I’d happily all but forgotten about Ted Haggard until reading this week that he was making the rounds of the talk shows and reconfirming that he’d been “miraculously cured” of his wanting to strip down and get naked with other men. Praise the lord and pass the body lotion.

I remember back when it happened, i found the whole Ted Haggard thing funny for all the usual reasons that i won’t bother getting into because The Daily Show does it better than i ever will. However, the thing that strikes me in the kind of ironic aftermath of the whole thing isn’t the reaction from either socio-political wing to Haggard’s crash-and-burn or the incredible extents of his stupidity. It’s the surprise factor. Haggard’s supporters on the right were all so surprised that a guy who built a career on clean living and gay-bashing could secretly have a dependency on crystal meth and sodomy. Haggard’s detractors on the left were all so surprised that Haggard’s supporters on the right were surprised, which in turn makes the supporters on the right talk about how surprised they are that the atheist left hates the religious right so much, et al, et al. It’s just like this little orgy (probably a bad metaphor; sorry) of denial all around.

It strikes me that rampant denial is probably at the root of most surprise. (“He seemed like such a nice, quiet man.”) In and of itself, that’s understandable. As has been said in different ways by smarter people than me, the last Neanderthals probably looked at the first Cromagnons and said to themselves “Why worry?”

However, the framework of religious dogma and hypocrisy in this particular case underlines a more subtle and important point. Most religious faith is based on denial at its most basic, root level. Everything we’re naturally afraid of as human beings, religion allows us to deny in order to make those things safe. We’re afraid to die; religion lets us believe we won’t. We’re afraid of our own inconsequence; religion tells us that all creation exists for our pleasure and stewardship. We’re afraid of the future; religion tells us the future is set according to a master plan. We’re afraid to acknowledge our urges to get it on all animal-style with people we’re not supposed to get it on with. Religion tells us thou shalt not do that sort of thing.

Denial is the natural state of human affairs and always has been, because the antithesis of denial is reason, and we don’t like to think too much. But simply remembering that denial and fear are flip sides of the same psychological coin is the key to undermining the hold that fear has over us — and the key to remembering how to think again. It’s easy to look at ourselves and acknowledge the things we deny. Once done so, we have the opportunity to acknowledge that we’re afraid of those things — and to ask ourselves why we’re afraid.