My dear friend, Chaplain the Rev. Seanan Holland visited us this weekend, and as usual he and I got into one of our hours-long rolling discussions about Life, the Universe, and Everything. This time in particular, we were rolling around the origin and nature of religion, the fundamental flaw in Friedman Economics, a mathematical definition of war, and scientists as “empirical theologians” (to quote Michael Dowd).
Conversations like this are what Seanan and I do for fun. As usual, Sandy left us and went to run errands. As she might say, Seanan and I apparently have some new definition of the word “fun” that the rest of the human race has yet to buy into…
Somewhere in the discussion, we moved into a theory on religious development that I’ve been working with for some time. It is a theory that I have no idea how much of it I can claim as my own, and how much of it is appropriated from others. I have encountered pieces of it from religious historians, from theologians, from psychologists, from scientists, and even from a few different sermons on the topic. Albert Einstein even wrote a few newspaper and magazine articles on it, after WWII and the use of nuclear weapons on Japan.
Mark Twain said that human beings almost never think new thoughts… and this one is not new at all. The only thing I think I can honestly claim as mine is putting it together in this particular way.
So here it goes… and yes, I know, this analysis will apply primarily to Western Religion… but I think the pattern here is deeply rooted in human nature, and can be seen in all human religions in one form or another. And yes, I am intentionally simplifying history in order to show a pattern and make a point.
Throughout human history, religion has formed in relation to the development of four great human fears. Religion has always been a response to fear, a way to seek to ease or mitigate the fear of each age, allowing human beings to function in the world. In order to understand religion and its purpose in human society, it is necessary to understand the Great Fear of that society. Religion exists to exert control over that Great Fear.
For ancient and pre-ancient peoples, life was bounded by forces that were unknown and uncontrollable; the forces of nature. Whether or not there was rain for drinking water, whether the herds moved in the normal and proper directions, whether or not earthquakes destroyed human habitations seemed to be not just out of human control, but out of human understanding. This unknown, uncontrollable, and uncaring universe of nature therefore became the First Great Fear.
The earliest human religions developed in response to the First Great Fear, through the need to exert some human control over the forces of nature. Gods and Goddesses were posited that controlled when the rains would come, when earthquakes and storms happened, whether or not it would be a good harvest. These Gods and Goddesses, as beings that humans could interact with, could be appealed to, appeased, and entreated into creating conditions that were beneficial to humankind.
While not actually control over an uncontrollable universe, these religions allowed human beings a semblance of control. Nature went on doing what nature would do, but human beings felt in control. When things did not go well… when the storms came at the wrong time or earthquakes destroyed a village, either the “Gods” were capricious, or human beings maintained the semblance of control by naming the actions of human beings as the cause for the Gods’ displeasure, resulting in “punishment”.
The religions of the First Great Fear, be they the early understandings of the Greek and proto-Greek pantheon, to some of the early incarnations of Yah-weh, to some of the Celtic and Native American Gods allowed human beings to ease the First Great Fear with a belief system that posited that human beings were actually in control (once removed) of these natural forces, and that the sources of these natural forces were known, not unknown.
And, the religions of the First Great Fear began keeping records of the actions of these Gods… of the forces of nature. Over time, those records began to allow human beings to conceptualize and understand some of the workings of nature, and with that understanding feel less afraid. Some of the early attempts at “empirical theology” (or science, as we’ve come to know it) began to dissipate the First Great Fear. As people began to understand their universe empirically, the First Great Fear declined, and a new Great Fear arose.
People became less afraid of the forces of nature, and more afraid of the actions of other human beings. As we learned about nature, it became far more predictable and compensated for than the actions of other humans. We knew how to build houses to withstand floods, rain, and earthquakes (or at least how to rebuild), but we did not know how to keep other human beings from taking our homes away from us, or burning down our village.
The Second Great Fear that humanity encountered was a fear of other human beings… and so, religion adapted itself to easing this great fear. This was the birth of religions of personal morality and religious systems of ethics. It was the birth of the ideal of the “Godly” or the “God-fearing” human being. We see the beginnings of this shift in the followers of Yah-weh in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We see this shift in the early Greek Academy, in the ethical teachings of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. We see it in Diogenes seeking “one honest man”.
Religion becomes focused not on controlling the forces of nature, but on controlling the actions of fellow human beings. Religion becomes a call to individual and personal morality… and then developed into a call for societal and cultural morality. Yah-Weh issued his Ten Commandments… Hammurabi issued his Code… Aristotle wrote Ethics… Buddha found the eight-fold path… and Jesus distilled the law down to a practice. Religion became focused not on the actions of Gods and Goddesses, but the actions, morality, and lives of human beings.
And both Heaven and Hell, as we think of them modernly, were born. Religions of Morality knew that simply naming ethical and moral systems would not be enough to mitigate the Second Great Fear. It would not be enough to have a “semblance” of control (as they had of the Gods in the First Great Fear.) No, to mitigate the Second Great Fear of human beings, religion would need to exert actual control over actual human beings.
