This is a guest post by John W. Morehead. John W. Morehead is the Director of Multi-faith Matters. He is the co-editor and contributing author for A Charitable Orthopathy: Christian Perspectives on Emotions in Multifaith Engagement, and Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, and the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue. He has been involved for many years in multi-faith relationships and conversations in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, Paganism, and Atheism. His ongoing research in multi-faith engagement and religious conflict involves bringing social psychology and social neuroscience into conversation with a theology of love of our religious neighbors. Particular areas of interest are “us vs. them” intergroup conflict, evangelical concerns for purity in relation to syncretism, and Christian Nationalism.
As I write this guest post, the calendar is quickly moving toward October. This is my favorite time of year as we transition from summer to fall, but more importantly, because this is the month when my favorite holiday finally comes: Halloween. I’ve loved this holiday since I was a child growing up in California, and it continues into my adult life now living in Utah. I have fond memories of trying out different costumes each year and going trick-or-treating, and binging on whatever horror films I could find on television. Now in the age of streaming on-demand and DVD/Blu-ray availability, I am able to select my own collection of horror favorites to watch the entire month, with a special binge effort on Halloween night. But even more than this, as I look beyond the commercialism of costume and candy sales, Halloween is an important festival, one which provides us with an opportunity to play with our imagination and identity, and to safely confront our fears — especially death. When we do so, we might find that even elements of the macabre can have a beauty often missed when we give in to dominant cultural suggestions that we look away.
All of the above might register an “Of course!” from readers of this blog, but when it is realized that I am speaking as a centrist but conservative-leaning Evangelical Christian, there might be a bit of surprise. Most of the time other members of my religio-cultural tribe are strongly opposed to participation in Halloween. Instead, fall festivals in churches, and perhaps evangelistic “hell houses” are offered as safe substitutes. My research indicates that such fears related to Halloween are unfounded. As historian Ronald A. Hutton notes in his book The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996):
An attack upon the celebration of Hallowe’en, especially in schools, correspondingly developed in the late 1980s, and continues at the time of writing … It has been organized by evangelical groups in Protestant denominations … and rests upon two arguments. The first is that Hallowe’en is a glorification or glamorization of evil powers. The second is that it is essentially unchristian … a Christian feast of the dead is thoroughly embedded in the history of Hallowe’en and that its legacy is usually impossible to distinguish from that of paganism in the practices and associations of the night. It is of course maintained by what is still by far the largest of the world’s churches, the Roman Catholic. To describe the feast as fundamentally unchristian is therefore either ill-informed or disingenuous.
I think Hutton has it historically correct in that quote, but rather than focus on the debate over Halloween per se, I’d like to use this post to help readers understand why many conservative Evangelicals are so concerned about the alleged evils of Halloween. And not only that, why they tend to focus on a limited cast of characters that function as spiritual “boogeymen” during this season, including Pagans and Satanists. Why do Halloween, Pagans, and Satanists tend to result in so much dread? I’ve spent some time trying to reflect critically on Evangelicalism’s negative feelings toward those in other religions, and bringing theology into dialogue with social psychology provides some suggestions on answering this question.
First is the issue of fear. Human beings are social creatures, and we inhabit various ingroups that connect strongly to our identity formation. As a result we all have tribal minds, and not only is there an “us” there’s also a “them.” This means that there are various outgroups that we don’t identify with, and ingroup favoritism can lead to fear and defensiveness about others, particularly those that are seen as threatening. Related to this fear of others in the context of Evangelicalism and how it is expressed politically in popular culture, Jason Bivens has labeled conservative Evangelicalism a “Religion of Fear.” After exploring various ways in which this manifests, Bivins concludes that Evangelicals “negotiate their anxieties about both domestic and global politics through representations of their ‘others’ that are couched in discourses of fear and evil” (Jason Bivins, “The Religion of Fear: Conservative Evangelicals, Identity, and Antiliberal Pop,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 8, no. 2 [Spring 2007: 81-103]; Cf. Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism [Oxford University Press, 2008]). In my experience this observation is accurate, and as a result, Pagans and Satanists are perceived as dangerous “others,” particularly during the Halloween season.
This brings me to the second element that helps explain the evangelical fear of Halloween, and that is outgroup disgust, dehumanization, and ensuing prejudice. Some interesting studies have been done in social psychology wherein even the mere contemplation of ideas from other religious traditions or atheism result in a disgust response from Christians. One of these studies conclude that “disgust has a symbolic moral value that marks heretical thoughts as harmful and aversive.” The idea here is that just as physical disgust protects us from disease, so socio-moral disgust can protect from worldview threat or concerns about spiritual contamination. This disgust reaction can also be connected to dehumanization, which in turn leads to various forms of religious prejudice. Although it may seem strange to think of in this way, the disgust and dehumanization can be understood as a form of worldview protection. By keeping worldview-threatening others at bay, and even seeing them as less than human in some sense, the worldview of the ingroup is protected. In referencing this disgust and prejudice dynamic I don’t want to be understood as endorsing such prejudices or giving it a pass. In my own work among Evangelicals and multifaith engagement I pursue a very different understanding and dynamic that seeks to work through Evangelical concerns such as these in order to overcome them. But understanding the psychological underpinnings of Evangelical prejudices and stances in popular culture toward others is helpful in formulating appropriate responses. Responding in-kind with fear, prejudice and alienation will only exacerbate our tensions in an extremely polarized environment.
If you’re angry with Evangelicals over any number of things, including their stereotypes of Satanists, I get it. But I think we need to try to understand their fears rather than reinforce them.
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