Scare Tactics

Posted: June 3, 2010 by justmeangie in Atheism, General

Just a quick thought…

One of the things I hate most about religion is its use of scare tactics. Not just any scare tactics, but those that cause the religious to fear for the eternal souls of their friends and family members. Lately, I’ve observed several instances of parents being absolutely terrified for their children’s salvation. Can you imagine living with the fear that if your children do not believe as you do that they will endure horrible torture for all eternity? (What a loving God, no?!)

I have followed the blog of a very devout Christian woman who has two young children for several years now–before she even became pregnant the first time. She recently wrote an entry in which she described what she believes to be the beginning of a “salvation process” within her 3.5-year-old little girl. The little girl had asked questions about God and Jesus and the crucifixion story and in the following weeks the mother states that the little girl threw less temper tantrums and seemed more affectionate, thus she concluded that “as far as she is able..she has a relationship with the Lord…and He’s changing her from the inside out.”

The blogger went on to say that she prays for her children’s salvation daily.

Not a day goes by that I don’t get on my knees and beg the Lord for my kids souls. I plead and pray for their salvation. I pray the God will make Himself so real to them and that they will know Him from an early age. I’m convinced that no one can pray like a parent for their child!

When reading this, I couldn’t help but think what this woman might say about all the children in the world who do not have parents who “beg the Lord for [their] kids souls.” Does God care less about a child if someone isn’t praying for them? Do they deserve hell more than kids who have parents who pray that they will be saved? Isn’t this attitude kind of arrogant? How could a benevolent God create a being and then send that being to hell for all eternity? (Oops, messed up on that one. Off to hell with you.) How much fear and anxiety is this woman, and countless others, living with on a daily basis?

This kind of thinking is quite common among the religious. In high school, I was truly concerned about an atheist friend and tried very hard to allow him to “see Christ through me.” I prayed and prayed that Christ would “reveal Himself” to my non-Christian sister. My husband’s best friend was murdered when he was only 19. This friend was an agnostic and my husband had nightmares about him suffering in hell. Recently, when presented with a hypothetical scenario regarding morality, a friend initially said that she would chose to save one 40-year-old man and let 1,000 babies die (rather than the opposite) based on her belief that the babies would go to heaven and the man might or might not go to hell. I don’t tell my mother that I’m an atheist because I know she would be absolutely distraught that I’m going to hell. So much fear based on a fairy tale…

The psychological pain that religion creates is horrible. That it relies on fear in this way just sickens me. I think this kind of scare tactic that gets so ingrained in the thoughts of the religious might be one of the worst things that religion has done to society. Unfortunately, I also think it’s one of the main reasons that religion has survived for so long.

Edit: Religious fear, shame, and guilt comes in many other forms as well, not just fear of hell…

  1. There are several things I could say on this topic, but I would start by saying that in all the instances you mentioned fear is not a tactic, but a by-product of other beliefs. The idea of most religious people is not to instill fear, but to bring people into relationship with what they perceive to be a loving God and, admittedly, to keep these people out of Hell. The woman you mentioned isn’t seeking to instill fear, but suffering from fear due to a belief in a certain conception of Hell. I like to hope that most Christians would not say fear was the appropriate, healthy condition, but rather the disease. The healthy condition of any soul is love and, as scripture says, “perfect love casts out fear.”

    Another piece that I struggle with is the line “So much fear based on a fairy tale.” That is very strong language to use when you haven’t established the premise “religion is a fairy tale”.

    I understand the idea behind the post. I even share most of your concerns. My beliefs about Hell and who does and does not go there are such that I don’t suffer from the same kinds of fear as many of my Christian brothers do and I wish others didn’t have to. I would say that religion, Christianity in particular, does not have to and, honestly, usually does not rely on fear. I remember the earlier post on your site about Judgement Houses. Those kinds of things are common in this area of the country, but they are not the norm in the majority of Christian denominations. That they are common here says more about this area and these denominations than it does about Christianity as a whole.

  2. justmeangie says:

    Who is to say what is “normal” or “common” Christianity? One can’t discount things they don’t like just because it doesn’t fit with their view of “true” Christianity. Fear is obviously a big factor since people in this area, as well as bloggers from other areas (like the one quoted above), and in several countries with varying religions all over the world, make statements and live in a way that suggests that they are afraid. One of the biggest downfalls to religion is the psychological pain it causes and this is a very real concern. Fear may be a by-product in some cases, but it can’t be denied that there are lots of religious people who do use fear explicitly as a tactic.

