Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | February 24, 2010

The God Scare

We don’t think well when we are afraid. We tend to do all the wrong things. We focus on what we fear rather than on valid alternatives, inducing us to engage with what we fear and disregard the alternatives. After a while, we get familiar and accustomed to the situation. Preferring a known evil to an unknown good, we become suspicious of alternatives that might eliminate what we fear. Eventually we learn to manage the situation. At that point, alternatives that would eliminate what we fear would also eliminate the mastery that we have gained over it. Our own egos can then stand between us and a release from what we fear. The model of addictive behavior applies quite well to the way that we tend to deal with fear.

When we interact with each other about subjects that are “safe,” we tend to have relaxed, open attitudes. We like to enjoy our interactions when possible, provided our ability to enjoy them isn’t hindered. We laugh, we tease, we listen and question with interest, and we explain openly.

When a conversation approaches our “safe” boundaries, and especially if someone seems bent on crossing those boundaries, we get anxious. It is visible. Our facial expressions and body language show that we have become guarded, defensive. Our attention shifts from the subject that we were discussing to the direction that the discussion seems to be taking us. We start setting limits and reinforcing our boundaries. We focus on the terms of the discussion instead of its content. Instead of matters of what did or did not happen or of what is or is not true, we start making a point of what is or is not appropriate. All of these are signs that we have disengaged, that we are no longer discussing but defending. Fear might seem like a strong term to use in this connection, but anxiety, disengagement, and defensiveness indicate some level of fear is behind them.

All my life I’ve been baffled by the behavior I encounter when I try to talk with people about god. At times it’s been quite humorous. The conversation can be  relaxed, going along smoothly. Then someone brings up the notion of god, and people tense up. It’s as if they put on their “now I’m dealing with the topic of god” hats and brace themselves for what’s coming next. On the other hand, if someone brings up the subject of reptilian aliens and their role in the development of civilizations, you don’t see nearly the same defensive reactions. It’s always puzzled me.

“Serious” and scholarly works on the subject of the existence of God strive to remove discussion from the emotional factors that the subject can so easily drag in. I think that this is a mistake. I think that the strong emotional reactions that we have towards the subject of god are important and indicative. Ignoring them and placing the discussion into a non-emotional context might benefit the discussion, but it does little for our understanding of the subject and ourselves.

What is more important, the way that we frame the discussion about god’s existence or the biases that skew our approach to framing the discussion? Should we focus our energies on devising ways to manage the discussion which avoid the problems of the emotion that the subject generates, or should we try to understand why we get so emotional about it.

In talking to people about god, it has become clear to me that the difficulties I encounter result from fear and attempts to deal with that fear. Obviously, it is a difficult task to talk to people about god when they would rather that god didn’t exist, especially when the reason that they would rather god didn’t exist is that the possibility frightens them. If even those who believe that god exists are afraid of god, how easy will the conversation be then.

Are believers and atheists in fact afraid of god? I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility. Humor me.

Consider the closed-minded certainty of believers. We have come to accept it, even expect it. We actually have a special term for such certainty: “faith.” “Faith” to most means conviction apart from reasonable support, belief in spite of the absence of evidence, a mental version of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. We don’t allow this kind of mental miracle to play into other aspects of life, which is why most regard “faith” as a religious or “spiritual” matter. When the conversation turns to the topic of god, for some reason, we think that mental miracles are to be expected.

“Faith” is uniquely predicated on the assumption that we have no justification for what we believe. Lacking reasonable, evidential support is precisely what makes it “faith.” Attempting to justify “faith” somehow detracts from it and shows that our “faith is weak” or that we “lack faith.” Some like to say that “faith is its own reason,” which is just another way of saying that it justifies itself. This is to say that we have no justification for believing other than the fact that we do it. This kind of “faith” is what Richard Dawkins likes to call a “skyhook.” A skyhook supports what hangs from it, but we just can’t figure out how the skyhook itself manages to keep from falling to the ground. On the other hand, if we have a reason to believe, or even more, if we have evidence that supports our belief, we don’t call it “faith..

If unjustified belief is fair, taking the next step is also fair. If we need no justification to believe, neither do we need justification to reject criticism of our “faith.” With this additional step “faith” becomes closed-minded, a certainty that entertains no contradiction, a claim on truth that rejects conflicting information simply because it conflicts. In other contexts we think that closed-minded certainty is a problem. Why do we think that it’s acceptable, desirable, or unavoidable when it comes to god.

Closed-minded certainty is “closed” for a reason. It is a defensive position. A closed mind precludes unwanted possibilities that an open mind would consider. Believing that something is certain because we refuse to admit the possibility that it is not certain is a strange kind of certainty. It doesn’t intimate confidence. Such “faith” is in a very real sense a denial, a denial of possibilities that we don’t want to admit or consider. This kind of certainty is more a matter of insistence than conviction. Instead of confidence, it intimates fear. There are plenty of people who insist that god exists and that god is the kind of god that they say that god is, dammit! This is not the same as being confident that god exists and that god is the kind of being that they are discovering god to be. It surely is not the kind of open, confident certainty that I find attractive. Faith should be about confidence. Denial just isn’t faith, and we should stop calling it that. Denial is about fear.

