Faith, fear, and religious certainty

Note: This essay only addresses Christianity, as it’s the only faith tradition I have much experience of. Some of the points might easily apply to other faiths, but I’m not a religious scholar and wouldn’t want to claim something I don’t know much about.

My first year of high school, my family moved from Montana to California, to one of those cities in the mesh of municipalities that fill the Bay Area between San Francisco and San Jose. We didn’t live there long—six months—but during that time I was fortunate enough to have a social studies teacher who taught lessons that still make me stop and think thirty years later. I can’t remember his name now, but there’s one lesson in particular that every now and then comes to mind followed by the thought, “It all makes so much sense now.”

He designed a unit in which he separated the class into groups, and each group was given a piece of paper describing an island we’d been stranded on. Some islands had easily accessible fresh water, some had no shade. Each was different, which meant it had its own challenges for each group of students to collectively manage.

At some point in the unit we’d been on the islands long enough to have children, and one day our teacher handed us papers saying that someone had died. Our problem for the day: What do we tell the children about what happened to the person? What happened to their body? What happened to them, the person, whatever it was that made them an individual? Would we all die? What happened after death?

Every single group except one came up with science- and reason-based explanations that were grounded but disconnected. When the outlier group presented, they instead read a list of concepts structured around a deity they’d invented. I remember sitting there in class listening to them present and being struck with the realization that they’d created a religion in response to the need to explain death, and that that had been the whole point of the day’s lesson.

The lesson left me with questions I’ve walked with ever since, like wondering whether or not humans need religion to deal with suffering. Or how faith can be a force for good without being turned into a tool for inflicting its own suffering through domination and control. If you started a society from scratch, could you steer it forward without some form of religious faith developing? Not really, was what I took from class that day. 

I have no idea when I became an atheist, or if I’ve always been one. I prayed to God* many times throughout my childhood and one Christmas made Jesus a birthday card. But I prayed because God being a real deity was part of the water I swam in, growing up in small-town Montana. There were no questions of faith—and certainly, as far as I knew at the time, no other religions—just Christianity. I don’t remember learning much about sin, which, judging from some of my recovering Catholic friends, was a lucky break. In the Presbyterian church I attended as a child, we were encouraged to behave in certain ways for the love of God, not for fear of retribution.

Later, when we started moving around to different towns, we went to an Episcopal Church and then a Lutheran. In the Lutheran church I took communion classes on Wednesday evenings and played a version of the game Life where you won if you behaved as Jesus did and ended up with fewer possessions and less wealth than everyone else.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad experience of Christianity. There was no fire and brimstone, no guilt, and not a whole lot of hell, just community and direction to aspire to Jesus’ examples.

The first time I remember expressing a lack of faith was when I was about twelve and having an argument with my mother in the garden of the house we were renting at the time. She was shocked when I said I didn’t believe in Jesus. I specified that I believed he was a real person but not the son of God. (Twelve-year-old girls know everything and nobody should argue with this.)

I wish I could remember where that idea came from. This was the late 1980s. There was no internet. My best friend at the time was a deeply devout Nazarene in a family of devout Nazarenes. Nowhere I’d yet lived had had a library that would have stocked what might have been called questionable material. I’d almost always lived in small Montana towns where Christianity was, again, the water you swam in. Where would I have come across the idea that it was possible to not believe in God, that it was a matter of faith rather than of fact?

I have no idea. All I know is that growing up, it had never occurred to me that being Christian required faith or that faith was something people struggled with. God was. Heaven was. Hell was, even if it didn’t play a big role in the teachings I received. Faith requires grappling with knowing that you can never prove the existence of any of it. That’s the whole point. I never had faith; I had just accepted what I was told was true. Most kids do up to a point.

Early in the 2000s I heard an interview with a nun, either with Bill Moyers or on Krista Tippett’s radio show that was then called Speaking of Faith (now a podcast called On Being), who said that it wasn’t faith that was difficult, it was doubt. I’ve wondered about that tension ever since, between faith and doubt, and find myself drawn to stories by people struggling with both.

Sadly, much of what we think of faith doesn’t seem to be faith at all; it’s fear. The role of fear in religious commitment is understated. I know many former believers who still have a knee-jerk fear response to certain actions or opinions because they were raised with the threat of hell and the shame of sin. Or others who remain within their faith traditions, afraid to openly question, because to leave the faith means leaving family, friends, and the only community they’ve ever known. Some live in secret, pretending, because to admit their lack of faith would open them up to unfathomable loss. They can shed the faith but not the fear.

