Did the religions scare us too?

Fear: Spirituality: With God's help

Religion and fear are inextricably linked. Those who believe in the supernatural can feel encouraged - or become awesome

“And the angel said to them: Do not be afraid! Behold, I bring you great joy. ”Everyone who attends a church service at Christmas will hear this sentence from the Bible (or a variant). “Do not be afraid!” In these words, which the angel calls out to the shepherds in the pasture, hides a central message of Christianity, indeed of all belief in the supernatural. Because religion and fear are inextricably linked. Quite a few philosophers and psychologists, theologians and anthropologists even assume that humans only tend to believe in supernatural worlds and powers because they are afraid. Because the unfathomable complexity of the world terrifies him, because everything unknown, incomprehensible and impenetrable arouses fear in him.

Probably from a need for security homo sapiens once developed the conviction that transcendent forces, i.e. forces that exceed the world of experience, influence life, guide the weather and the stars, animals and plants. To our ancestors, as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it in 1878 in his book “Menschliches, Allzumenschliches”, the “uncomprehended, terrible, mysterious nature had to appear as the realm of higher power, even as God”. Perhaps that is why there was a memorable act in the history of human development in the Middle East, not far from present-day Nazareth, a good 95,000 years ago: when a young person died of the consequences of a fractured skull, his fellow human beings did not just leave his body there (as did was probably previously common with their ancestors). Instead, people buried the body. They dug a pit, put the deceased in it, turned him on his back, bent his legs slightly, placed his hands next to his neck and placed parts of a mighty deer antler on the palms of the hands, which were turned upwards. Just as if he were offering it to a ruler. This burial was presumably the first ceremonial burial in human history (at least archaeologists have not yet found any older and undisputed traces of such burials). And, perhaps more importantly, it is the first evidence of belief in a transcendent world into which the deceased crosses.

Because a central element of all faith is concern for the fate of the dead. The prospect that our life is finite always works in us; it is an archaic source of fear. We see that everything will pass - and yet we have to live. Especially when impermanence takes over our consciousness, when we experience infirmity, illness, misfortune or death, we plunge into a terrifying feeling of senselessness.

Belief in higher worlds can help people alleviate the agony of the monstrous question of "why". Almost every religion devises an explanation of why we exist, where we come from, and where we are going. Then nothing is meaningless any more, not even death. Because everything follows a bigger plan - and everything bad doesn't last.

In Judaism it is said that God takes the spirit and soul of every person into himself: into a heavenly beautiful, but ultimately indescribable kingdom. Christians also hope for eternal life in the sight of God, a state of happiness. Muslims can long for an existence in the gardens of paradise. Theologians argue about whether they see God. In Hinduism, death is just another step in a cycle of rebirths. Breaking this cycle is the goal of believers - in order to achieve perfect unity with the divine. In Buddhism, too, humans are reborn after death, again as humans, as animals or plants. If the believer succeeds in stepping out of this cycle through his right way of life, he enters nirvana - a happy state in which the ego dissolves. Belief, one could say, alleviates the fear of impermanence and uncontrollability. He can bring hope when we are afraid.

If we lose trust in our own strengths, in other people, in the world, then there is always something higher: an inexplicable but absolute order of things. Just as a child trusts its parents and puts themselves into their hands, so the believer seeks “trust in God”. In prayers and chants he asks for assistance, in rituals he strives for the protection of the higher, in readings of holy scriptures he searches for explanations, in spiritual immersion he draws strength. And indeed: Whoever knows supernatural powers at his side, it seems, need not fear anything in life. Spiritual people often cope better with blows than non-believers. From their faith they gain a strong resilience, a feeling of control when everything threatens to become uncontrollable. The number of personal reports from people who found solace in believing in divine comfort in moments of need cannot be overlooked: The trust in something that is greater, wiser and more powerful has carried people through war and displacement, through grief, illness and Isolation. They reported the reassuring feeling of being at home in spite of all the agony in a spiritual cosmos that extends far beyond one's own existence.

The sacred makes people tremble - with happiness and fear

But religion can not only banish fear: it can also be the cause of this tormenting feeling. Because the higher powers, of whose existence the believers are convinced, are not only good, mild, helpful, even saving. People have always located the opposite in the supernatural: destruction and ruin, torment and misfortune, in short - evil. Divine and demonic violence often merge. In ancient religions, for example, the gods punish and reward at the same time, make them happy and ruin them. In Hinduism, too, the deity Shiva creates all being - and yet again destroys it. And where there is a “heaven”, there is also an “underworld”. Whoever rules there paints every religion and every culture differently. Jews, Christians and Muslims know him as the devil, sometimes accompanied by a host of demonic, terrifying beings that can haunt people. In order to escape the dark side, every belief unfolds gestures of appeasement: visible to others, its followers have to obey certain rules, express gratitude and appreciation, show devotion or sacrifice. If the believer does not obey the commandments, he threatens to become alienated from the divine. In Christianity, for example, he can gamble away divine “grace” and get into “sin”; in Buddhism and Hinduism he must fear getting caught in the eternal cycle of rebirths. Religions always have the power to frighten people. The Catholic Church, for example, always knew how to stir up this feeling; the clergy preached of “guilt” and “atonement”, of agony and never-ending damnation, of a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and all-seeing. One who rewards good and punishes evil.

In the late Middle Ages, clerics even succeeded in making people so fearful of God and the devil that they were willing to pay a lot to alleviate their fear. With the indulgence letters they could buy themselves free from divine punishments for earthly sins. Obviously, religions seldom stir up fear in believers today. The Christian churches in Europe in particular are now emphasizing the positive aspects of the divine, its mildness, mercy and protection; far less attention is paid to the devil than before. Lay people and clergy offer pastoral care in congregations, they give consolation, encourage courage, advise in emergencies, and help when someone stumbles and threatens to fall. Many find help and encouragement in the church, from a pastor or pastor. But wherever believers come together, the group can still frighten individuals today. Any community that follows the message of salvation from a supernatural power tends to claim influence over the life of the individual. Anyone who is different may get sidelined; The fear of being isolated and being cast out from the group of like-minded people germinates in him. A fatal group dynamic can arise with such great shame and fear that some misconduct, such as sexual abuse, is tolerated and kept secret by everyone. Sects in particular make use of this mechanism. They often entangle believers in psychological dependence, which in many cases is nourished by fear.

To this day, the belief in higher powers remains ambivalent: It can free people from fear - but it can also awaken them in them. Therein lies the very peculiarity of the supersensible. The sacred, wrote the Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto, is always frightening and attractive at the same time, threatening and captivating. It makes us tremble - with happiness and fear. The Christmas story says: “And, behold, the angel of the Lord came up to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were very afraid. ”That is why the angel, before he brings the message of the birth of Jesus, must call out to the shepherds:“ Do not be afraid! ”