And so begins what Albert Einstein called “the stick” and “the carrot” of eternal damnation and heavenly reward. Human beings were motivated to practice this morality in two primary ways. The first was that accepting these religions of morality became a necessary part of admittance to a society or a culture. If you want to be a Roman, you must accept the Roman State Religion.
And more importantly, individuals were motivated to keep the moral code in that a person’s fate after death was determined by how that person had behaved in this life. These religions exalted the lives of those who lived in a “Godly” manner, and excoriated those who did not. In what are now the western religions, this meant that those who were Godly were allowed to go to heaven and be with God after death… those who did not abide by the earthly moral code would have eternal punishment in hell.
Through both the existence of these moral religions, and the dual motivations to follow those moral codes of societal acceptance and the choice of eternal damnation or heavenly reward, humanity mitigated some of the fear that was felt of other human beings. Yet, as Einstein observed, even with these religions of morality human beings have still had plenty to fear from one another.
That continuing fear of the actions of other human beings combined with a few other trends gave rise to the Third Great Fear, the fear of Death.
As human societies grew larger, and the first true empires came into being, the scale by which human beings could kill one another grew exponentially. Before, when war was an isolated event between two villages, or even between two city-states, the scale was such that though there may have been a lot of death locally, in the scheme of the known world such death was miniscule. Also, the technology and tactics by which people fought in war was limited to the level primarily of individual combat. Even a melee in a battle was composed of many one-on-one fights with hand held weapons.
The development of empires saw three exponential shifts in the ability of humans to kill other humans. First was the development of standing armies. A village or a city-state could not afford to keep large numbers of soldiers under arms permanently, but to hold an empire together it is almost a necessity to have a standing army. It can be historically shown that having a standing army, a society is far more likely to use it. And so we have the creation of the first permanent organizations dedicated to killing other human beings.
The second exponential shift was the development of more efficient means for said standing armies to kill other human beings. From the earliest “stand-off” weapons of long range archers and catapults to siege weapons for taking cities (to the eventual invention of gunpowder and cannon) combat became less about one-on-one battle and more about formation and “combined arms warfare”. Small unit tactics made combat a unit function, and not an individual function. Cavalry came into its own in order to increase mobility on and between battlefields, and armor was refined to the point of individual soldiers being able to perform as tanks might perform today (for the scale of their time).
The third shift came in how fast and how far these armies could move across land and sea. Before, when war meant long marches over broken, unprepared, unexplored terrain, it was rare for armies to travel too far from their homes. With the invention of roads, and an empire spanning network of towns and outposts, armies could travel long distances in relatively short times. In essence, we had standing armies with a greater ability to kill than had ever been seen before, and the ability to move faster and farther than had ever been envisioned.
And, the greater mobility of the military forces of an empire coincided with a greater mobility of trade and commerce. With this came two unexpected consequences… greater interdependence and the wider spread of disease. Before, if a town had a crop failure, it might mean a hard year for, and increased death in one particular town. Now, with a system of empire-wide trade and interdependence, the effects and increased death from that crop failure could be felt across large portions of that empire. And sometimes the empire might fall, and all of the towns and villages that had been interdependent now could no longer fend for themselves. One example would be the “Dark Ages” in Europe, but it is not the only one.
This was mitigated by trade, but with trade came disease. An outbreak in one area could be rapidly spread across a continent, and the concept of true plagues came into human existence. From small pox to the Black Death, humanity faced diseases spread in ways that had been unfathomable just a few hundred years before.
And so, Death became the Third Great Fear. Human Beings could kill each other like never before, and our connections and interdependence of empire only increased that death. And so, religions decreased their emphasis on personal morality, and increased the emphasis on worldly suffering being rewarded with heavenly eternal life. The next life will be better. The travails of this life are a test that will purify us for the world that is to come.
People began to seek assurance that they would be admitted to heaven in the next life. While Martin Luther railed later against the Roman Church selling such assurances of heavenly reward to those who could pay, such assurances were what was needed to ease the Third Great Fear. Death would not be the end, and the sufferings of this life would be rewarded in the next.
In order to control the fears of a military machine that might attack the religious if not so controlled, the cry of “God Wills It!” becomes common among these armies. From the later Roman Empire to the Crusades religion harnesses the power of the military to see that only the “right” people are killed. To kill and die as a soldier of the Crusades became a guarantee of heavenly reward… and even a forgiveness for sins, thereby trumping the “religion of morality”.
We enter into the time when religion names both the “Divine Right of Kings” and later John Calvin’s Doctrine of Pre-Destination as ways of allaying the Third Great Fear of Death. Much of western society is built around easing this fear, and we see the quest for eternal immortality all around us today. Even the early forms of American Universalism find its roots in the human reaction to the Third Great Fear.
All of these fears have something in common… they all find their roots in uncertainty. It is uncertainty that rests at the heart of the First Great Fear of Nature… uncertain what causes storms and earthquakes. It is uncertainty that rests at the heart of the Second Great Fear of humans… uncertain what other humans who are different than us might do to us. Uncertainty rests at the heart of the Third Great Fear of Death… uncertain about the meaning of death and suffering in this life, and if we have a life beyond this one.
