shunning are all common reactions when someone comes out as an atheist. I wish it were uncommon for a new atheist’s family to disown them for their atheism, but it’s really not.

So even if you do come to reject the notion of god, many religious people keep up the farce out of fear of social repercussions. Or worse, they come to a point when they must make a choice between faith and evidence, and out of fear, they willfully ignore the evidence and choose faith.

Why does our society have to work this way? Why can’t we learn to accept people’s disbelief without social rejection? Even when atheists come out, they often have to walk on eggshells around their religious friends and family to maintain relationships. The atheist become socially submissive in these relationships, keeping their mouth shut, losing the privilege of free expression.

It shouldn’t be this way.

Posted on January 1, 2012, in Atheism, Psychology, Religion. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’m lucky in that my family (and where I live) has been supportive of my atheism. Well, by supportive, I mean…they don’t really care.

    My dad only listed a religion once, which was to lie when I was in Scouts so he could be a leader. One of the saddest moments of being an atheist was when I asked Scouts Canada to pull my name from their list, because I no longer meet the qualifications for membership.


    Anyway. I think having a strong internet community has been one of the greatest things for the atheist movement. I follow a fair few people along Twitter who are “secret atheists”, who sometimes tweet from church how they wish they could be done with the bullshit, or who work at a Christian company and can’t afford to lose their job.

    Fear has always been the greatest weapon of the religious: fear and lack of education combined are a powerful tool.

  2. speakingupanyway

    My parents are religious, and when I first told them I’m an atheist, my dad was like, No you’re not. For a while they kept telling me that I was just having a crisis of faith. They were never mad, though, and they seem to have accepted it. My parents and I had the god debate a week or so ago (aka how can you believe this bullshit), and after I rebutted every argument they made and left them saying “I believe it because of my relationship, and I may be wrong, but I don’t care” (at which point, really, what can you say?) my dad told me that when he was my age he didn’t believe in a lot of things, but now that he’s older he has perspective on things. Gag.

    Oh man, don’t even get me started on the bigotry of the Boy Scouts.

    Have you seen #churchtweets? JT started a thing to take it over, and it’s really, really funny to see the back-and-forth between atheists and believers. It’s every Sunday morning, I believe.

  3. I think there’s another reason people have faith. While there is this tendency to say ‘you just don’t understand or can’t reason well enough,’ the psychological and sociological reasons are more powerful. There are religious people who are very intelligent; and when people switch from religion, do they get magical !shazam! IQ boost? Fear is a good starting point, and I liked the points you made about how people are afraid of hell and death. Very true. I also think, in our society, having faith in anything is important. My former pastor said everyone will worship something, so why not worship God instead of something ‘less worthy’? The idea is the inevitability of worship, and that’s why a lot of believers think atheists believe in science or think that atheism is a religion. There might be something fundamental in the human brain where we crave faith. I think that’s something worth examining, but I like your arguments.

  4. speakingupanyway

    I think the psychological and sociological argument is a good one. Religion is an societal institution, and that may come from our desire to have an answer for why things happen, combined with our social needs. I’m not so sure if we crave faith, in the strict meaning of “belief of something without evidence,” but I do think we crave hope – the idea that even though something sucks, it will get better, even if we don’t have evidence for it.

    I don’t think that being an atheist makes you smarter, or that religious people are dumb. Intelligent people may have an easier time reasoning that there is no god, or they could take it in a completely different direction and come up with a complex reason of why there is god. And since lack of education, poor reasoning skills, fear, and psychology work together, overcoming one is often not enough, especially when religion stigmatizes those who wonder if their faith is true.

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