Last time we met up, we were watching the Christian Rapture flick A Thief in the Night. And y’all might remember that I spent the first half of that movie mystified about how it had traumatized so many young Christian children. In the middle of the movie, though, I resolved that mystery when a little girl came home to an empty house and thought her whole family had been Raptured. Then everything made sense–because I know that the type of Christians who go in for the Rapture also tend to suffer from what the modern age has begun to call the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). I’ll show you what that fear is and how it relates to Christianity–and maybe we’ll find some ways to escape that fear.
I began hearing the term FOMO on social media a year or two ago, mostly in relation to new trends that, these influencers were telling us, people would want to jump on before they were gone. The abbreviation meant the Fear of Missing Out, and La Wiki thinks that it was coined around 2004 based upon concepts developed in 2000 by a marketing expert.
And that sounds about right. Most of the time, when you hear about FOMO, it’s about trends: stuff for people to buy, cool places for people to go, clothes and hairstyles for people to wear (ahem*SunsetHair*ahem). The short-term marketing idea itself is based upon short-run production lines and extremely tight deadlines. You can see it in clothing shops like Zara, or T-shirt shops that only produce a design for that one day and then never feature it again. When this thing is gone it’s gone forever, and you’ll kick yourself when you put off the purchase and then realize you wanted it and now it’s impossible to find.
FOMO leads some folks to get addicted to substances or social media, haunting watering-holes, parties, and online sites out of fear they’ll miss a fun time if they don’t–just as other folks spend money they don’t have acquiring goods, or waste time they don’t have.
Nothing that I’ve just described is unique to the real world, either. It’s been going on in freemium games for a while, as this longtime community manager explains on an interesting Reddit thread (emphasis mine):
When you die in Dota, you are at a “pain point”, meaning you are more susceptible to spending money. That’s why they show you a popup that offers you a chance to buy an in-game advantage with soft currency before you respawn. People are also more susceptible to spending money when they’re at a high point in the game, so after winning a tough game you get a popup with limited-time sales offers that you will miss out on if you wait too long. Limited-time sales are more profitable than longer sales because it feels like you’re missing out if you don’t make a quick decision.
I bet you can see where I’m heading with this line of thinking. I’m talking about a kind of threat, yes, but it’s not a threat of direct punishment like Hell is. Rather, this is a threat of something you will lose through noncompliance or something you won’t gain that you definitely would if you complied.
The funny thing is, Christians themselves have already made that exact connection between their ideology and FOMO. And they are totally fine with that situation.
Better than fine.
They like it.
They know quite well that Christianity pushes people with time-limited marketing and deliberate invocations of the glories and benefits that sales prospects will miss out on if they don’t act right now while they can. (And here I stop to remember that young Christian fella whose entire rationale for being Christian fell along these lines, though he didn’t use exactly the same phrasing to explain it.)
And these Christians are not even shy about manipulating this fear in their audiences and followers.
To them, FOMO is a great marketing plan–not a shameful exploitation of very human fears.
(To paraphrase my ex-husband Biff: They gotta try something… don’t they?)
“The Primeval Human Fear.”
Over on Not-So-Rowdy John Piper’s site, Desiring God, we encounter a guy gloating about how “FOMO is the primeval human fear” that led Eve to eat the forbidden fruit so she wouldn’t miss out on becoming just like a god (I’m not like toooootally sold on this comparison but he sure likes it). He loses the plot very quickly afterward, either way, when he asserts that the “one legitimate FOMO,” that of “missing out eternally” on Heaven, is defeated for all time when someone becomes a Christian. In similar fashion, we see The Gospel Coalition (my go-to these days for “Christian site that you are just positive is satirizing fundagelicals but nope, they’re quite serious”) capitalizing on FOMO as a means of ensuring better retention among believers, as well as insisting that “Jesus” can and does eliminate that anxiety.
I actually laughed out loud at this whole idea of “Jesus” defeating FOMO–because I know that very, very few Christians are ever truly free of it.
Fear pervades Christianity and there are many forms of it. Fear affects the way Christians engage with their friends and loved ones; it forms the basis of their evangelism; it runs as a current through their everyday existence. Fear keeps them locked in antiprocess to prevent any unanswerable doubts from leaking through to their conscious minds; fear keeps them bolted to church pews long, long past the time when normally they’d have walked away from Christianity itself. Thanks to the Bible itself, which among many other fear-instilling ideas specifically provides adherents no way whatsoever to be truly certain of their eternal fates, Christians are some of most constantly-terrified people I’ve ever run across in my entire life–and that applies to FOMO as well.
For me, FOMO didn’t manifest as a gambling addiction or anything like that, but it did manifest as my tendency to seize what I viewed as a sure thing–or at least, the surest thing possible. I decided who to marry, where to go to college, what jobs to take, and more based on clinging to the sure thing–and persisted in a lot of very bad relationships and jobs long, long past the time when any more reasonable person would have ended things because I just couldn’t walk away from a sure thing to fling myself into the abyss of uncertainty. It wasn’t till after my mom died that I really began to reexamine that mindset.
While I wasn’t afraid of things like demonic possession, I was scared to death of missing the Rapture, just like that little kid in A Thief in the Night. And one night I was shocked to see that my best friend Angela, who was ethereally fervent and possibly the truest, strongest Christian I knew, was afraid of the same thing I was.
I don’t think it’s even possible to overstate how rattled I was to know that.
The Necessity of Fear in the Broken System.
