An AdNAUSEUM metaPhysics primer

How Has Fear Shaped the World?

A speculative essay by Des Pensable, (c) 2012


Fear can be beneficial

It’s hard in our day to day lives for an educated person in the 21st century to imagine how frightening it must have been for our ancestors competing for food and shelter in a dangerous world of predators and countless unknown hazards. Life was simple and little different from any other animal, eat, reproduce and survive. Humans like all animals are equipped through evolution with a powerful behavioral mechanism of survival called fear.

Fear of immediate danger causes an instant strong emotional response over-riding all other mental activities that is accompanied by a release of adrenaline and other chemicals causing rapid physiological changes in your body stimulating your brain, priming your heart and energizing your muscles so that you can fight or flee.

Fear of future danger is a prediction, an intuitive guess that something deleterious is likely to happen to you in the future unless action is taken to avoid or minimize it. It causes release of corticosteroids and other chemicals that cause the physiological changes in your body we call stress, resulting in loss of sleep, depression, loss of appetite and worry which reduce our wellbeing and happiness.

Fear then might be considered as a beneficial physiological response to the probability of immanent or future danger which is increased by external often unknown factors and can be reduced by our responses to it. But we don’t like fear as it causes undesirable emotional and physical stresses in our minds and bodies and evolution has selected us to react quickly to avoid it. Survival after all is about the quick or the dead.

While all animals have a fear mechanism built into their behavior to improve their chances of survival, early humans discovered that they could harness the fear behavior of other people and animals as a tool to their advantage.

Humans are afraid of the dark because that’s when harmful predators are at large and even though you can’t see them you can imagine that they are there. The solution was that most creatures are afraid of fire so fire can be used to invoke fear in predators keeping them away and as a bonus it also gives light so that we can see in the dark and that reduces our fear of predators being there. Is it any wonder that we consider the use of fire as one of the greatest of human discoveries?

In navigating life and surviving our ancestors discovered by trial and error which animals and foods were dangerous and which were not. They learnt about animal behavior and when and where food was to be found. They became aware of cause and effect. Animals came to the waterhole to drink because they were thirsty. Fruits grew in the spring because it was warm. Birds sounded the alarm because there was a predator around. Examples of cause and effect were everywhere.

They also became aware of the planets sometimes appearing in various parts of the sky at different times of the night and how the moon changed its appearance and wondered why? What was the cause of these changes and what did it effect?

Enter the Wise Man

Enter the wise man, the shaman, the thinker, the creator of tales and stories. The planets were people in the sky that periodically came out to play or even watch us. The moon is telling us things but we don’t yet know its language. They must be more powerful than us because they can fly and we can’t. Perhaps we could ask them to watch over us while we sleep to reduce our fears of the dark. What a great idea and religion was born! It was created by us to reduce our fear.

Religions have been with us in one form or another for thousands of years. They began in our dark distant past as a worship of fear and respect for nature, the stars and the imagined spirits of the creatures that lived in the world around us. It then evolved to include more sophisticated gods and goddesses not unlike ourselves that had emotions; that lived and loved, and fought among themselves like we did. They often lived longer, had supernatural magic powers, were stronger smarter and better in some way than us so we would entreat them to help and protect us.

Finally we conceived of a god that was supreme over everything and better than us in every way. A wise and knowledgeable god that could lead, guide and protect us from the dangers of the hostile world around us. One that could reduce our fears and give us hope of a happy and prosperous life where our survival was not continually threatened. That god was a great and powerful leader, greater even than the leader our village, state or kingdom or any of our enemies’ gods.

This god being perfect would know everything about the past and future. He would know what we do as he was continually watching us. He loved us. He could do incredible things that we would normally consider impossible. Like cure sickness, offer survival after our death so we could live happily forever, but it came at a cost. The cost was fear. If we did not obey him then he would use our own invention against us. We would be sent to live in agony forever in a world of fire. The very same fire that reduced our fear of predators in the dark was now the ultimate punishment for our disobedience.

