Friday, April 22, 2005


While thinking about George Bush the term God-fearing — which seems like a particularly Christian term (at least to my American ears) — came into my mind. As a non-believer it struck me as strange that someone would fear a God that they take to be kind, loving, and merciful. Yet that term seems to be quite widely used — and used as if it were perfectly understandable why someone would fear God.

I did a Google search. The top ranked religious site I found (Raising God-Fearing Children, undoubtedly not particularly intellectually sophisticated) had this quotation.
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him … "
Psalm 103:17-18
It wasn't clear to me why mercy is granted (only?) to those who fear their God, but apparently, at least in this translation, the notion of fearing God in the Christian religion does come directly from the bible — actually the Old Testament, although Jews don't seem to adopted this frame of mind. I had expected to find that it was a conservative add-on, but apparently not. Of course, as we all know, one can find all sorts of things in the bible. For example, see the famous Dear Dr. Laura letter.

Nonetheless, the notion of fearing God does seem (at least verbally) to be a widely accepted meme in a large part of the Christian community. I wonder how they really think about it.

Now that I am thinking more about it, fear is an emotional reaction. One doesn't fear intentionally. I doubt that this is the sense intended, but if one reads the quotation as written it would imply that whether one has a fear reaction is what matters, not what one decides to do. From this perspective fear is not a matter of choice.

Perhaps the intent is fear as in fearing punishment if one breaks the law. That would make more sense. The rest of the quotation talks about keeping "His covenant." So I suppose that the intended meaning is that if one fails to keep "His covenant" one will be punished, and one had best be fearful of that possibility. It seems like a harsh perspective, but one that I can grasp. It also seems to make one's relationship to God like one's relationship to the law, very mechanical and formalistic.

It now occurs to me that wanting a stern disciplinarian in a God is quite similar to what George Lakoff says many conservatives want in a government, also a stern disciplinarian. This would suggest that God-fearing people would tend to favor a conservative government and would have "law and order" and govenment enforcement of morality among their high priority issues.

It has also been suggested to me that fear is simply a poor translation and that the intended meaning is respect, which makes much more sense. I wonder how people who actually use the term God-fearing would feel about that interpretation.

1 comment:

rweber said...

When it comes to manipulating public behaviors with the lever of fear, there is no other institution of mankind that can compete with religion. Dictators come and go and sometmes are overthrown, but religion is the most persistent form of enslavement of the masses. Certainly, one can intellectualize and say that "awe" or "reverence" is what "God meant to say." But that interpretation would not have served the purposes of the priesthood. Nietzsche figured this out and described the psychological pathology over 100 years ago. Eric Fromme's "Escape from Freedom" is another good reference.