One of the my favorite parts about having a second major in Religious Studies in Undergrad was the impromptu cross religious conversations that would occur. We would discuss our respective belief systems, where they came from, and how they evolved, in an open and nonjudgmental forum. We would expose each other to great religious thinkers and scholars from all over the world. No matter which religious system the people came from, we all seemed to join together around common themes, and we saw each other as brethren. It was intoxicating. It was at one of these parties that I heard probably the most astute and insightful statement about religion ever to be said.
“There are only two religions: Love and Fear.”
It’s amazing how accurate that simple statement was. Methodism, my religion growing up, was founded on the concept of methodical and reasoned reading of the bible, and came to the conclusion that Love is the main theme of the bible. Sufism followed a similar path, started with a fearful devotion in Islam, and concluded that Love was the real truth. You see the theme of Love pop up all over the world, from Tibet through to even the Americas. And when you see Love as the defining feature of a person’s beliefs, you produce your great and reasoned scholars, your great world leaders, your Dali Lamas, MLKs, and Ghandis.
And then there is the religion of Fear. This religion has been getting a lot of emphasis in recent years. From Pat Robertson to Fred Phelps, From the terrorism in the middle east to the wave of unconscionable legislation being passed today, the religion of Fear is dominating the conversation. You can hear this fear directly invoked by talk of Hell or Judgement, by pushing an idea that there is a side doomed, and a side that will be saved, and how far those of the religion of Fear will go to ensure their membership in the latter. Because this group’s Fear causes them to shout in perpetual desperation, it has dominated the conversation, to the point that people have forgotten that there is a second religion of Love out there.
So where do these two religions come from? How is it that the same religious structures can simultaneously create both worshipers of Love and Fear? And what are effects of following the respective paths?
I’ve frequently discussed the fundamental existential crisis of being human. We have near omnipotent and infinite creative and symbolic power while confined in a weak and finite material existence. This contradiction creates an awareness of our own mortality and a fundamental fear of it. When this fear of our mortality becomes active, we tend to cling to our symbolic structures, create in-groups and out-groups, and become more willing to accept acts of violence towards other. Fear in its extreme leads to a shut down of higher level thinking. The effects of this crisis can often be seen today, especially in the stupidity of the modern political discussion. When this Fear is active, it becomes self-perpetuating. You are fearful to protect yourself against danger, but the fear also reminds you that there is a danger of to be afraid of.
Love is the answer to the problem of terror. It challenges people to look past the in-groups and the out-groups and reunite us as a common whole. In Love, people become less invested in their own mortality and more concerned with the well being of others, leading to the safety that comes as people look out not just for themselves, but for each other. And in this safety, people are freer to explore, investigate, and transcend the symbolic structures erected for protection, allowing beliefs to evolve with compassion and reason.
The effects of the adherence to the respective religions of Love and Fear have been studied. The effects of the terror of fear, and their connection to violence and “culture warriors” have been seen in research. When wondering how religion could produce both peacemakers and warmongers, uniting leaders and divisive leaders, Gordon Allport proposed a theory of religious motivation. Those motivated by extrinsic needs, such as status, reward, avoiding punishment, and other factors that seem to reinforce the defensive structures, i.e. the religion of Fear, tended to be the ones more likely to do damage in the name of religion. Those motivated by the more extrinsic factors, such as community, self-development, and duty to others, i.e. the religion of Love, tended to be more rational, progressive and just. Research has been done on the effects of religion on mental health, and found that religious practice enhances psychological adjustment and mental health, but those benefits are generally seen among those intrinsically, not extrinsically, motivated towards religion*. When it comes to the effects on policy, the effects of policies based in fear and love are well known. Economic inequality is correlated with a large number of social problems,and programs based solely on enforcing cultural norms don’t tend to work.
So how do you promote the Religion of Love over that of Fear?
Every person has a choice as to what religion they follow. Whether you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, Pagan, or a member of any of the other in the multitude of religious thought, Love or Fear is the primary choice you make in pursuing your beliefs. Do you see yourself as the holder of a protective status, or as member of a universal community of man? Do you feel the need to attack another’s beliefs aggressively through insult and condemnation, passive-aggressively through mockery and derision, or passively by looking down on those who are different, or do you accept difference as a just a manifestation of a larger commonality of man? Can you accept the difference in others, or do their different beliefs bring up fearful or hateful actions? Can you see certain acts as inherently wrong because of the harm they do to others, or do you allow for some of these to be directed at people you see as “deserving it?” Each is a choice that centers on either Love or Fear. Each choice is also viral: Love breeds more Love and Fear breeds more Fear. When you can choose Love, you promote Love, for the betterment of yourself and others. But when you choose Fear, you see today its effects.
So which religion do you choose to follow?
* Fallot, R.D. (1998b) Assessment of Spirituality and Implications for Service Planning. In Fallot, R.D. (Ed.) Spirituality and Religion in Recovery from Mental Illness (pp. 13-24) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.