So in its crudest sense then religion is a method of reducing fears of the unknown by replacing it with a greater known fear while offering the impossible, everlasting survival. It was carrot and stick. It is the perfect solution to getting people to live together more peacefully in villages, then towns and states and finally countries.

By using religion it made it easier for the leaders to control the selfish often violent behavior of their people. By reducing their fears about danger in their daily lives and telling them that their god wanted them to work together peacefully, it was possible to harness their energies for the benefit of all and everyone would be happy. From an evolutionary point of view fitness of survival was now dependent upon how well a person could cooperate and socialize with others rather than survive the rigors of the wilderness. What a great invention!

It has worked well for hundreds of years. In its latest version, it has created useful handbooks in the form of the Bible and Quran on how best to live and behave with other humans that minimizes fear and maximizes well being for everyone. It has been a tool that has given identity to our cultures and has provided the philosophy, ethics and rules that have defined our societies.

But like all tools it can be used by people for either good or bad purposes. Religion worked by replacing a lesser fear with a greater fear. It works by presupposing that our leader is benevolent, loves us and will always do the right thing to ensure our wellbeing and happiness. In the hands of a ruthless leader religion can become a method of mind control that strips away freedom and individuality and turns us into mindless slaves like robots bound by mental chains stronger than any steel.

The Enlightenment

In the 18th century the Enlightenment happened, less reliance on gods, more reliance on ourselves and a new way of thinking called science. It is a method of reproducibly determining how nature and the world around us work. A way of determining what was real from what was not and what was true from what was false. It provides accurate methods of estimating and understanding the probability of natural events and dangers that we can use to reduce our fears by taking precautions that we know will be effective.

Over that last couple of hundred years science has worked methodically to understand all the dangers that threaten our survival and provide solutions to minimize those dangers. For example in the Middle Ages we feared disease and plagues. They killed millions of people. If we asked the priests about disease and plagues their reply was that it was sent by god to punish us for our wickedness. The solution was to obey his wishes and pray to god fervently so that he would spare us. This happened for hundreds of years but there is little evidence that god saved anyone!

Using the methods of science people sought the answers to disease and plagues and discovered that many diseases were caused by microorganisms too tiny to be seen without using magnifying lenses. They invented antibiotic drugs to kill the microorganisms that caused the diseases. They found out that plagues were caused by microorganisms carried by fleas on rats. When we were bitten by the fleas we caught the disease.

By reducing the rat population it was possible to reduce the threat of plagues and by improving our personal hygiene and water quality it was possible to reduce the threat of disease. Hence by knowing how and why plagues and disease happened we could then control them and no longer fear them. Knowledge is power.

We feared disease and the plagues. Religion could not tell us about these as it was not designed to discover new knowledge only to placate fear using the greater fear of divine retribution or a promise of divine intervention which rarely seems to work. People using science sought the answer to disease and found cures because it is designed to discover new knowledge and find solutions that work reliably.

In finding solutions it reduced our fear of disease and plagues without controlling us by a greater fear as in the case of the supernatural gods of religion. We also discovered that the gods did not send disease and plagues to punish us for our sins. They were caused by tiny microorganisms which are just another form of natural predator trying to survive like us.

The scientific knowledge that gives us the power to be free of fear in the natural world can also give us the power to be free of fear in the supernatural world of religion. Indeed religion itself now fears science for that very reason.

The scientific method is based on observation, experimentation, measurement and repeatability. If an experiment can be carried out by multiple observers who find the same results then they all can agree. If another person is skeptical about the result the experiment can be repeated by them and if they too get the same result they have no reason to disagree.

