Blaise Pascal wrote that men hate religion and “are afraid it is true.” But can we agree with him? Some have made clear a hatred for it, but do they fear it? And what about the wider culture? Do people today, generally speaking, fear religion?

The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking once heckled that the idea of an afterlife is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Rather famously in response, Oxford mathematician John Lennox suggested that perhaps the inverse is true, that atheism is just “a fairy story for those afraid of the Light.” Naturally, Dr. Lennox’s witty quip has produced (and continues to produce) a hearty ensemble of chuckles from approving theist hearers. But in his reply to Hawking, the Oxford professor touched on a much deeper and more serious cultural phenomenon than perhaps is initially grasped, namely, the “fear of religion.”

“Men despise religion,” wrote the great seventeenth-century polymath Blaise Pascal in his Pensées: “They hate it and are afraid it is true.”[1] At first blush we might wonder whether this is a bit of an exaggeration on Pascal’s part. Is it really true to say that men fear, let alone despise, religion? Perhaps to some extent. The late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other propagators of the New Atheism, for instance, have made it clear that they have a legitimate hatred of religion. Few would dispute this. But do they fear it? And what about the wider culture? Do people today, generally speaking, fear and despise religion?

Christopher Hitchens was a skeptic of religion who made no bones about his distaste for it. Hitchens believed “religion poisons everything,” and seized upon many an opportunity to publicly devangelize and promote his anti-religious worries. In his best-selling book of essays, provocatively titled God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he betrays real concern when he warns: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”[2]

A real fear and detestation of religion is clearly evident in such an indictment. How should we understand this unity? St. Thomas Aquinas writes that “all fear arises from love; since no one fears save what is contrary to something he loves.”[3] The idea is that fear arises out of the potential of losing something loved. Fear presupposes love, then, because without it one would have (as the saying goes) “nothing to lose.” In a general sense, then, we could say that fear is the desire—if not the choice—to avoid that which may result in the loss of what is loved. And if this is right, then it is not hard to see why one would despise what he also fears, for one’s success in avoiding that which he fears will be significantly compounded by abhorrence.

Fear breeds avoidance as a kind of safety measure, as a “step back” from that which poses a threat. Hitchens and his New Atheist comrades thought that things like tolerance, rationality, sexual autonomy, female dignity, and education are all human goods; and in some sense—at least at the level of the terms themselves—we can agree with them. But they also believed that “religion” is the chief cultural threat against these human goods. Therefore, religion should be avoided; and for some, it should be eradicated.

In his book, The Last Word, eminent philosopher and atheist Thomas Nagel concludes with a chapter called, “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” In it, he suggests that unlike empiricism which gives primacy to sense experience, there is a sort of “religious flavor” to rationalism or the belief that what is most real is most fully and purely grasped by the intellect. His overarching point seems to be that the integration between the mind (whatever it is) and the world (“why-ever” it is) is a great big conglomeration of mystery. What is the mind? Why does the world exist though it need not? And why does the mind link up with the world as it does? Dr. Nagel thinks the deep-seated intelligibility of the world is a great enigma and poses profound existential questions to those who are serious enough to admit it. “The thought that the relation between mind and the world is something fundamental makes many people in this day and age nervous,” he admits.[4]

But why be nervous? Well, perhaps because people despise religion and are afraid it is true. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger argued in his widely-revered Introduction to Christianity, the mathematically structured world before us compels us to believe that its ultimate explanation is something both intelligent and creative. As we look out at the world we see not only what is, not just being, but at a deeper level we perceive that which is being-thought.[5] But intelligibility presupposes an intellect to make it so—and it is not our minds that make the world so. Therefore, it must be an intellect which is not our own that explains the intelligibility of the universe. Moreover, the beauty adds to the enigma. So, the explanation of the universe must be both unimaginably rational and creative. This we call God.

Dr. Nagel observes that most people who pledge their allegiance to the sciences without any real hope for a divine explanation, people who don’t want the universe to be like that—people who are, in some real sense, afraid of religion—are inevitably going to resort to formulating new (and perhaps radical) physical hypotheses to explain the world’s great mysteries. Indeed, Dr. Nagel humbly and transparently identifies himself as one of these people. Many will turn to materialism, or the belief that matter is at the foundation of reality, and from there conclude that the human being is, at bottom, just a complex bag of chemicals with “no more free will than a bowl of sugar” (to quote biologist Anthony Cashmore).[6]

Dr. Nagel on the other hand has proposed—albeit in an interesting and philosophically subtle way—that instead of materialism, we need to radically rewrite naturalism to include the immaterial in its definition. If things like consciousness and morality exist objectively (and Dr. Nagel believes they do) then we need to open the doors wide to something like the metaphysical. Not a hard task for the theist. But for Dr. Nagel and other such atheists, the only option is to smuggle the supernatural into the naturalistic picture and to call it “natural.”