I ran into a wonderful essay a few weeks ago in The Point by Meghan O’Gieblyn, who was raised Baptist, about the role of hell in her faith tradition. She attended Moody Bible Institute for college, a place she describes as one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the country. There, she started grappling theologically with the concept of hell seriously for the first time: 

“One of the most invidious tasks of the conservative theologian is to explain how a loving God can allow people to suffer for all of eternity. God is omnipotent and Paul claims it is his divine will that all people should be saved—yet hell exists. . . . In layman’s terms, the argument our professors gave us went something like this: God is holy by nature and cannot allow sin into his presence (i.e. into heaven). He loves all humans—in fact, he loves them so much that he gave them free will, so that they could choose to refuse salvation. In this way, people essentially condemned themselves to hell.”

Her problems began when she started thinking about the sheer number of people in the world who hadn’t yet received the good word and were therefore automatically condemned to eternity in hell. “Jesus said that ‘no man comes to the Father, but by me,’ and we had to take this word for word as the truth, meaning it included those who had no idea who Jesus was,” wrote O’Gieblyn. “Technically, I’d known this since I was a kid (after all, if the unreached could get to heaven some other way, what would be the point of sending missionaries?), but I’d never paused to consider the implications.” 

O’Gieblyn covers the evolution of hellish imaginings from Christianity’s early beginnings through the 2011 publication of pastor Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, which she describes as presenting hell not as a literal place but as a “refining process by which all of the sins of the world, but not the sinners, are burned away”—because human societies begin to deal with problems like social injustice and inequality, which Bell posits as the real hell—and the ensuing backlash from evangelical leaders who need a literal hell to ground their theology. They need it because what is Christianity, after all, without the story that Jesus’ sacrifice is what redeems humanity’s sins? If there is no threat of hell, then what is the point of salvation?

I sometimes get into these types of questions with a rabbi friend of mine, though of course for Judaism the theology is very different and not one I’m familiar with. We tend to land on the high-level stuff, like one conversation a couple of years ago where I was telling her about an interview I’d heard with a Christian faith leader answering the eternal question, “Where was God when [those children died, the bombs fell, the flood destroyed that town, etc., etc.]?” and he answered with the familiar concept of God gifting humanity with free will, which O’Gieblyn also addresses in her essay and which I’ve heard a hundred times.

The faith leader I’d heard was trying to answer a question someone had asked about the suffering allowed by an all-powerful God. So I told this story to my rabbi friend while we ate lunch and said that it was something I, too, could never get past. She said something I’d never heard before: What if God isn’t all-powerful? What if God’s just . . . God?

In which case, I wondered and I think said at the time, what’s the point? If God isn’t all-powerful, then why does anyone worship Him? Why live by His laws, especially when many of those laws themselves cause suffering? And if He is all-powerful, then He has some explaining to do.

Again, being an atheist, I don’t actually believe that God exists. These are just questions that I wonder about—specifically, wonder why people of faith don’t ask them more frequently. And then I remember how much of religion is based on fear. You’re not meant to question because you might go to hell or at least not be admitted into heaven or suffer some other form of punishment. God is love, but God is also vengeful.

Sometimes I think heaven needs a revolution but if I remember my Bible that’s how we got hell in the first place.

Much of the time it seems that faith is less about faith and more about certainty, about fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. I’ve had random strangers talk to me on airplanes about hell and what God wants of us—usually in relationship to homosexuality because that seems to trigger particular groups of Christians more than almost anything else—pressing upon me their absolute convictions. This kind of thing happens to me a lot and it makes me almost physically itchy, feeling like they’re trying to drive their need for absolutes, for a life with guidance and without questions, beneath my skin. This is your problem, I want to tell them, not mine. Stop trying to make me feel your angry, panicked faith. 

That need for certainty, for absolutes without doubt, drives many of our social, cultural, and political problems. Mass media and shallow-thinking politicians have branded this “culture wars” but it’s really just about a need for certainty clashing with a willingness to explore doubt.

The desperate grasp at absolutes erupted visibly over the last year, as the QAnon conspiracy skyrocketed into public consciousness. The conspiracy theory’s relationship with evangelical Christianity was hard to ignore. Sometime last summer I came across this piece in MIT Technology Review about an evangelical pastor struggling—and failing—to keep his flock from tumbling down the rabbit hole. It shows the difficulties of maintaining trust and faith, even with people you’ve known for years, in the face of something far more attractive and absolutely poisonous.