    As for the statement that religion is a fairy tale, that is obviously my belief and this blog is a reflection of that belief. I have written a piece about the process of “deconversion,” which explains many of my reasons for adopting a nontheistic philosophy, but it is on a private blog as it’s very personal in nature and I do not at this time have the courage to post it publicly. Anyway, I’m sorry if that statement was difficult for you, but it is my honest view and I trust that our friendship can handle honest expression.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Yeah, don’t take from my comment that I’m angry. I expect that you believe that religion is a fairy tale. It just seemed like a strong statement to make without either substantiation or qualification. I’m not mad, that’s more of a concern about the effectiveness of the point you were making than anything else.

    As far as the “true” Christianity stuff…I intentionally worded my comment as “I like to hope” because I don’t doubt that you may be right about people feeling fear. As to Christians using fear as a tool for winning converts, I’ve just had an awful lot of experience with an awful lot of different kinds of Christians and I don’t believe in any way that the statistical majority of denominations and groups of Christians use these kind of exploitative tools. I have only ever seen Judgement Houses in a certain type of conservative Baptist or evangelical church. There may be others who use these tactics, but I have never seen Methodists or Presbyterians or Reformed or Disciples of Christ or Lutherans or Episcopals or Anglicans or AMEs or Catholics (modern-day) or American Baptists or Independent Christian Churches use these kinds of tactics. They are much more common among fundamentalists (the majority of Christians are not fundamentalist) in the Southern part of the country.

    As for the psychological pain religion causes, in many cases this is true. Marriage often causes psychological pain. Having children often causes psychological pain. Good education often causes psychological pain. The question remains is Christianity or any other kind of religion true or valuable? If yes, then it is worth the risk of psychological pain. That’s why we still pursue things like marriage and child-bearing and education. If it’s not valuable, then clearly its not worth the possibility of psychological pain. I would also completely agree that any intentional psychological pain inflicted by religious people is wrong and I am just as angry about them as you (if not more because in addition to their being evil they make the religious tradition I cherish appear to be evil).

    And again, sorry if I came off as angry…it’s so hard to avoid that online! 🙂

  4. justmeangie says:

    Even with the more liberal denominations, the basic theology boils down to “If you do not accept our worldview, you will suffer ETERNAL DAMNATION for being HUMAN–which is what you were *created by God* to be.” Now the definition of “eternal damnation” may vary from denomination to denomination, but the basic concept remains the same. You are punished for being born, for being human, when you had no choice in the matter. The conservative denominations just give that more attention than the others.

    I completely agree that the whole question of religion boils down to whether or not it is true. Valuable, not so much. Just because something is valuable doesn’t mean it is true and, in my opinion, the truth is better than any value you could gain from a lie.

    I also don’t believe that the psychological pain from religion is at all like marriage or child-bearing or education. The guilt, shame, misogyny, bigotry, etc. that religion often causes and perpetuates has much greater negative impacts than any of the other institutions you mentioned.

    (These conversations are much easier in person. Imagine that I’m smiling and making jokes when you read what I write here!) 🙂

  5. skepticalprogrammer says:

    One could argue that the book of Revelations was intended to (literally) scare the Hell out of people :p . In my opinion, there is a certain amount of fear required in any religion to keep people from leaving it. Islam has the death penalty for Apostasy, Judaism and Christianity have stories like the flood to show you what happens when you’re bad (God kills you), and all of Leviticus to tell you what all he will kill you for (almost anything). Couple this with threats of Hell if you don’t believe (Pascal’s wager?), and you have a lot of coercion to keep believing out of fear.

  6. First, to Brendon, Revelation actually set up the paradigm. Judaism does purport a belief in an afterlife, but it doesn’t flesh out what that is like. Revelation, combined with some sparse references by Jesus and the apostles, set up the Heaven and Hell system. It wasn’t designed to scare people out of Hell, but rather to flesh out a system that hadn’t been previously. As to my beliefs on the bulk of those Old Testament stories, we’ve previously discussed my beliefs on the bulk of what is called “The Law” in the Old Testament and in the Flood stories. I won’t write the book again, but to summarize, it is always easier to get people to do what you say when you say God told you to (“The Law”) and it is fairly clear from a literary standpoint that the flood is a compilation of other mythologies (Epic of Gilgamesh, Atrahasis) that was in fact designed to show that God will punish you if you are not good.

