Saturday, January 19, 2008


"You scare me, Peter. Don't you scare yourself sometimes?"

Fear—a force that confines. The individual who fears the water is spared the risk of crocodilian ingestion, but she also forgoes access to the life partner on the far bank.

Fear is sourced through both acquired learning and instinct. A mother knows what risks lurk beneath the sands and amongst the intertwined roots of the mangroves during high tide. She has learned to fear the hide tide through experience—having barely escaped a crocodilian assault in her youth. The mother instructs her child not to enter the mangrove during high tide, and the child instinctively feels fear at the thought of insubordination toward his mother's instruction. He heeds her words, does not linger in the groves for high tide, and is afforded growth to maturity through avoiding the threat of tetrapod attack. He does not learn to fear high tide through a narrow escape as his mother had, he instinctively fears disobeying his mother—an evolved trait of primate and hominid social strictures.

According to developmental researchers, fear is the most elementary motivator in human moral development.
The four-year-old wants to color with a permanent marker on his sibling's arm. He scopes for adult attention, and, having observed an absence of adult awareness, he proceeds to mark up the exposed skin. Had an adult been watching, he would not have colored. Why? Adult presence translates into immediate punishment. His moral world is guided by fear—the fear of punishment.

Maturity of moral development is characterized by altruism. The altruistic does not allow fear of punishment to preclude right conduct. That is, even in the event that established norms of right and wrong, be they perceived divine or human, prohibit a specific behavior, the altruistic realizes that a higher good can be served through transgressing a norm when necessary.

The altruistic Jesus broke the Sabbath commandment, according to Matthew 12, when he permitted harvesting on the Sabbath. The altruistic driver runs a red light, despite fear of an accident or law enforcement personnel, because she knows the sick child in the back seat needs to get the emergency room.

Fear is a force that confines, albeit, for largely selfish reasons. It asks the question, "What can I do while yet shunning punishment (divine or human)?"
It prevents the fearful from partaking of the perceived forbidden.

I used to fear doubt. I used to fear the logical contradictions of my belief system. It scared me to realize that the Bible was refuted by basic science. I was afraid of accepting this conclusion for fear that it would propel me off of the precipice of impiety and punishment. Later I feared transgressing accepted norms. First, I feared eating unkosher chicken. Later, I feared eating unkosher beef. Still later, I feared eating pig. Yet, I have passed these thresholds.

I am not bound by fear. I do not fear wrath. I do not fear God. I do not fear demons or a nefarious numen behind every mishap. I am not afraid of reading the Quran. I am not afraid of questioning the existence of God. I am not afraid of myself. I am not afraid of the pig. I am not afraid of logic, science, the Bible, and any information available for my perusal.


Tandi said...

Hello Peter,

“Crocodilian ingestion”

Reminds me of the time we stayed in a rustic cabin in Louisiana. We went down to the pier...Pat to fish, me to write....on a sultry, summer day at the bayou. Lo and behold, here is this guy floating on an air mattress in the water! Pat said, “Aren’t you afraid of the snakes and alligators in this pond? I just saw a 12 ft alligator here yesterday!” The guy responded, “It’s hot. When you live in Louisiana and it’s hot, you go in the water. You just have to swim with the ‘gators and not worry about it.”

Not only was he not worried about it, he was snoozing in the sunshine!

Thanks for the memory. I enjoy Louisiana....paradise for nature lovers.

More later. Thanks for the post and the self-revelation. You never cease to entertain, inform, and surprise me.

I just thought of another water memory....

This time we were in Florida, in a canoe. I wanted to see manatees. Do you believe I had never even heard of these creatures before in my entire life? They are also called sea cows and they are huge, gentle animals that eat grass at the edge of the water. We rented a canoe and started paddling out to the river from the inlet. All of a sudden MANY manatees came swimming along right towards our canoe! I had a camera and could have gotten some great pictures....but I was too terrified! I never got to even see them clearly. I was so afraid they would swim under the canoe and tip it over and I would drown because I still had my shoes on and wouldn’t be able to swim. Talk about the fear factor!

The manatees managed to maneuver away from the canoe and went on their way. Florida is a great place for nature lovers also. Sometimes I miss being on the road. We had some great times.