Or perhaps another option is to seriously consider whether Aristotle was right all along, that there is a built-in teleology of the cosmos and everything in it. Perhaps the universe was ordered towards the rising of consciousness. Dr. Nagel takes this possibility seriously, but has no idea how we might work this out philosophically. It remains an idea. But to begin taking steps back towards an Aristotelian view of reality (and his metaphysical view in particular) would be to begin putting back into place all the premises necessary for the conclusion that God exists. That is what the formidable twentieth-century atheist philosopher Antony Flew discovered just over one decade ago. It took him until near the end of his life to take Aristotle seriously; and when he did he found himself admitting to the world that, in fact, there is a God. Granted, Aristotle did not make Flew into a religious man. But he sure steered him on the right track. Perhaps it was a genuine fear of religion that prevented Flew from going the whole distance.

Of course, when all this business about re-writing naturalism arises, the question that subsequently accompanies that idea to the surface for many is, why not just concede with the theists that there is more to reality than the natural? Why not admit that there is a supernatural aspect of existence. Here’s one hypothesis: fear of religion. Indeed, Dr. Nagel boldly and transparently admits this much when he writes, “I am talking about . . . the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.” Dr. Nagel is not talking here of a fear of religious violence or moral bigotry. Such fear may indeed be warranted in certain times and places, but the fear he admits to having is something more existential. He admits to a “cosmic authority problem” and he feels strongly that this is “not a rare condition.” I think he is probably right.

New Age spirituality has taken off over past decades, and this is far from ground breaking news. It is everywhere. A surge in enthusiasm for things like Eastern meditation techniques, Reiki, crystals, astrology, Feng Shui, the recreational use of psychedelic drugs, and other like practices have betrayed a real interest in the mystical in the general populus. Yet these people often want nothing to do with religion. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding has been put on public display repeatedly by sociological groups like the Pew Research Service, showing that the religiously unaffiliated continues to grow in number. Interestingly, those same research organizations have also shown that even among the unaffiliated, there remains a strong belief in some kind of transcendent reality.

Why does such a widespread cosmic authority problem exist despite the fact that so many people remain “spiritual” at the core? Perhaps it is just that—the fear of not being the master of one’s own universe. New Age has much of the appeal of theism: it offers the existence of a power above ourselves—albeit a power that is more like a force than a father—which can provide for us what we cannot provide for ourselves, and yet makes no significant demands on our life. Such a “Life Force philosophy,” as C.S. Lewis called it, gives us the possibility of obtaining for ourselves all that we might want, but without asking for anything in return. No moral duties. No obligations to worship. It is a ticket to live and let live—with the possibility of a little help when needed. Lewis put it starkly on point in Mere Christianity:

[The Life Force philosophy] gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences. When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children.[7]

I think this gets us thinking rightly about the whole issue. The problem goes right back to the Garden of Eden. People want to be their own gods. But “religion” (at least as it is broadly understood) takes that possibility away. The fear of religion, we might say, is not truly a fear of religion at all. The “fear of religion” as Pascal meant it and as Thomas Nagel means it, is a fear of losing what one takes to be the best in life: autonomy, authority, and independence. It is a fear of losing what they take to be everything, an “everything” which for Pascal was ultimately nothing compared to what awaits on the other side of this life.

Pascal tells us that diversion and indifference are the chief defense mechanisms for those who fear religion—and God knows how prevalent these symptoms are in our culture. Modern critics of “organized religion” believe there is far too much at stake if they were to give up the world for the sake of eternity. For them it is not worth the wager. But I wonder if those who fear religion have ever really thought about whether they might have it all inside out? I wonder if they have ever considered the possibility that only an explicitly religious worldview can adequately ground those powers they love and cling to so tightly, and offer a context of existence within which such powers as autonomy, authority, and independence can most truly and forcefully be unleashed for the good?

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[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 12, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1995), 4.

[2] Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, (Toronto, ON: Emblem, 2008), 56.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 125, 2, at DHS Priory.

[4] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 130.

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster and Michael J. Miller, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 153-155.

[6] A.R. Cashmore, “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system,” PNAS 107, no. 10 (2010), 4499-4504.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.

The featured image is “The Prayer in the Garden” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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