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For the Fear of God

by on July 10, 2011

In April I wrote about the possible political consequences of American fear of hell.

In current American Christian terms, Christians believe in heaven but much less in hell. This has to do with globalization, on an international level and on a communal level. If you’re Christian and your good neighbor is Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist, you begin to think that person should not be damned for eternity. On a personal level, this means that you don’t believe in hell anymore, so your own actions won’t get you damned for eternity if you do something wrong. What incentive is left to be good if hell isn’t there waiting for you?

In political terms, this has some meaning. Church and state are much less separate than we like to think, for we political animals are surrounded by religion, and both are part of our being. If you don’t believe in hell – I don’t; it has never been part of my religion – why do things well, as opposed to not well? It means you have to have empathy; it means you have to be part of the here-and-now and not only the afterlife. What’s this going to do to American politics? We’ll have to wait and see.

Now there is more research, involving several European nations.

Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at UCLA, has come up with a way to measure how fearful nations are. What Treisman found is that is that if an individual admit to being worried about one threat, they are also highly likely to say they are worried about the others.

Now, the interesting thing is that fear is often not all that closely linked to real danger. There was no relationship between fear of BSE and actual number of cases, and only a weak relationship between fear of medical errors and the number of medical errors, and between terrorism and number of terrorist attacks. Fear of bird flu was actually highest in the countries with the fewest cases!

Fear was influenced by all sorts of weird effects. People are less scared if you quiz them in the evenings – Treisman speculates they may have partaken of a few bevvies already!

To me, this looks like good evidence that putting the fear of god into people actually makes them more fearful of everything else – and that, of course, has a number of interesting political and social ramifications!

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