The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking once claimed that the idea of an afterlife is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” In response, Oxford mathematician John Lennox suggested that perhaps the inverse is true, that atheism is just “a fairy story for those afraid of the Light.” Naturally, Dr. Lennox’s witty quip has produced a hearty ensemble of chuckles from approving theist hearers. But in his reply to Hawking, the Oxford professor touched on a much deeper and more serious cultural phenomenon than perhaps is initially grasped—namely, the “fear of religion.”
“Men despise religion,” wrote the great seventeenth-century polymath Blaise Pascal in his Pensées. “They hate it and are afraid it is true.” At first, we might be tempted to wonder whether he exaggerates. Is it really true to say that men despise, even fear, religion? The propagators of the New Atheism (to name one specific subset of irreligious critics) have made it clear that they have a legitimate hatred of religion. But do they fear it?
What about the wider culture? Do people today, generally speaking, fear and despise religion?
Christopher Hitchens was a skeptic who made no bones about his distaste for religion. Hitchens believed “religion poisons everything,” and seized upon many an opportunity to publicly “devangelize” and promote his anti-religious worries. In God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, implicit fear is evident in these words of warning:
Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.
But what is fear? St. Thomas Aquinas writes that “all fear arises from love; since no one fears save what is contrary to something he loves.” Fear arises out of the potential of losing something loved. Fear presupposes love, then, because without it one would have (as the saying goes) “nothing to lose.” In a general sense, then, we could say that fear is the desire—if not the choice—to avoid that which may result in the loss of what is loved.
If this is right, then it is not hard to see why one would despise what he also fears, for one’s success in avoiding that which he fears will be significantly compounded by abhorrence. Fear breeds avoidance as a kind of safety measure, as a “step back” from that which poses a threat. Critics like Hitchens think that things like tolerance, rationality, freedom, equality, and education are all human goods. Of course, we can agree. But that “religion” is the chief cultural threat against these human goods is colossally contestable.
In his book The Last Word, philosopher and atheist Thomas Nagel suggests that, unlike empiricism which gives primacy to sense experience, there is a sort of “religious flavor” to rationalism—that is, the belief that what is most immediately grasped by the intellect is most real. His overarching point seems to be that the integration between the mind (whatever it is) and the world (“why-ever” it is) is a great big conglomeration of mystery. But he does not deny the correspondence between them, which for the unreligious can be an unsettling fact: “The thought that the relation between mind and the world is something fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous.”
But why be nervous? Well, perhaps because people despise religion and are afraid it is true. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger argues in his Introduction to Christianity, the mathematically structured world before us compels us to believe that its ultimate explanation is something both intelligent and creative. As we look out at the world we see not only what is, not just being, but at a deeper level we perceive that which is being-thought. But intelligibility presupposes an intellect to make it so—and it is not our minds that make the world so. Therefore, it must be an intellect that is not our own that explains the intelligibility of the universe. Moreover, the beauty adds to the enigma. So, the explanation of the universe must be both unimaginably rational and creative. This we call God.
Nagel observes that most people who pledge their allegiance to the sciences without any real hope for a divine explanation, people who don’t want the universe to be like that—people who are, in some real sense, afraid of religion—are inevitably going to resort to formulating new (and perhaps radical) physical hypotheses to explain the world’s great mysteries. He transparently identifies himself as one of these people. Many will turn to materialism, or the belief that matter is at the foundation of reality, and from there conclude that the human being is, at bottom, just a complex bag of chemicals with “no more free will than a bowl of sugar” (to quote biologist Anthony Cashmore).
Nagel proposes that instead of materialism, perhaps a radical “re-writing” of naturalism is in order so as to include the immaterial in its definition. If things like consciousness and morality exist objectively (and Nagel believes they do) then we need to open the doors wide to something like the metaphysical. Not a hard task for the theist. But for those who resist religion, the only option is to smuggle the supernatural into the naturalistic picture of the world and to call it “natural.”
When all this business about re-writing the definition of naturalism arises, the question that subsequently emerges on the surface for many is this: Why not just concede with the theists that there is more to reality than the natural? Why not go the full distance and admit the supernatural into one’s conception of reality? Here’s one hypothesis to explain the reticence: fear of religion. In fact, Nagel humbly admits this much when he writes, “I am talking about . . . the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.”
Not all skeptics share the same moral concerns as Christopher Hitchens. For many, the worry is far more existential, and perhaps less easy to articulate. Perhaps this is why New Age spirituality has taken off over the past several decades. A surge in enthusiasm for things like Eastern meditation techniques, Reiki, crystals, astrology, Feng Shui, the recreational use of psychedelic drugs, and other like practices have betrayed in our culture a genuine interest in the mystical. Even among the unaffiliated (as Pew and other research organizations have shown), there remains a strong belief in some kind of transcendent reality.
Yet these people often want nothing to do with so-called “organized religion.” Why the widespread cosmic authority problem? And why such concern, despite the fact that so many people are open to the transcendent? Perhaps it is this: the fear of not being the master of one’s own universe.
Indeed, a New Age spirituality has much of the appeal of theism: it offers the existence of a power above ourselves—albeit a power more like a force than a father—which can provide what we cannot provide for ourselves and yet, all the while, makes no significant demands on our life. Such a “Life Force philosophy” (as C.S. Lewis called it) renders the possibility of obtaining all one might want, but without asking for anything in return. No moral duties. No obligations to worship. The Life Force philosophy is a ticket to live and let live—with the possibility of a little help when needed.
Here’s what Lewis observes about the “spiritual but not religious” bent of mind:
[The Life Force philosophy] gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences. When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children.
The fundamental problem driving such diluted religiosity goes right back to the Garden of Eden. People want to be their own gods. But “religion” (at least as it is broadly understood) takes that possibility away. The fear of religion, we might say, is not truly a fear of religion at all. The “fear of religion” as Pascal meant it and as Thomas Nagel means it, is a fear of losing what one takes to be the best in life: autonomy, authority, and independence. It is a fear of losing what they take to be everything, an “everything” which for Pascal was ultimately nothing compared to what awaits on the other side of this life.
Pascal tells us that diversion and indifference are the chief defense mechanisms for those who fear religion, and God knows how prevalent these symptoms are in our culture. Modern critics of organized religion believe that there is far too much at stake if they were to give up the world for the sake of eternity. For them it is not worth the wager. But I wonder if those who fear religion have ever really thought about whether they might have it all inside out? I wonder if they have ever considered the possibility that only an explicitly religious (and dare I say, Catholic) worldview can adequately ground the human powers and rights they revere, and offer a context of existence within which such powers as autonomy, authority, and independence can most truly and forcefully be unleashed for the good.
A longer version of this article can be found here at the Imaginative Conservative.