What creates fear? How do we overcome it? What fears are “real,” and what are “imagined”? And what does science have to say about religion’s role in alleviating fear?

As part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum on the topic  “When Religion Heals, When Science Heals,” our Sinai and Synapses Fellows participated in a Slack chat to explore these questions. The posts are lightly edited.

Geoff Mitelman (Founding Director, Sinai and Synapses): There’s a great book by Robert Sapolsky called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” He argues that only humans deal with anxiety and dread, since other animals are either going to live or die. Their fears are simply about physical survival. So how do we distinguish legitimate fear from the fears created by our minds?

Sara Gottlieb (doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley): I don’t necessarily agree that fears “created by our minds” aren’t legitimate fears. Just because they aren’t about physical survival does mean they aren’t real, or rooted in concerns that could have value for survival and fitness.

We know that humans have incredible cognitive abilities to think in abstract ways, and to transcend the “here and now” by considering the minds of others and simulating counterfactuals and imaginary scenarios. This is one of the dominant ways in which our minds are so different the minds of other animals. I think that with these abilities come trade-offs — perspective taking with a family member in pain, for example, would cause anxiety or dread and maybe trigger helping behavior.

But this is a natural trade-off for our ability to simulate what it is like to be another person, which is undoubtedly necessary for things we consider important — binding into groups and helping those who are close to us. Even though these concerns aren’t about physical survival in the strictest sense, they are about survival in a broader sense when we consider cooperation and helping behavior in groups and societies.

Kat Robison (Ph.D. student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Political Science at The University of Alabama): I think this is an important point, Sara, because if our mind causes us to experience a fear, does it matter if it is “legitimate” or not? Do we not now have to also ask what is a fear? Or perhaps more simply, what do we mean, in the context of this conversation, by fear?

Stefanie Leacock (Independent Consultant, Genetics/Biology publishing): Sara, I like your use of the word “trade-offs,” as my immediate thought was that there must be some advantages to this ability to “create” fears. We have the ability to imagine, create, invent new ways of doing things, and linked to the ability to see the potential “bad” in the future is the ability to see the potential “good” in the future.

When I mentioned this topic to a friend who is a therapist, her thought was that a related difference in humans and animals might be our ability to also live in the past: regret, remorse, which can also cause pain. Is this in common with the question about fears is the future? That we might regret something about which we had no control of or decisions that were made with the best of intentions?

David Bosworth (Associate Professor of Old Testament at The Catholic University of America): I am reminded of “terror management theory” (TMT): the idea that we know that we are going to die, yet want to live, and the contrast generates terror, which we manage through cultural constructs. TMT has been one way some have tried to explain why humans are religious.

The idea of an afterlife, for example, can be a consolation as we consider the inevitability of our own future deaths and the reality of the past deaths of loved ones (which, in turn, reminds us of our mortality). Sometimes you can see how religious ideas develop in response to death-related anxieties.

For example, the Jewish (and later Christian) idea of resurrection and final judgment developed as a response to the persecutions of Antiochus IV. He wanted the Jews under his rule to worship like pagans, and persecuted those who refused to cooperate (e.g., by torturing them to death) and rewarded those who cooperated (e.g., by eating pork or worshipping pagan deities).

As a result, some Jews, began to believe that the martyrs would be rewarded in an afterlife and the defectors punished after death. Previously, they had believed that rewards and punishments were distributed in this life (see Job, Proverbs, etc). The only afterlife was Sheol (similar to the Greek idea of Hades), where everyone went after death, whether good or bad.

Many of my students do not realize how their beliefs evolved over time in response to specific historical events. The idea that religions have a history seems threatening to some, as if the truth of cherished ideas seem uncertain if they developed over time. In my experience, some Catholics want to believe that the Church has “always” taught some doctrine that the Church has not “always” taught.

Perhaps the myth of a static, unchanging Church offers a consolation, a way of managing the terror that may come with change and death.

Megan Powell Cuzzolino (doctoral student studying human development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education): As I read your comments, I’m wondering if rather than distinguishing between the source of the fear (“real” versus “in our minds”), a more useful distinction might be about the magnitude or nature of the risk involved in the thing we are fearing or dreading.

When I saw the phrase “fears created by our minds,” the examples that first came to me were ones where there is a mismatch between the level of fear and the scope of the potential consequences. For instance, I’ve always been anxious about the dentist. I had an appointment last week for a regular exam and cleaning, and as I walked over to the dentist’s office I had a pit in my stomach as though something truly awful might happen, even though there was an incredibly low likelihood that I’d experience anything worse than some brief minor pain or the news that I’d need to get a cavity filled.

Many people experience similar feelings in other contexts — there’s the oft-cited claim that humans fear public speaking more than death, as one example.

To that end, here’s an interesting Washington Post article from 2014 about Americans’ top fears (public speaking, heights, bugs, etc.).

It cites a study that found that political affiliation, education, and TV viewing habits were all big predictors of fear levels across a wide range of topics.

Geoff Mitelman: Jerry Seinfeld had a line that if people are more scared of public speaking than death, then at a funeral, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy!

I would agree that religion — both in philosophy and in practice — is designed to give us a level of control in an uncertain world. But does that desire for control potentially stifle creativity?

Jonathan Morgan (doctoral fellow studying the Psychology of Religion at Boston University): I think this a really interesting point about the ways religion can give us a control (or at least a feeling of control). There’s lots of anthropological studies that attest to this fact (M. Douglas’s essay on Leviticus is a prime example) and psychological work like that on TMT as David mentioned.

But there are also other forms of religion that aim to explicitly relinquish that sense of control! I’m thinking about the Taoist principle of wu-wei, which Ted Slingerland famously described in relation to spontaneity. Other practices of detachment emphasize giving up control rather than increasing it. So, it’s definitely complicated.

That said, I think Geoff’s point about control and creativity is well put. When I’m feeling fear (whether based on real or perceived threats), my inclination is often towards wanting to exercise more control…but this is the root of the missed free-throw in those final seconds. Often that desire for control leads to rigidity and an over-analytical assessment– characteristics that seem to be the opposite of creativity.

It seems to me that there’s some deep wisdom in traditions that attempt to instill more receptive and spontaneous responses to uncertainty.

Geoff Mitelman: I think the real challenge is that when we are afraid, we naturally go into “fight or flight” response, yet what we need are imaginative responses — which are almost impossible to create when we feel threatened.

In some ways, religion as a source of creative meaning can “inoculate” us against the fears that naturally arise. We do have a desire to live while also understanding that we are all going to die. So we need to be proactive (rather than reactive) to create a worldview that works for us. If we do that, it will be much easier for us to respond when these fears arise.

And that’s where religion can really help. It already gives us a community, a language, and a support system to help us deal with fears — however we experience them.