For example, if you were asked how many teeth were in the mouth of a horse, you could guess based on the number of teeth in your own mouth. If you asked a series of people you would most likely get a variety of answers and disagree. However, if you carried out a simple experiment the result is different. If you collected the same people and a horse and you each counted the number of teeth in the horse’s mouth everyone present could agree on the answer. Anyone not present doubting the answer can go count the teeth in a horse themselves and agree with you.

The basic presumption of religion is that there is an all powerful god who we should fear as if we disobey his wishes he can send us to a place where we will suffer an eternity of pain and torment after we die. The concept of religion is based upon faith which is the belief without any proof that gods exist (see my esssay on faith). Quite a remarkable concept in this 21st century where courts of law require considerable proof of the guilt of a suspect of a crime before finding that they are guilty. To have faith that they did it is not good enough!

This is serious stuff! If gods exist we should all be truly fearful and hundreds of millions of people are fearful because this is what they have been told every day since they were born depending upon in which culture they were born. However, there is disagreement. Some people in some cultures say there is only one true god, others say there is a different true god, some say there are a lot of true gods, some are unsure about gods and some say that there are no gods. The truth to some is different to the truth of others. So who is correct?

The consequences are great. If there are no gods then there are no reasons to fear them. Indeed the god’s priests suddenly have no authority, no right to ask people to donate money or time, no right to not pay taxes, no right to deceive people about heaven, hell, angels, demons or sin itself, no right to get politicians to bring in laws that affect nonbelievers, no right to ask people to kill themselves, no rights to tell anyone anything! The priests should all seek new jobs and the religious organizations give their property and money to the government where it can be used for the benefit of the citizens.

Can science prove there is a god?

So can we use scientific method to prove that there is a god? To prove that a god exists we would need to carry out experiments on the god, to observe and be able to measure the god in some way and get repeatable results. If it was a natural creature for example a Tasmanian Tiger we can do this. We know that they did exist in Tasmania because we have evidence of their existence in the form of bodies and photographs of them in museums.

We know that they no longer exist because no one has seen any or found any evidence that they still exist for over 100 years therefore they are considered to be extinct like dinosaurs. We can say Tasmanian Tigers are highly unlikely to exist but we cannot prove they do not exist anymore as we cannot look everywhere within Tasmania at the same instant of time. Because we do not believe that they exist anymore there is no fear of being attacked by a Tasmanian Tiger or a dinosaur whilst walking in the bush.

The rule for existence is that for something to exist it must be proven to exist using evidence that all can agree is valid. Furthermore, it is not possible to prove that something does not exist somewhere because we cannot look everywhere at the same instant of time. Since gods are supernatural creatures and we don’t know where they live and they are not volunteering to be studied, it is not possible to gather evidence of their existence. Consequently, scientific method cannot prove that there is a god nor can it prove that any other supernatural creatures such as ghosts, unicorns or dragons exist. Therefore like Tasmanian Tigers and dinosaurs we can say it is highly unlikely that they do exist in the world today and consequently we should not fear them.

It follows that if gods are highly unlikely then the words attributed to them are more likely to have been created by humans. This is not necessarily bad. The philosophy and wisdom passed down over the centuries by the Buddhists, who don’t believe in gods, is still great and useful wisdom even though it came from humans. Many millions of people follow this wisdom and live productive, happy, peaceful lives. People can get by without gods!

It is quite possible that the events in the holy texts were created by well intentioned humans but attributed to a god as an exercise to sell a beneficial philosophy to doubtful ignorant barbaric customers. The story of Jesus was not written by him but followers a hundred or more years later. We should be skeptical about its origins and not get over emotional about its veracity. In general followers like to glorify gods and heroes not talk about their faults and weaknesses.

The scientific method has cast doubt on some events within the bible. The scientific explanation of the evolution of all animal and plant species on our world is a coherent story which is backed up by millions of pieces of fossil and other scientific evidence but it is in direct disagreement with the biblical version of creation.

