Walking in Times Square today, I encountered a group of traditionalist Catholics who were handing out fliers and waving signs that urged us all to reject the "heresies" of Vatican II. When I declined a flier, one of the missionaries happily chirped, "That's okay! Prepare for hell!"
His cheerful condemnation of my eternal soul reminded me of this bit of stupidity from Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, speaking on why he thinks the kids today are just mad for that crazy global warming stuff:
Perhaps they're looking for a cause that is almost a substitute for religion [...] Belief in a benign God who is master of the universe has a steadying psychological effect, although it is no guarantee of Utopia, no guarantee that the continuing climate and geographic changes will be benign. In the past pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods. Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
Belief in a benign God would, I guess, have a steadying psychological effect. Too bad there isn't a faith in the world that presents us with one. Offering a sacrifice to a capricious god is an act of fear - but so is slavish devotion to a dogma - making a sacrifice of your ability to reason - because you fear the eternal damnation of your soul. At their base, there really is no difference between the two actions. I fear the effects of global warming, but Cardinal Pell's followers fear the flames of hell. We're both scared. Why his fear is better than my fear is beyond me. (Curiously, Pell agrees with Nietzsche of all people when he states that the pagan religions arose from a need to understand and cope with the caprices of the natural world. Nietzsche, however, considered Christianity to be an extension of this tradition rather than a refutation of it.)
I've never understood how the major faiths of the world expect positive action to come from fear, the most negative of emotions. Christianity, at least in its current form, is supposed to be about forgiveness and peace (For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting (John 3:16)). But if you don't toe the line, you'll be spending that life everlasting with cackling demons who harvest your flesh on a daily basis for their little Ed Gein edition of Project Runway. It's a paradox inherent to the faith that I've never been able to work out, and Christianity is hardly alone in using fear as motivational tool - even Buddhism uses the fear of reincarnation to a lower state as an incentive to lead people to compassionate action.
I realize that I'm painting in pretty broad strokes here, and that there are mystical traditions in all faiths that work on a deeper level than the terror management theory I'm describing above, but I also realize that most adherents to any faith dedicate maybe an hour a week to the serious contemplation of that faith. That means the priest, mullah, lama or rabbi has to make the most of that hour and make their case in the most basic manner possible. And frankly, scaring the hell out of someone is an excellent way to get their attention. It's why the proselytizer in the street today made his case to me the way he did: he had to get my attention, and fast.
Long term, though, it doesn't work. Fear is the most selfish of emotions and there's no way sustained charitable action can come from it. My knowledge of psychology could fill a Ziploc bag, but I'm pretty sure this is why just about every faith on Earth has at some point been corrupted by extremism and mob rule. That someone as learned as Pell assumably is doesn't see this is astonishing to me. Or maybe he does. Maybe he's counting on it.
I think this is why I'm attracted to Taoism, since there is no reward or punishment inherent or implied in its teachings, and even if there were a true Taoist wouldn't be so presumptuous as to assume he could truly recognize a reward or a punishment. I'm even trying to banish fear from my concerns about global warming, trying to focus on presenting a livable world to my children rather than trying to stave off a disaster most Americans can't see coming. It doesn't help me sleep any better at night, but it keeps me from pouring sugar in the gas tank of the Hummer parked down the street from my apartment. ("I thought it was ethanol, officer - honest!") And, if nothing else, it helps me ignore reactionaries like Pell, since safeguarding the world for my children and grandchildren can hardly be considered a sign of spiritual emptiness.