Not believing in anything beyond our finite life can be stressful. However, believing in a higher power and life beyond our earthly existence can also be stressful. How can these two radically opposed worldviews lead to the same outcome of stress? The obvious answer is that being alive and conscious is in itself a source of stress. Beyond the obvious, however, there are more subtle reasons for the stress caused by unbelief and belief alike.
Why not believing can be stressful
A fundamental tenet of unbelief in a higher power and life beyond death is that the purpose of life is life itself. In this view, there is no point in relying on outside help or comfort of a supernatural kind, because there is no entity out there to provide such help or comfort. Thus, the unbeliever believes that instinctive reactions and determined responses to life’s challenges produce either a positive or a negative outcome due to the simple interaction of forces within one’s self and in relationship to other people. In this view, chaos and randomness may reign supreme in helping provide an explanation as to why stressful situations occur.
A sense of powerlessness against fate, circumstances, random events, unpredictability can make the life of the unbeliever very stressful, at times. At other times, a sense of inner power due to the development of intellectual abilities, particularly good choices, clever decisions, and a good measure of luck can help carry the individual through difficult and stressful times and on to successful outcomes.
Successful outcomes can help promote the idea that one is the sole author of one’s destiny as well as the idea that unsuccessful people simply have not made the right decisions or have not developed their skills to the level necessary to achieve success. The most frequently used measures of human success are plainly visible: money, status, homes, cars, jewelry, fame and recognition, influence and power over others. The appeal of these measures of success is so powerful on the human psyche that many believers in a higher power and in life beyond have at times sought to incorporate them into a set of religious beliefs in spite of even the most glaring contradictions. This may help explain why Islam, a set of beliefs centered around peace has at times become synonym with terror and war.
In the Koran, therefore, the only permissible war is one of self-defense. Muslims may not begin hostilities (Koran 2: 190). Warfare is always evil, but sometimes you have to fight in order to avoid the kind of persecution that Mecca inflicted on the Muslims (2: 191; 2: 217) or to preserve decent values (4: 75; 22: 40). The Koran quotes the Torah, the Jewish scriptures, which permits people to retaliate eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but like the Gospels, the Koran suggests that it is meritorious to forgo revenge in a spirit of charity (5: 45). Hostilities must be brought to an end as quickly as possible and must cease the minute the enemy sues for peace (2: 192-3). –Karen Armstrong, Time Magazine
In a different manner, certain Christian leaders have promoted, and many continue to promote, the idea that earthly possessions, success and power can be an integral part of the life of the Christian believer, and that they are indeed to be pursued since the attainment of these measures of success may imply that multiple blessings are being bestowed by God to those who truly believe. Herein lies a major source of stress for the unbeliever, or for the believer who chooses to focus on earthly achievements: in their absence (when illness, unemployment, poverty, disability, or financial reverses strike one’s life in spite of every best effort) there is no explanation available, nor is there any source of comfort or hope beyond the visible, the immediate and the tangible that may be available within one’s resources.
The courage to believe
In looking at the opposing view, faith in a higher power and in life beyond can also be stressful. By definition, faith is a set of beliefs that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. This virtually complete absence of visible proof is probably the reason why our faith can waver, ebb and flow with the circumstances, or even disappear altogether. Faith appears to run counter to how humans experience their life on this earth, i.e. as tangible, visible and immediate. Since faith has none of these attributes, its maintenance in the face of life’s many stressors becomes a matter of courage.
Courage is the presence of something that can transcend fear. Thus, courage is not the absence of fear. If that were the case, any foolhardy behavior could be called an act of courage whereas very often it is simply a product of ignorance, carelessness, disregard of common sense, substance abuse, or plain stupidity. Courage, therefore, appears to presuppose the presence and the awareness of fear in order to truly exist. Ask any combat veteran, any rescuer or any first responder and they will tell you that, in the moment, they were able to set their fear aside, manage it and act courageously in spite of it.
Faith has at least one feature in common with courage. It too presupposes the presence of something else in order to truly exist. That something is the awareness of doubt and the ability to manage it and to set it aside. I believe this may be the reason why faith that is allegedly without doubt and its awareness is often called blind, fanatical and sectarian. In the name of blind faith, acts can be committed that may clearly contradict its tenets, often without insight or awareness, or with intentional, callous disregard for them.
It takes courage to believe in spite of contradictory evidence or the lack of evidence altogether. It takes courage to manage doubt and to continuously recommit one’s existence to a higher power. It takes courage to rely on the help, hope and comfort that seem to come from nowhere at all. It takes courage to read or hear words that were written or spoken long ago, in far away places, and believe in their validity, reliability, and trustworthiness in our life today.
This type of courage is stressful, because faith itself is stressful. Faith without the courage to doubt and the ability to set doubt aside is blind.
A man of courage is also full of faith. –Marcus Tullius Cicero