“Suddenly he understood that his efforts to protect his congregation from covid-19 had contributed to a different sort of infection. Like thousands of other church leaders across the United States, Frailey had shut down in-person services in March to help prevent the spread of the virus. Without these gatherings, some of his churchgoers had turned instead to Facebook, podcasts, and viral memes for guidance. And QAnon, a movement with its own equivalents of scripture, prophecies, and clergy, was there waiting for them.

The link within that above quote is to an opinion piece in Religion News Service that’s also worth reading if you’re interested in what pastors have faced trying to help steer their flock in the face of this dazzling new distraction: 

“For years in the 1980s and ’90s, U.S. evangelicals, above nearly any other group, warned what will happen when people abandon absolute truth (which they located in the Bible), saying the idea of relative truth would lead to people believing whatever confirms their own inward hunches. But suspicion of big government, questioning of scientific consensus (on evolution, for example) and a rejection of the morals of Hollywood and liberal elites took hold among millennial Christians, many of whom feel politically alienated and beat up by mainstream media. They are natural targets for QAnon.”

I sympathize with the need for certainty and guidance. I loved that about church as a child: everything started at exactly the same time each week, the physical space was tidy and orderly, God loves you and if you live like Jesus you can’t go wrong. I knew when to sit, when to stand, and which hymns we were singing that day. The ceremony and ritual didn’t inspire awe but they did provide comfortable predictability. 

But even as QAnon’s relationship with evangelicals gets swathes of coverage, there are those who ache for something deeper, something perhaps less dazzling, something, it seems to me, more willing to face doubt’s role in the search for faith. Like this essay in The American Scholar about evangelicals—specifically, charismatic Christians, who seem to be particularly prone to a craving for drama and a sense that they belong to something glorious—stepping away from the luster of megachurches and starting to see their theatrics for the emotional manipulations that they are: “They had grown up in the megachurches of the evangelical right but could no longer stand the politics or, just as often, the services, during which they felt manipulated.” (There’s a good line about the partner of one of the interview subjects, who had done music for a megachurch and started to realize exactly how he was being asked to elicit emotion.)

I can sympathize with much of this—the need for certainty, the craving for deeper meaning, and especially for a deity who speaks directly to you like a caring parent and provides all the answers you need. I just don’t happen to believe in any of it and, maybe even more importantly, strongly object to any of it controlling my life or the lives of my family members, friends, or, frankly, anyone else.

Despite the fact that the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian is falling—down over the last decade by ten points to 65%—the faith still shapes much of our lives. I’ve heard arguments that religion is going to die out or that it will disappear and good riddance, but those arguments hold no water with me. When that freshman social studies teacher elicited the creation of religion from probably the smartest group in our class, he allowed us to see on our own not only how religious myths begin but the kinds of needs they answer. I’m in the middle of raising children. The questions, “Why do people (and beloved pets) die?” and “What happens when we die?” are not something that come out of nowhere, and they can be very difficult to answer when you don’t have a faith tradition to lean on. 

I was going to include discussion of the first amendment freedom of religion clause in this essay, and how we fail to apply it to faiths that aren’t in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but this is already long so I’ll save it for another time. Instead, I’m going to end by quoting my own book, which I don’t think I’ve done before. First time for everything. From the last chapter, titled “Meander,” shortly after I’d walked a labyrinth at the 900-year-old Norwich Cathedral in England:

“The call of faith may be waning, but the place of a church or the synagogue or the mosque or the temple hasn’t yet been filled by anything else. These are the places where people see one another on a regular, frequent basis, where they meet and get to know one another in a context of assumed shared values.

Neighborhoods build similar fabric, if they’re allowed to. If people can see one another face-to-face on a regular basis, walk the same sidewalks, engage in the organic daily activities of work, life, child-rearing, food, education, leisure. . . . People build trust over many years and countless interactions.”

Communities, I strongly believe, can begin to repair our social fabrics. There’s no reason that faith, if engaged in from a healthy place of love and acceptance, rather than domination, can’t remain part of that. After all, if we were stranded on a desert island and had to shape society from scratch, we’d probably develop religion just the same, if not in the original generation then likely in the second or third. But maybe we could do it a little differently. Judging by some of the exvangelical movements and the fact that atheists like me are a little less uncommon than they used to be, we might already be starting.

*In general, I don’t capitalize the word “god” in my writing. It’s a personal style choice that reflects my attempt to use the word in a way that encompasses as many faith traditions as possible. I’m capitalizing it here because I am only talking about the specific Christian deity.