Andrew T. said...

Hello Peter,

Like your other philosophical essays, this is a mix of good and bad.

You're right that in the hierarchy of moral decision-making, fear of immediate repercussions is developmentally low; it is just above unquestioning mimicry (a very small child simply imitates the actions of the people he is familiar with). But you've may have made a mockery of the motives of keepers of Torah.

No keeper of Torah (an Orthodox Jew or geir), unless they are a young child or a simpleton, abstains from eating non-kasheir meats (or breaking any other mitzwah) because they are afraid of immediate repercussions. Except for a few Khareidim (I mean stone-chuckers), there is no physical threat and even little societal pressure against straying, something that 90% of the world's Jewish population has already done. The motives of Torah Jews are generally a combination of fidelity to tradition, familial obligation, personal fulfillment, and, perish the thought, a genuine desire to serve the real Creator of the real world, ha-Sheim. That's one thing that so attracts me to the Netzarim versus another Orthodox Jewish sect: the way they prioritize keeping Torah is intrinsically rational and immaculate.

PeterS said...

Hello Andrew,

I did not qualify my statements very well. I was not trying to assert that all religiously observant people are motivated singularly by fear. The intent of my post was to highlight the fear that keeps people back from thinking and/or experiencing.

In the Jewish tradition, it is esteemed noble to motivated by the fear of sin (i.e., by the fear of punishment). However, it is deemed more noble to to motivated by the love of God or one's neighbor (altruism). Many religious adherents are motivated by fear and altruism at different times and settings or in different degrees.

A devotee might serve her deity out of altruistic desire yet also nurture a fear of doubt that prevents her from thinking that diverges from accepted dogma. I deplore this type of fear when it prevents an individual or a people from seeing the bigger picture.

It really frustrates me, and I am sure that you can appreciate this, when religious adherents vehemently oppose the realities of evolution by positing non-scientific ideas such as intelligent design and, even more incredulously, young-earth creationism. In such cases, fear of removing humanity from its hybristic, self-imposed position of heterogeneity at the top of the hierarchy of being (viz., the fear of removing the distinction between humanity and animals or the fear of being "nothing more than a glorified primate") is paramount. Likewise, acceptance of evolution challenges simplistic notions of the relationship between deity and creation while undermining accepted readings of holy texts. In these cases, it is often fear, not altruism, that motivates.

Another setting where fear is often a front line motivator is in us-them dichotomies. Fear of Islam and the satanic inspiration of the false prophet Mohammad often prevents Westerners from appreciating or simply understanding the basics of Islam. Such fear often results in a gross over stereotypification of "the Muslim." Where it is no longer possible to speak of the "Negro mind" or the "Jewish mind" because Western Caucasians have broken away from such simplicities, it is ridiculously in vogue to write about the "Muslim mind" and describe Islam, without respect to its inherent diversities, as a monolithic religion of terror and violence. Again, fear prevents the observer from plummeting into deeper understandings.

So, really, I am not intending to insult all religiously observant Jews, etc. I did not qualify myself well. Thank you, though, for the opportunity to clarify these points.

Andrew T. said...

Hello Peter,

Good points.

The kind of fear you talk about, the Jewish community appears to convey quite selectively. Some exceptions that come to mind are the way that the Rabbis go about relating to Christianity, and to the notion that modern Judaic practice might somehow be out of sync with scientific findings or a more pristine tradition.

Tandi said...


Reminder: the fear of the LORD is wisdom:

Psa 19:9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

Psa 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments:

Pro 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Pro 8:13 The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate.

Pro 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.

Pro 10:27 The fear of the LORD prolongeth days: but the years of the wicked shall be shortened.

Pro 14:26 In the fear of the LORD is strong confidence: and his children shall have a place of refuge.

Pro 14:27 The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death.

Pro 15:16 Better is little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble therewith.

Pro 15:33 The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility.

Pro 16:6 By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.

Pro 19:23 The fear of the LORD tendeth to life: and he that hath it shall abide satisfied; he shall not be visited with evil.

Pro 22:4 By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, and honour, and life.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting article. Thanks for sharing.