The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

A Life Without Fear?

Is it better to build a quake-proof home, or to pray over the rubble?

That is the premise of a flier from a Birmingham church delivered by mass mailing. In marketing terms, the church is selling their solution to the problem of fear. The recipe is not specific to this one church. Every organized religion offers a security blanket that reduces fear (1).

The flier reads:

They’re talking layoffs at work, slowdowns in the economy, flare-ups in the Middle East, downturns in the housing market, upswings in global warming. Fear, it seems, has taken a lease next door and set up shop. But what if faith, not fear, was your default reaction to the difficulties in life. Envision a day when you could trust more and fear less. At Crestline Church, we can.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

It is illustrated by a kid jumping off the deep end of a dock.

So organized religion offers a life without fear. The key question is not whether it delivers on that promise, but how.

How to reduce fear

Apart from taking anxiety-reducing drugs, there are two very different approaches to the problem of fear. Fear can be reduced by solving problems and minimizing an objective threat. Or fear can be reduced by tackling the emotion itself. Psychologists refer to these methods as problem-focused and emotion-focused coping, respectively.

No prizes for guessing which approach is advertised in the flier. Crestline Church is not about to tackle global warming, make peace in the Middle East, provide work for the unemployed, or even help turn around the housing market. Instead of addressing these problems, the church is going to alter how we feel about them. It is going to offer emotion-focused coping. 

Will that work? There is good evidence that religious rituals can reduce anxiety (2). Hence my earlier post arguing that religion is effectively a downer in terms of its effects on the brain. This lends credence to Karl Marx’s claim that religion is the opium of the people (3). For Marx, religion was a real impediment to revolutionary change because the proletariat could feel better about their situation without doing anything to improve their objective circumstances.

One might take the thought a step further and note that organized religions have no real incentive to solve practical problems. Indeed there is a perverse incentive because the worse conditions are, the more support religion garners (4). 

Religion thrives on misery

In addition to alcohol sales, religion is one of the few businesses that prospers in a recession. This is true because religion thrives on misery, taking an opportunistic approach to each of the many sources of misery that can beset us. Whether natural disasters, devastating illnesses, fear of sudden death, fear of occupational failure, or fear of being alone, there is no unpleasant experience that cannot boost religion.

We see this phenomenon with crystal clarity in comparing different countries

People living in the poorest countries of the world, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa are almost universally religious. Substantial levels of atheism are found only in the most developed countries of the world, such as Japan and the countries of Western Europe.

Statistical tests show that religion declines wherever the quality of life improves (5). In more secular countries, the quality of life of ordinary people is better than it has ever been before in history. This is true whether one looks at health, economic well-being, political freedom and human rights, happiness, or freedom from violence and crime. Conversely, religion is strongest in the most miserable places on earth.

Religion thrives on misery because it promises answers for fear and anxiety. Yet, we should recognize that religion does nothing to solve the underlying problems. When an earthquake hits, your chances are far better in godless California than they are in God fearing Haiti.

Building to an earthquake-proof code beats praying over the rubble of your home.

 

1. Barber, N. (2012, July 2). The security blanket concept of religion. Blog post. Accessed at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201207/the-se...

2. Paul-Labrador, M. D. Polk, J. H. Dwyer, I. Velasquez, S. Nidich, S., M. Rainforth, et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of transcendental meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166: 1218-1224.

3. Barber, N. (2012, February 16). Is religion just a downer? Blog post. Accessed at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201202/is-rel...

4. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...

5. Barber, N. (2010b, May 18). Why atheism will replace religion. Blog post. Accessed at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201005/why-at...

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

more...

Subscribe to The Human Beast

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.