Saturday, February 17, 2007

A less scary world

From time to time I realize how things I do are less frightening than life once was. I don’t worry about what I eat being tainted. It’s sealed. It has dates on it. Manufacturers suffer from publicity if they aren’t careful. I don’t need to be superstitious about eating the right things. Science has learned about fats, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, and how they relate to health, not perfectly, but enough to feel confident that I know what a healthy diet is. It’s my choice how close to stay to that. It’s not my personality to be completely safe. On occasion I’ll eat at Taco Bell or Jack-in-the-Box and the 6 hours of diarrhea that follow will remind me that’s not the perfect choice. But until I’m in a group that’s more at risk from too much E.coli in my food, it’s not that dangerous.

How different it must have been in the ancient world. No wonder people counted on God to bless their food or strictly stick to dietary laws that some argue were for dietary safety more than a fantasy of holiness. Yet I would bet that some ancient people who followed the diet of their religion felt more secure than some today who feel compelled to buy vitamins and follow individual superstitions about their food. The world is less scary, but people remain spread out along a spectrum from being afraid to being secure.

Has that spectrum shifted? It’s hard to know. The world is less scary, not only with respect to food, but with respect to being the victim of violence, for most of us, with respect to tomorrow’s weather, most of the time, and with respect to the disruptions of war, disease, and economic instability. So my bias is to say people should be less scared. Are they? It’s hard to know. As I cruise the media and the internet there is so much fear. There is fear about conservative Christians making the US into a theocracy. There is fear of what Muslims will do on their way to take over the world. There is conservative fear of what freedom in sexuality and the marginalization of Christianity will do to them. There is atheistic fear about what the irrational beliefs of any religion mean for the future.

Some of that fear is amplified for the purpose of sensationalism. Some of it is overstated for rhetorical purposes. Still it’s clear that people are afraid and sometimes vote their fears. There is something real about fear. How much? That’s such a hard question to answer. As I go about my daily life I don’t have much fear, and that seems realistic. I imagine some extreme fear where I am simultaneously being chewed by a shark and engulfed by flames, and that seems avoidable. It’s safe to bet that my fear of being in a shark tank will never need to reach my consciousness except for a moment of imagination like this.

I desire to live with a realistic amount of fear, not denial, not awash in unrealistic fear. That’s how fear would seem to be the most useful to me. The culture of fear opposes me in this. It preys on me. Media personalities like Glenn Beck would have me fear Muslims more and fear global warming less. Others have their own agenda. I can’t resist them all, especially those fear-mongers who are closer to my own prejudices. One brake on that is that so many fears some push on the public are far away from my daily life. I know how to resist that, to pay attention to my life and not some media rantings. Of course that invites denial, but maybe it’s enough just to be curious about the outside world, to wonder how much there is to this talk of global warming or terrorism and read enough to understand that both are far away from my daily life, not everyone’s, but my daily life. I’d vote against both, but mine is not a swing vote. It won’t make a difference.

How many people want me to be afraid so they can manipulate me? Advertisers do. Politicians do, including so many politicians masquerading as news people. Those in religion want me to afraid so I will take their prescription for my fear. I’m sure some people want me to be afraid just for the existential joy involved in being able to scare me.

If I listened to all those people seriously, maybe the world wouldn’t be a less scary place than it was hundreds or thousands of years of years ago, but I don’t listen to them that much. And I’m convinced that apart from propaganda the world is less scary than it used to be, at least since the risk of global thermonuclear war was greatly diminished. Still it’s up to individuals whether they feel secure enough or need to turn to some system of beliefs or course of action to help them.

I wasn’t that fearful 18 years ago when I turned to praying again. I was just afraid that I didn’t have any good ideas to help my marriage or career, both of which weren’t going to kill me, but weren’t making me happy either. God helped me in ways that I didn’t expect, didn’t understand, and that sometimes made me more afraid. Yet after these new fears passed, my world is even less scary than science has shown it to be. I’m not immune to fear now, but I have a constant companion for anything that happens to me, someone I can consult. I’m still not going in any shark tanks. I’m not stupid. God doesn’t require me to be.

Many atheists ridicule me for that, saying I’m unrealistic and would recognize the dangers of all religion if I weren’t so intoxicated. There’s fear in that, isn’t there? Like any other fear, I listen. I ask if there’s anything there that makes sense or is someone just venting his or her own fear or pushing fear even more than that. Is there any realistic fear of the God of my understanding? I’ve thought about it. It is stimulating to meet God. It is disorienting. It can be frightening. But is it something reasonable to avoid? I don’t think so. Anyone is welcome to suggest some greater fear, but the only suggestions I hear lack any understanding of the God I know. Atheists are busy bashing the traditional God. I understand that. Maybe someday they’ll completely smash Him and realize to their confusion that the real God has always been someplace else, someplace they don’t like any better, as it still implies that atheism is not the pinnacle of realism.

I wish life were color-coded. One could more easily see that this is fear-mongering or that is hate-mongering. I am convinced that science gives us many reasons to be less afraid of this world than people used to be. Maybe someday that actually will let people shed their superstitions. Yet I have also met the God I understand, and in Him there are even more reasons to be less afraid. People resist all of this, sure that they will find something better in their own beliefs and superstitions than what is beyond them. I’m sure that’s natural. It’s also natural that fear-mongers and hate-mongers prey on people, just like bacteria and bears. There is a way out of that for people, to be less sensitive to liars, to trust an empirical way to knowledge that is flawed, but mostly reliable. Some people are too afraid to go that way, better to stick with the fantasy, fear and hatred they know. Maybe the next generation will find it to be less scary.

However it might happen, there is an even less scary world ahead than this world where so many labels on my food make me its master. I understand God is in that world even more than this one.

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