The scientific version of creation and evidence about other events is disputed by some religious fundamentalists as they believe that every word written in the religious documents are literally correct. They believe every word is correct even though it has been assembled from translations of translations from documents and parts of documents hundreds of years old where the meaning and context of the words are often unknown. They argue that the mountain of modern evidence must be wrong.

This is an example of cognitive dissonance, self deception and dishonesty. If it is highly unlikely that god exists then the biblical texts were written by humans who we all acknowledge make mistakes and invent stories to deceive.

Is Belief in the Supernatural Good or Bad

To characterize religion as being good or bad is incorrect. Religion is a tool not unlike swords and guns invented by humans to help us survive in strange and dangerous world. Tools are neither good nor bad but they can be used for good or bad purposes.

No one can deny that we have used it as a tool to create a wonderful society that strives for peace and happiness. Religion as a philosophy for life has found ways for us to work together cooperatively in large numbers in relative harmony with minimal fear. But is also true that it’s based upon fear of the supernatural gods that we cannot prove exist.

In the best case scenario, the organizations that control religion do it out of the genuine belief that they are doing good and it is beneficial for all humankind. However, in the worst case scenario other less honest champions of religion can use it to control and motivate others for selfish political or financial gain. Both of these scenarios and variations in between are common in our world today.

Using the scientific method we have effectively eliminated fear in the natural world but fear of the supernatural world persists and is passed on as truth. While there is no evidence of supernatural creatures causing any harm except through our own imagination, it is quite normal to see people being harmed by people who believe in the supernatural. They believe that a god that we cannot prove exists wants them to harm others. Surely this is ignorance and stupidity at its worst!

The task for us in the future is to accept the beneficial aspects and wisdom of the religious philosophy but reject the supernatural components. Do we really need gods when using science we can so effectively discover the knowledge of how the universe works, use it to better our lives and in doing so minimizes our fear of the unknown? Do we really need gods when they are used to sponsor division, distrust, fear, death and destruction between people that all want the same things, a happy peaceful, prosperous life. After all we are all humans.

I believe gods and the supernatural are no longer needed. They are past their use by dates and should be cast away. The religious establishment will no doubt disagree as they have a vested interest. They make their living from peddling the benefits and fear of gods. They believe that society will disintegrate into chaos without gods to rule over us. They believe people will always need gods as psychological crutches. The Buddhists don't believe these things.

The religious groups still argue as to whose god is best. They squabble like children playing with toy soldiers. They incite fights to the death if someone insults their god and even threaten their own people with death if any dare believe in someone else’s god! The world has shrunk. All countries are more dependent on each other than ever before.

Which way to the Future?

We all face the same future of global warming and severe uneven distribution of wealth and resources and it is threatened by our division largely through differing religious beliefs which colour our political ideology. Surely in the 21st century we can move beyond this petty idiocy? We all live on the same rock in space and it’s the only one we have that can guarantee our survival!

The scientific studies carried out to date on dozens of countries show that the more secular societies do remarkably well and have fewer problems than the more religious societies in almost every measurable way (1). Hence we should be striving to make our societies more secular and phasing out religious dogma as being out of date. Knowledge is the key. We need to educate people so they have a true understanding of the laws and limitations of the natural world we live in, of how it works, and where we fit into it.

Above all we need to understand that the supernatural cannot harm us and religion was simply a method, a tool invented by our ancestors of allowing us to overcome our fears of the unknown. We need to reject gods and the supernatural. We can control our own future. The Buddhists managed to do it hundreds of years ago. With the knowledge gained by use of the scientific method we can move on to a bright new future in the universe. We can still utilize the positive benefits that religious philosophy has endowed upon our civilization but recognize its limitations and fantasies. Let’s grow up and relegate gods and fear to the rubbish bin of history.

Suggested viewing:

A virus called Fear


Further Similar Articles by Des Pensable 

Is Science a Belief or a Faith

Freedom and Democracy vs Religion

If you enjoyed this story send an note to Des the author and watch for more essays coming soon on this website.