Fear: A justifiable foundation for belief?
Fear is a powerful emotion. It can completely change the way our brain functions. When an animal is running for its life from a predator, it’s sympathetic nervous system takes over and changes the functioning of its body. The brain hopped up on fear shuts down regular functions such as digestion. It raises the heartbeat, dilates the pupils, and directs blood flow away from other organs and tissues and toward the lungs and limbs. Suffice it to say, it’s difficult to think clearly during fearful situations, let alone rationalize.
When we experience fear, we lean toward automatic reactions. That’s been programmed into our brains thanks to our instinct of self-preservation. Our brains tell us “Don’t think! Just be safe!” and that is why making decisions based on fear is not always a good idea. If your being chased by a mountain lion, then by all means, don’t think–just run away. But what if the thing causing your fear is less concrete, empirically speaking, than a charging cougar? In those instances we have to tell our sympathetic nerves to shut up for a second while we asses the situation. We have to examine the basis for fear before we give in to it.
Many of the arguments for putting faith in God are based on fear. Pascal’s Wager takes advantage of fear by claiming it is better to believe in God just in case, so that we can avoid the punishment of hell if, by some chance it exists. Likewise many Christians cite Hebrews 6:4-8 as a reason to continue their belief. The verses are considered a threat to deter wayward souls from apostatizing. It warns that a person who was once a Christian and has fallen away may never be redeemed ever again. It asserts that there is at least one unpardonable sin, one thing you can do that will get you into hell for sure: renouncing your faith in the Christian trinity.
If we want to think critically, we have to ask ourselves if fear is ever a justifiable foundation for belief. Is fear a good reason to believe in anything?
When I was a kid I had an older cousin who told me electric eels lived in the pipes of my pool, and that they would bite me if I swam past. For days I was scared to go into the pool because I really didn’t want to get bitten by an electric eel, but finally I decided that I could either keep being scared forever, or look in the pipes and see if there were really eels hiding there. So I looked, and guess what, no eels! I learned that the basis of my fear was false.
As rational beings, we must examine critically the basis of any claim before we give into its fear mongering. As a Christian, when I began having doubts about the existence of God I was scared by Hebrews 6:4-8. I was scared of the threat of hell, scared of letting down God, scared of disrespecting him, scared that I was spitting into the face of Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice for me, scared that my name would be written out of the book of life, and scared that I was wrong. But I decided, rater than give into that fear, I had to examine the basis. I looked for empirical, non-emotional proof for the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful creator God. I found nothing. No proof of something called a “soul,” no proof of bottom-up design, no proof of anything supernatural. My fear was without basis, and no longer became a source of fear at all.
I found no proof of eels in my pool, but I could have continued to be afraid. I could have insisted that the eels were invisible, that my eyes weren’t well-equip to see them, that they were really there but I had failed to notice. The next time I went swimming I still avoided the pipes. I still had the emotional fear that the eels were there, even if I could find no proof of them. But that emotion didn’t make the eels real, and I decided that I had to let go of the fear because I really wanted to enjoy swimming that summer. Likewise, I decided I had to let go of God, despite my inner fears, because there was no proof of him either.
In my opinion, fear is the most powerful emotion that can obscure our powers of reason. We have to constantly rise above our evolutionarily programed instincts and rationalize in the face of fear.