In these times of ugly political fear mongering, I am reminded of FDR’s famous admonition: “All we have to fear is fear itself.” Indeed, fear can bring out the basest instincts of our nature and it can paralyze us into inaction. But, could fear have a beneficial side to it? The easy answer is, of course, it has a survival value. Without fear, animals, including our ancestors, could end up as lunch for a hungry predator. But once we learned how to make hunting weapons, did fear lose its selective advantage? If so, why didn’t we evolve, during eons of natural selection, into a fearless species?


Religion and fear

One of our previous articles dealt with an interesting, and mildly controversial issue: Does religion have a monopoly on moral behavior? We described an experiment published in PLoS ONE in which 177 university students in Turkey were divided into 3 groups: 59 were primed with religion-related words, like prayer, hell, paradise, punishment, etc. Another group of 59 was primed with secular-analytic priming words such as ponder, analysis, logical, think, and rational. The third group of 59 subjects (Neutral group) was primed with words that did not form a coherent theme.

The conclusion was truly surprising. The group primed with secular-analytic words showed that moral sensitivity is enhanced by respect for civil order and the consequences of violating it. It’s not that much different from the fear and trembling that religions evoke. In other words, in the face of our emphasis on civil values like love, fairness, justice, the overwhelming factor that ensures our moral behavior, regardless if it is religion or civil institution, is…FEAR!

Of course, every good experiment raises more questions. This experiment was conducted in a Muslim country (Turkey) with mostly religious participants. Could it be that the participants were a priori conditioned to fear retribution from a higher authority, be it religious or civil? Is it possible that the fear induced by religion is actually adaptive? And if so, what are the selective advantages of religion?


It depends on the kind of god

A more subtle issue with the study of the Turkish students is that they all believed in the same, all-powerful god. But, as we know, not all gods are created equal. If you look at ancient religions, you can discern a distinct evolutionary process—from the personalized (ancestor worship) that many animist societies still practice to local deities of the village, town, and region. Their reign was limited, and so was their power. Athena was all powerful in Athens and its environs, but any self-respecting Spartan would tell you he hardly knew her, let alone feared her. Slowly, universally powerful gods emerged: Zeus in Greece, Marduk in Mesopotamia, El in Syria and Canaan, and Elohim god of the Hebrews. These were the heads of the pantheons of the local gods, evolving into the abstract all-knowing, all-powerful God, with a capital G, of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is obviously a short version of religious evolution. But the important question for us is ‘What, if any, was the social impact of the emergence of these fearsome supernatural deities?

To provide an answer to this question, one needs to look at small, isolated societies, where the myriad confounding factors of studying volunteers, such as students in an Islamic country, are not present.

Benjamin Purzycki and a group of international colleagues’ published a study that addresses many of these issues. They looked at eight small-scale societies around the world. Participants played a game (designed to subtly reveal preferences), in which they allocated coins between a distant co-religionist (people who were members of the same religion, but who lived geographically far away) and either themselves or a local co-religionist. The researchers found that the more subjects rated their god as moralistic, knowledgeable, and punishing, the more money they gave to distant strangers adhering to the same religion.

And what about the positive side of religion, namely rewards of heaven or untold riches? The experiments showed that belief in rewards from the god could not account for the results. Supernatural punishment seemed responsible which confirms the conclusion of the study with the Turkish students—moral behavior is fostered by fear.


From respect for ancestors to fear of God

Notice that the farther away the co-religionists lived, the more likely were the subjects to give them money. At first sight, this is paradoxical. Why should they care about those distant people? The answer my friend is written in the gods. At a close examination, you realize that the god that reigns over large distances of the earth is more powerful and, therefore, is likely to exact a more terrible punishment than the local village god. This is a scientific confirmation of what you see traveling in Africa, Madagascar, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of South America; villagers respect their ancestors, even build family shrines to honor them, but they fear the Big God of Christianity or Islam.


The far-reaching consequences of god-fearing

Since the early 20th century, several anthropologists proposed the theory that supernatural beliefs offer a powerful way to build materially cooperative societies. Interesting theory, but how does such a theory translate from a natural selection perspective to the individual level? After all, any given individual is not concerned with building a wonderful society—just in maximizing his own odds of survival. I was reminded of it this morning when I read the cartoon on my coffee cup: “All I want in life are thin thighs and world peace; actually, I don’t care that much about world peace.” So, how do you reconcile the common good with individual self-interest?

In an article in Nature, Dominic D.P. Johnson of Oxford University says that one of the most compelling explanations for why individuals may help the group at their own expense is that it aids survival in an environment of inter-group competition. Whenever the threat of exploitation or warfare is present, the best protection is larger and more-cohesive societies, which are better able to deter or defeat rivals. Here are examples from our own history: 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and WWII.

Religion’s ability to cause individuals to submerge their self-interest in the service of their religious beliefs is as ancient as the martyrdom of the early Christians in Rome and as recent as the murderous Jihadists of Islam. But a surprising, and more beneficial, “side effect” of religious fear may be the reduction of self-interest and promotion of cooperation.

Of course, modern societies are becoming more civil and less religious. That does not mean that they become less moral or cooperative. For example, witness the secular societies of Scandinavia. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more moral, civic-oriented, and cooperative society. But the sobering fact that emerges from this research is that this civil societal cooperation, and that of co-religionists near and far, share a common root: Fear.

Who would have guessed that one of our most primitive reflexes, fear, is actually important in the development our modern societies? A surprising insight, to be sure.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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