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Fear of the Stone

Will people stop believing in religion when science can promise eternal life?


Just imagine… imagine a stone as big as a large house; it’s hanging over you. If it falls on your head, will it hurt?... if you stood there with it hanging over you, you’d really be afraid that it would hurt. Everyone would be afraid – the greatest scholar, the best doctor, everyone. Everyone would know that it wouldn’t hurt, but everyone would be afraid that it would… He [God] doesn’t exist, yet He does. There’s no pain in the stone, but there’s pain in the fear of the stone. God is the pain of the fear of Death (Dostoevsky, 1992 edition: pp120-121)


These are the words of Aleksei Nilych Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s Devils, a man who denies the existence of God and yet lives in abject fear of Him. Is this the basic predicament that faces all atheists? After all, what is atheism if not a product of theism? The existence of God can’t be denied without there being the conception of a God to deny in the first place and if we do that, we must deal with the implications that it presents.
Perhaps this is partly responsible for the growing animosity which people seem to hold towards religion at the moment. Granted, religion as an institution is accountable for a huge amount of bigotry and hatred but are these arguments side issues, used to avoid the real question – can we ever be free from fearing God?


It seems that with the popularity of Richard Dawkins et al, atheism has never been cooler. However, all of the logical arguments for not believing in God amount to the same thing: we are trying to decide whether or not we can lead happy and fulfilled lives, even with the knowledge (or belief) that we are alone. Essentially, we are asked to try to take comfort from the concept of nothingness in the same way that the faithful cling to their belief in a higher power when they need it most.


But how much comfort is to be had from a belief in nothing?


We live in an age where science can explain more and more about the physical nature of the world we live in. However, all of our theories of evolution, genetics, physics and countless other ways of describing how the world works won’t negate the simple fact that one day we will die. That stone will always hang over us and as long as it does, will that need for the belief in God ever go away?


I know that conundrum is at the heart of a lot of my ill feeling towards religious faith. That’s not to say that I don’t take issue with a great deal of the things that have been done in the name of God; however if I separate my distaste for religion as an institution from the concept of a belief in God in itself, I’m left with a definite sense of envy towards those who can take comfort from the notion of a higher power and that a world which is seemingly chaotic does have a sense of order at its core. They can take the world as it is, with all of its cruelty, pain and hypocrisy and still believe that it will all be OK. I can’t reasonably speak for every atheist but perhaps we should be asking ourselves – aside from the very reasonable concerns many atheists have regarding the things that are done in the name of religion – how comfortable are we in our assertion that there is no God and more importantly, even if we are right about that, can we really take as much comfort from the implications of a God-free universe as we think we can?


As I have already pointed out, we live in an age where we put more and more faith into science – faith being the operative word. People claim to ‘believe’ in science in the same way that religious people profess to believe in God, but what precisely does ‘believing’ in science entail? Professor Sam Harris has written an entire book (The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2010) on how we can use science not just to tell us how the world is but also “how we ought to think and behave”. His arguments may be compelling to many, being rooted in science as they are.


The simple fact is that people need to put their faith in something and this faith is often unquestioning, regardless of what it is. Where people once hung on the words of religious texts and spiritual leaders, many now unquestioningly hang upon the words of doctors and scientists. Indeed, how many articles and anecdotes begin with “a study done by scientists shows that…”? Professor Harris’ book indicates that this may well increasingly become the case as science progresses.


On my way to work I pass a church with a sign outside that reads “Death defeated”. Science cannot yet make this claim and until it can, humanity will always need its faith in a higher power and it seems fair to say that it is because the world is chaotic and we are mortal.


A belief in God may be at odds with the age of reason that we live in, when science and empiricism rule, but at the moment it doesn't seem as though abandoning this belief will provide many people with any real comfort. What society’s leading atheists don’t seem to understand is that you can’t remove someone’s deeply held beliefs until you can replace them with something better. However much science may have progressed, it can’t yet replace our fear of death with anything more comforting. Until that day comes, people will always fear the stone.



• Dostoevsky, Fydor (1992 edition) Devils, Great Britain, Oxford University Press
• Harris, Sam (2010) The Moral Landscape, Great Britain, Transworld

Dan Barnett

About the Writer

Dan is in his late 20s, lives in Croydon and is training as a counsellor.


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