    That leads me to Angie’s comment. I won’t deny that there is an aspect to almost all Christian belief (leaving aside Universalist Christians which is a growing number in many denominations) that does necessarily say either do or believe what God wants or God will send you to Hell (whatever that is). You said you are punished for being human. This isn’t quite true. Biblical Christianity suggests you are punished for not doing or believing as you are supposed to and not calling on God’s grace. However, I believe what you are arguing is in light of a belief in determinism. I won’t say much about this, because I will have a fuller post on my blog soon on determinism and I would only butcher my belief on the subject by trying to cram it into a comment. Biblical Christianity suggests that a person is morally culpable for their decisions. If a person is not morally culpable either one of three things must be true. Either God is real, but unjust or he is not real or universalism is true, because no one can be held accountable for their actions and therefore God’s grace would cover all people by necessity. But, in my view all this is only coercion if the religion is not true. If it is, it is simply a statement of how things are, which can be crafted into scare tactics, but is not a scare tactic by design.

    As for true and valuable, I add valuable to the equation because something can be true, but not valuable. If religion is to be pursued is must be both true and valuable.

    And for the psychological pain, I wasn’t trying to say all those institutions had the potential to produce an equal amount of psychological pain. (Then again, I’m not sure I would tell that to a wife whose husband cheated or a parent whose child turned out to be a serial killer.) I was saying that the potential for psychological pain does not necessarily tell us the value of an institution.

    I think, for the kinds of pains you are talking about (bigotry, misogyny) nationalism is the best analogy. Nationalism is what is behind the bigoted laws being passed in Arizona. It is what is behind pushes for English as a national language. It is what is being warped in the demonization of our president as an unamerican nazi-socialist. National identity and tradition (just as religious tradition) was appealed to in the subjugation of women, particularly as it related to suffrage. I would still argue that the organization of peoples into nation groups is important if simply for the sake of adequate governance of the peoples of the world. But it can be twisted in terrible ways to produce very damaging results.

    Anyway, I probably didn’t adequately respond to all of that, but it is getting very late and I’m about to fall out of my chair. Good night! 🙂

  7. justmeangie says:

    You state that the punishment is for “not doing or believing as you are supposed to and not calling on God’s grace.” But this is, in essence, punishment for being human. Why would every single person in the world have to, as you say, call on God’s grace? As for determinism, I couldn’t care less either way. 😉

    I disagree with your statement that something can be true, but not valuable. I think truth is inherently valuable.

  8. Yeah, you caught me on that quote being too tired to think clearly…that’s the traditional, exclusivist position rather than what I believe. I think that God decides who he punishes and for what reasons. I generally try not to speculate as to what those reasons are and trust that God, who is smarter and more just than I am, does know. If pressed, I would expect those reasons to be things like truly despicable behavior or an apathetic life cut off from empathy from your fellow human beings (aka, a life without an active love for others). God being, in my view, infinitely knowledgable, he would be capable of discerning the exceptions to these rules. For instance, a person with a psychological condition which destroys their ability to empathize would not go to Hell for lack of empathy. The grace I mentioned earlier I believe is given based on faith in the ideals God believes in which, assuming a righteous, all-knowing God, would be the right ones. I do not believe that a person has to actually ask for it, though it will be given if asked for in true repentance (an honest turning from one’s old ways).

    Any amount of talk over God’s reasons for who is sent to heaven or hell is speculation. I am not someone who likes to fall back on the phrase, “it’s a mystery” and I hope that I’ve shown in this comment that I do attempt to work through what God’s reasoning might be. I just don’t think myself qualified to give a final word on anyone’s salvation. It’s not my place.

    All that is to say, that I don’t think God sends people to Hell simply for being who they are…who they are genetically and what they’ve been through experientially is, I expect, taken into account. My belief is that God has reasons which will be perfectly sound on inspection and based on the lives of the individuals.

    I also realize that none of this is an argument for an all-knowing, all-good God, but simply a description of what might be the methods and reasons behind the activities of that kind of God, should that God exist.

  9. justmeangie says:

    Just so you know, I wouldn’t, for the most part, have a problem with a god the way you describe him. As it stands, I simply do not see evidence for such an existence.

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