And so, it is Uncertainty that is the Fourth Great Fear, and really the ultimate fear that rests behind them all. Religion as a whole can be understood as a series of responses to manifestations of the Fear of Uncertainty.
We have eased the fears that we human beings have of nature through gaining some limited control over nature, as well as quite a bit of understanding about nature (though certainly not complete). We know why earthquakes happen, and where storms and floods come from. We no longer look out of our caves into a natural world that is beyond all understanding.
We have eased the fears that we human beings have of each other, at least to a significant degree. While human beings continue to do horrible things to one another, both individually and en mass, these events are the exceptions, not the norm (at least in Western society, and not in war). Most people live moral and ethical daily lives, well within the boundaries of the moral codes and social contracts upon which our society is built. Our systems of justice give us at least the illusion that those who break those moral codes and social contracts will be punished. We still live with the tension of minorities who wish to impose their versions of morality upon the rest of society, and that tension is probably good for us. It keeps us from losing our social contracts through complacency. While it is not true in many other parts of the world, most of Western Society does not experience innate fear of death or harm when they meet someone they do not already know.
I don’t know how much we’ve eased the fears of death among us, but we have certainly found lots of ways to isolate ourselves from the reality of death. Death is such a fundamental part of our entertainment culture as to become almost unreal to us… something that happens on the television screen. We have more euphemisms for Death than we do for sex (passed away, pushing up daisies, kicked the bucket, etc). We’ve removed death from immediate experience by creating places for people to die, such as hospices and nursing homes. And, large portions of our society have accepted that there is an afterlife, and they have a ticket to it… almost regardless of personal morality. I even, in a way, agree with them… I do not know what happens to us after we die, but I believe that whatever it is, it happens to us all equally.
And so, I believe that the religious quest is coming down to the Fourth and penultimate Great Fear… the fear of uncertainty.
We see the “religious” reactions to the Fourth Great Fear of Uncertainty all around us… and most of that reaction is in exactly the same pattern that religions have followed since the dawn of time. If there is a fear of the unknown, then make it known. If there is a lack of certainty, then provide certainty. Doubt is the enemy; belief is your savior.
We see this in the rise of fundamentalist religions of all stripes: Fundamentalist Christians who believe that that particular interpretation of the Bible is the only truth. Fundamentalist Atheists who believe that any belief at all in a higher power is superstition, and all religions of the world are merely mass delusion. Fundamentalist Islamists who believe that they have a vision of God’s plan for the world, and that gives them the divine right to kill anyone who believes otherwise. Fundamentalist Free-market Economists who believe that if you could just perfect the free-market it would create a utopia of wealth for all. Fundamentalist Secularists who believe that there should be no interaction between religion and the human interactions of governance. Fundamentalist Environmentalists who believe we should all move out of our cities and back to some agrarian utopia that likely has not existed since the invention of fire… and was not that great to begin with (hence the rise of fire and civilization).
All of these groups, and the many times many more forms of fundamentalism that exist in our world, seek to allay the Fourth Great Fear of Uncertainty with certainty. They seek to ease the fear of human “not-knowing” with the certainty of “knowing”. They will give you the answer, and when the cracks in that answer appear (as happens to all certainties in an uncertain universe) they call upon the importance of faith defined as belief. Mystery is not enacted as a sense of awe and wonder, but as an excuse as to why the certainties they promulgate are not so certain upon rational reflection.
For no limited answer can ever hope to fully explain the limitless universe, or the boundlessness that is the Divine.
What we end up with is a society consisting of competing certainties… each certainty defended as if life depends on it. If your answer to the Fourth Great Fear of Uncertainty is to find some certainties, then in a sense life does depend upon those certainties. Others who believe in different certainties, and do not believe in your certainties are therefore threatening.
I believe our society is as polarized as it is because we have moved into the time of the Fourth Great Fear, and our society will remain polarized and in conflict so long as we continue to try and allay the Fear of Uncertainty with certainty. Unless of course we choose to use force to make everyone accept the same certainties…
Yet, there is another possible answer to the Fourth Great Fear of Uncertainty… and it is to learn to live with uncertainty. It is to make a friend of doubt… to see doubt not as a source of fear but as a signpost to deeper meaning and truth. It is to learn to roll with a universe that is ever changing, ever growing, and ever flowing. It is to yourself be ever changing, ever flowing, and ever growing. It is to realize that every answer always leads to more questions, and that in a universe as diverse and as amazing as God is divine, every answer is only an approximation.
Just as this entire essay, and this theory of the Four Great Fears, is also just an approximation. And it raises far more questions than it answers. Don’t expect me to be able to answer them all… but still ask them. That’s the point.
Rather than deny our doubts by a myth of certainty, the path to allaying the Fourth Great Fear of Uncertainty is to learn to live in an uncertain universe. To do so will change what it means to be human, and will change the meaning, purpose, and place of religion.
Yours in Faith,