The power of religion lies in the power of fear; fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of people who are different, fear of God, and the fear that a lifetime of belief may in fact be wrong. Many religious folks might deny the last point, but I'll get to what I mean by that in a minute.
All people fear dying, but not all fear being dead. As Mark Twain is famous for saying "I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit."
It is only natural to want to continue living, after all we are hard-wired to want to continue living. How could a species survive if it weren't? But the fear of dying, the actual act of dying, and the fear of death are two different things. Those who fear death are afraid of a few things:
• That their life has been in vain, after all what is the point of trying if death is your only reward?
• The finality of death, after all, life is the only thing they have ever known, so just ceasing to exist as a mind and entity is an unknown which is incomprehensible.
• The unknown aspect of death. Nobody has ever said definitively what happens after death, and the great chasm of the unknown is more daunting than we dare think about.
The fact that we all die is a part of life, and we see it all around us. Religion claims to have the answers to the question of what happens to us when we die, and thus has a way to allay the fears of those who are scared of death. "If you follow our doctrine", they say, "you will never die, you will live forever". For some this makes life a whole lot more bearable, meaning they don't have to worry about the end, because for them it's not the end. What this means for those who fear death is a way out, a carrot if you will, the promise of not only life after death, but the best of all possible lives free from pain, free from want and best of all, free from death. It's quite a compelling idea, given that none of us wants to die.
The second fear is fear of the unknown. This includes the fear of death but runs much deeper. Religion offers no real answers to the origins of life on earth, at least not beyond several fanciful creation stories, each one as different from the one in another religion as imagination can muster, each is mutually inconsistent. Religions say you must believe in the words of that religion or you won't reap the benefits of belief. It follows from this that ideas that are different from the ones in the religious doctrine are shunned and feared. Scientific theories which posit the most likely of circumstances that have led to us as we are now are shunned too, for science says we evolved from earlier species to become human. But this causes even more fear in the believer who likes to think of themselves as special, hand created by God. "How can we be related to mere animals
?" they ask. "How can evolution be true if the earth is only 6000 years old?" they ask. "How can morals be an evolutionary trait
if God bestowed us with his unchanging an perfect rules?" they ask. It is fear that people may be merely animals that religion takes under-wing and proposes further answers to, giving solace for those who are fearful. The answer from religion is "God made you, you are special, you deserve to be celebrated."
The third fear is the fear of those who are different. Religions like Christianity say to love their neighbour, yet cause people to become insular, fearing those who don't believe the same as they do, fearing those who don't act according to their particular doctrine, or fearing those who don't believe in a god at all. They are told that unbelievers and believers in different faiths stand to undermine the fibre of their society with their ungodly ways, and should be either converted or should be shunned. In the worst of these situations, the "infidels" should be killed to protect the honour of the religion or religious person. This fear, because it is backed up by the religion, becomes a xenophobic bigotry toward gays, women, foreigners (especially those of different religions who look "weird") and people who practice different faiths from their own. While once this insularity was a good way to ensure the bonds inside a tribe, in this day and age it simply gets in the way of a peaceful multifaceted society.
Religion tells us to fear God, because it is God who will judge us when we die. When we fear God, the religion that says we must do so also has to be feared, because the religion is the one that claims to have the rulebook that God has written for us. God is all powerful, and if you go against his rules you will not be able to quell your fear of death with the promise of afterlife. God sees and knows you better than you know yourself, so you'd better fear him because there's no lying to him. Fear God because he will be the one to judge you when you die.
Religions teach us not to question them. As noted above, they are the authority of God himself, and therefore the words he speaks through his book/s are to be treated as truth. But if any of the rules or stories or rules go against anything you might feel in conscience, you have to fear these feelings and push them down. Questioning religion is harmful to the religion, so therefore they say within the doctrine that questioning is bad. These are seen as temptations, and religions even invented an agent of temptation, Satan or a devil or demon figure, to make you fear these feelings. Religions hold your true judgements down, telling you they are wrong. "Don't believe in your own judgement
, believe only in the words of your religion". Most claim that not following a religion is being closed-minded, but when you follow only a doctrine, how can you possibly be the open-minded person you claim to be. The fear that they could be wrong is in itself something that the religions hold sway over, calling it a test, and claiming that the only way to salvation is to push down any doubt and simply believe.
As you can see many of the fears that religion claims are intertwined, and overlap in many areas. The fact remains that fear is the single most powerful tool religion has to control people. Once you recognise this, maybe it will be easier to go beyond the shackles of religion.