Outsiders, on the other hand, look at the chaos of the believing world and are justifiably alarmed. The chaos alone is alarming. In light of the fact that adherents of The Almighty are the ones who foment it, the chaos is freakish, terrifying. The chaos only confirms and aggravates the threat that the unknown menace of “god” poses to those who choose not to participate in “faith.” The antagonism of believers towards atheists who choose not to participate, a choice that is clearly their right, would close the mind of any right-thinking person to the subject of god. Evangelicals, these are the souls that you are trying to save, souls that believers in large part are responsible for alienating.

(As pointed out to me many times, atheists do not believe in gods. It is a monotheist’s presumptive bias to think that atheists don’t believe in god..

I have asked many who stand outside the believing community, (I’m being generous to call it a “community,”) what led them to adopt a position outside it. I have been most interested in those who at one point considered the question of the existence of gods with an open mind and then decided on atheism. Some had entertained hopes for a god or gods, but got disillusioned by the behavior of believers. Others became disillusioned when they were unable to make sense of the matter, especially in light of the conflicting and crazy notions of believers.

Interestingly, our psychology is such that disillusionment rarely results from introducing something positive. When beliefs are shattered by new awareness and understanding, we call it things like “enlightenment” or “awakening” or “revelation” or something else of the sort. Atheists seem to prefer to focus on the enlightenment of their atheism and ignore the disillusionment to which their atheism was an enlightened resolution. And once they are so resolved, atheists can exhibit a closed-minded certainty that gods do not exist which is reminiscent of the closed-minded certainty of believers that gods do exist, along with everything that entails.

It’s interesting that most atheists don’t seem aware or concerned that they assume a notion of the god or gods that they don’t believe exist. Holding such notions is necessary if the terms “gods” and “atheism” are to have any discernible meaning. It also limits the set of deities that they don’t believe exist to the ones that match their notions. What sense would it make for atheists to say that they don’t believe that anything that could possibly be considered a god exists? This would be to say that the existence of gods is impossible. What basis does anyone have to make such a claim? It seems very closed-minded.

Even if the gods matching atheists’ notions of them do not in fact exist, it could always be that other gods exist of which atheists have no conception. After all, if they have never conceived of them, how could they be at all certain that they have never encountered them? If they can’t be certain that they haven’t encountered such unknown gods, on what grounds can they claim that unknown gods do not exist? It’s good to notice that this little line of argument is logically sound but persuasively weak. It is weak because almost no one, atheist or believer, puts as much stock in reason and logic as he or she does in instinctive, intuitive senses about what is and isn’t real. Facts, evidence, reason, logic; all of it can mean nothing when faced with closed-minded certainty. Such is human hubris: we expect that reality will at any point in time automatically adjust to fit within the confines of our beliefs about it.

It’s also interesting that most atheists’ notions of god or gods usually involve the kinds of beings that most of us would be glad to not believe in. I have yet to meet an atheist who became one because god or gods are too loving, too good, too powerful, and too real to be true. I agree with atheists more often than not. The gods that they don’t believe in are the ones that I don’t believe in either.

Atheists are clearly frightened by the ludicrous and dangerous behavior of believers, as are many believers. I suspect that underneath this, atheists are also frightened by the possibility that the gods around which this dangerous and insane behavior revolves might also exist. They certainly are intent on precluding that possibility. This is understandable. After all, they have adopted a precarious position. The position that gods do not exist can be falsified. All it would take to shatter the atheist’s position is credible evidence that shows that a god or gods do indeed exist. The opposing position, that god or gods do exist, cannot be falsified. It would require omniscience to determine that no gods exist anywhere or existed at any time. Atheists and believers alike know that this will never happen. This makes atheism a more vulnerable position and puts atheists at a disadvantage in the argument, er, discussion with believers. I think that this might be why atheists are so eager to put the “burden of proof” in this discussion onto believers, though I’m not clear on their rationale for the handicap.

The certainty of believers and the certainty of unbelievers are like two sides of the same coin. Believing or unbelieving, these certainties tend to not be reasonably justified or supported by evidence. These certainties often become closed-minded, betraying their apparent confidence by indicating their roots in fear. The unknown and the uncontrollable frighten us, whether we claim that it exists or that it does not exist. Claiming that something does not exist is often just a way of coping with the possibility that it does. Gods are things that none of us knows much about. Gods are things that none of us has much control over. Believer and unbeliever alike, gods tend to frighten us.

Maybe the real question is not whether gods exist. Maybe the important issue is not whether that question can be answered. Maybe we should focus less on our chosen position on the question of god and start understanding the emotions that drive our interest in taking a position.

What if the real question is: What scares us so much about god or gods, and is there any reason to be scared?

Maybe we just haven’t been thinking clearly.



  1. You would love to talk to my dad. He loves to talk about religion and is a student of religious study informally. I will try to get him to look at your blog or invite you for a visit when he is up sometime.

    • I’d love that! The need I feel the most is for discussion with interested people!

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