The Beast in Modern Religion
During a nuclear war, an evacuation plane filled with English schoolboys crash-lands on an uninhabited island. The boys attempt to govern themselves as their humanity quickly escapes them. A central theme present throughout William Golding’s 1954 Nobel Prize-Winning novel Lord of The Flies is the temperament of the Christian god. The exploration of this theme in Golding’s work spawned from The Coral Island, a 19th Century children’s book by R. M. Ballantyne that focuses on Christian ideals. Golding flipped these ideals on their heads in Lord of The Flies and introduces a mysterious, existential ‘beast’ that was manifested by a group of boys desperate for spiritual leadership. Lord of the Flies juxtaposes civilization and salvation against savagery and fear. The boys’ ready conformity to the beast shows that humans can be just as, if not more successful, when given something to fear rather than something to strive for. In the real world, religions often rely on a fearsome, vengeful god to motivate a particular set of behavior.
The uninhabited island that the boys are stranded on is a microcosm of life on Earth. On the island, as in real life, humans are left to seek their own meaning and spiritual guidance. Some guidance rests on a benevolent god while others rely on a vengeful one to shape human behavior. While on an expedition to learn more about the island, Ralph, Jack, and Simon realize that they had landed on paradise. “‘But this is a good island. We-Jack, Simon, and me-we climbed the mountain. It’s wizard. There’s food and drink, and-’ ‘Rocks-’ ‘Blue flowers-’... ‘While we’re waiting we can have a good time on this island’” (p. 34) Mother nature, repleted with all the resources needed for survival and enjoyment, represents the loving, giving god. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “God created everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to him” (Part 1; Section 2; Chapter 1; Article 1; Paragraph 6; Line 358) Thus, in the Catholic religion, god is a loving provider as long as humanity also demonstrates love. Yet, the boys in the novel do not follow the path of the loving, giving god. Instead, they follow the way of the Beast.
The beast is modeled after the Christian devil as evidenced by the fact that his name, The Lord of the Flies refers to Beelzebub, the devil. The chapter titles related to the Beast in Golding’s book (e.g., Beast from Water) also have parallels in The Book of Revelation (e.g., Beast from Sea). It is by this fearsome, vengeful beast that the boys are motivated to collaborate. Prior to the discovery of the beast, most of the boys merely bask in the beauty of the island. “They’re hopeless, The older ones aren’t much better. D’you see? All day I’ve been working with Simon. No one else. They’re off bathing, or eating, or playing” (p. 50) It isn’t until their fear and devotion towards the beast develop that the boys begin to create and achieve goals. For one, they manage to hunt successfully and engage in a religious sacrificial ceremony. “Jack held up the head and jammed the soft throat down on the pointed end of the stick which pierced through into the mouth...‘This head is for the beast. It’s a gift’” (p. 136-7) The beast requires sacrifices and easily manipulates the boys’ behavior by instilling fear. The Christian god has similar requirements. “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, On those who hope for His loving kindness, To deliver their soul from death And to keep them alive in famine” (Psalm 33:18-19) It is common find the fear of god being considered a positive trait in Abrahamic religions. A god-fearing man is trustworthy because he fears God’s wrath, whereas the Pharaoh, for example, who did not fear God was visited by calamity and ended up with his nation destroyed.
Outside of religious text, psychological studies generally agree on the power of fear to incite actions. The article, “God’s Punishment and Public Goods,” shows that fear of God does in fact lead to stronger cooperation. “Cooperation towards public goods relies on credible threats of punishment to deter cheats. However, punishing is costly, so it remains unclear who incurred the costs of enforcement in our evolutionary past. Theoretical work suggests that human cooperation may be promoted if people believe in supernatural punishment for moral transgressions.” Other studies also support the superiority of fear over other motivators. According to “Psychology Today,” “There are many things that motivate us. But the most powerful motivator of all is fear. Fear is a primal instinct that served us as cave dwellers and today. It keeps us alive.” Moreover, a meta-analysis on fear published on Sage Journals “suggests that strong fear appeals produce high levels of perceived severity and susceptibility, and are more persuasive than low or weak fear appeals.” In other words, not only is fear an effective motivator, more fear is even more effective. In terms of the Lord of the Flies, being eaten by the Beast certainly qualifies as high severity and in terms of Abrahamic religions, there is no higher stake than eternal damnation!
Another indication that Golding intends to suggest fear as the main driver for human actions is that Beast, like all emotions, is not external to the boys. Beast is actually an emotional expression of the boys. In the novel, The Lord of The Flies speaks with Simon, teaching him about the true origin and nature of the beast. “‘You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?” (p. 143) “Simon found he was looking into a vast mouth. There was blackness within, a blackness that spread... ‘We shall do you? See? Jack and Roger and Maurice and Robert and Bill and Piggy and Ralph. Do you. See?’” (p. 144) Jack, Roger, Maurice, Robert, Bill, Piggy, Ralph and finally Simon are incorporated into the belly of the beast. Thus, the Beast, which represents fear, is manifested by the boys. The notion that the manifestation of a destructive god can be a powerful determinant of human behavior is found in Hinduism. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with 33 deities representing various aspects of humans. The three principle deities are Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. Shiva is the agent for change. Only when Shiva wrecks havoc to the status quo would humans change their behavior. Otherwise, Vishnu would continue to preserve. Hindus commonly greet each other with the word, “Namaste,” which translates to “I bow to the god inside of you.” In Hinduism, humans are in control of manifesting their own universe. Every object, incident, or emotion that exists is a creation of their minds, just like the Beast is a creation of the boys so that they can be led to actions that are meaningful for them.
By transporting life on earth into a small paradise island and shrinking humanity into a group of English schoolboys, William Golding cleverly implores his readers to take a step back in order to fully view human life for what it truly is. He showcases the power of fear as the superior motivator by imbuing the vengeful god found in various religions into Beast who scares the boys into action. Golding’s philosophical view of fear is supported by a plethora of psychological studies on the topic, ranging from fear of god, to fear of evil, to fear of death. The Lord of The Flies takes this negative fear and flips it into a more positive outlook on life. After all, the boys create Beast for their own survival. While keeping the ever-present and looming inevitability and uncertainty of death throughout the book, Golding does not ever imply that life is unimportant or inconsequential. In fact, he conveys the importance of life and actions during one’s lifetime because there is a constant fear of death. He suggests simply that the fear of pain or death in this lifetime is more motivating than the hope for eternal salvation.
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