Had I been a little more mature and worldly-wise, Angela’s terror of being left behind might have made me start wondering why it was that every Christian I knew was scared of that fate when we should have been the very last people to have such a fear. Maybe I’d have started to put together why Christianity hinged so much on the exploitation of human fears. Maybe I’d have wondered myself right out of the religion!
But I wasn’t mature. I wasn’t worldly-wise. I had no way of dealing with Angela’s fear. And so it went into my “Deal With It Later” pile along with all the other stuff that bothered me, waiting for me to pick it up and remember that day–and finally understand it.
Here’s what I worked out when that day finally came for me:
Any ideology marketed with fears that can’t be demonstrated as compelling or credible is not an ideology that is good for us. Fear creates and perpetuates a broken system. The manipulation of fear allows the masters of broken systems to redistribute power along uneven and predatory lines–and then keep their powerless members silent about the abuses they suffer. Fear neutralizes the agency and wisdom that would normally keep people far away from broken systems–or would help them leave one.
If someone is manipulating our fears to gain compliance from us, it’s because there is literally no other way they could gain it otherwise.
So it’s downright sickening to me to behold the Desiring God writer exulting in FOMO and gleefully talking about how awesome it is as a marketing tool to wield. That grotesque spectacle is one of the many, many reasons that I just can’t be one of those awww, what’s the harm? people when it comes to this religion and the many besides it that similarly view unsubstantiated, unverified, unsupportable threats as valid sales and retention tactics.
A Predilection for FOMO.
A friend who works in advertising told me that she felt fine about her life — until she opened Facebook. “Then I’m thinking, ‘I am 28, with three roommates, and oh, it looks like you have a precious baby and a mortgage,’ ” she said. “And then I wanna die.”
Science-y folks have started to study FOMO–what leads to it, and who is most susceptible to it–and you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that fundagelicalism is practically built from the ground up specifically to create a population of people who are scared to death of missing out on stuff.
Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist, discovered that people who don’t feel like they have a lot of “autonomy, competence, and connected[ness] in their daily lives” felt more of this fear than those not suffering from those lacks. FOMO sufferers also compared themselves way more often to others–and spent way more time on social media doing so.
Other psychologists have found that people who suffer more from FOMO have trouble trusting in themselves to make good decisions. That link also lists some symptoms of FOMO that sound a lot like what I saw in myself and my then-tribe:
. . . mind racing, uneasiness, insecurity and a lack of presence in the moment. Physical symptoms include a racing heart, and in general, the nervous system is on edge.
Time cuts to the chase to declare, “FOMO comes from unhappiness.” And well, “unhappiness” sure fits fundagelicals as well.
FOMO hits some people so hard because we really don’t like to lose anything. We’ll go to a lot of lengths to prevent losses, even if those losses are only of things we don’t actually have (like the assurance of Rapture, or going to Heaven after death). Those lengths represent our risk aversion and risk tolerance. When FOMO gets out of control, we start making disastrous decisions–or clinging too hard to something we should have walked away from long ago.
“Wheel of Fish,” a scene from UHF (1989); FOMO in reverse. She should have stuck with the red snapper. (There’s got to be at least one peer-reviewed psychology paper examining this scene.)
At least one study out there (if not more than that) tells us that religious people are consistently risk-averse compared to nonreligious people, but most of us who’ve been Christians or tangled a lot with Christians probably already knew that.
Unplugging from FOMO.
As I read about FOMO, I noticed some common themes regarding how people might start moving past this anxiety. A lot of the suggestions I saw were aimed at anxiety in general (such as: get outside; get enough rest and exercise; spend more time with loved ones and pets; spend some extra time taking care of yourself; etc). But a few other suggestions sprang out at me so I’ll pass them on.
That Paste Magazine link gives some practical suggestions beyond those more-obvious ones:
- Unplug from social media. (Every list of advice I saw involved lessening one’s usage of social media, since it has a well-documented role in producing and exacerbating FOMO.)
- When faced with making a decision about something, take time to listen to your feelings about each option. Usually there’s not nearly as much of a time crunch as people imagine there is. Taking time to decide will help you work out what you really want to do. Defang that time pressure.
Psychology Today adds a couple of other suggestions:
- Remember that a lot of what we’re comparing ourselves to isn’t always/often based in reality. The more someone on social media appears to have a perfect, ideal life, the more they’re probably curating their page to look that way. FOMO often involves comparisons between ourselves and others, and it can be hard to remember that we’re often comparing our real selves to someone else’s carefully-curated self.
- Learn about and be aware of unethical marketing tactics that seek to create artificial constraints or use your fears against you. (<—– definitely this)
And if FOMO (or risk aversion generally) is interfering with your life and the regular suggestions aren’t helping, please seek a reputable secular therapist (this link might help you find one) or counselor to help you work through it and figure out how to defeat it.
Fear of any kind is a really wretched way to go through life, but it’s just so insidious and hard to see while we’re in the thick of it. Deconversion doesn’t make the programming that created that fear in us just go away, most times–but we can learn about it if it applies to us, and then we can start working out how to repair the damage so we can start moving forward again.
Next Up: We’re going to take a look back at the blog’s first year of life as we examine why Christians love miracles so much, despite how much of a backfire they are for Christians’ claims about their religion. Remember Miracle Maxin’? We’re revisiting him next time–see you soon!
Come join us on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and our forum at rolltodisbelieve.com!
If you like what you see, I would love to have your support. My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips, and I also welcome monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve. Thanks!