Justifying fear

Mar 31, 2013

Discussion by: more_confusion
Hi everyone, 

Right now I’m sitting in my living room with my two month old son. Other than my son, who’s currently napping, i’m alone. I have the baby monitor on, and keep hearing the occasional bang from upstairs on the monitor. Nothing loud, but louder than a creak. Here’s what I know:- 
– If someone was upstairs they would make a lot more noise. So there can’t be anybody up there
– I am fully aware that my girlfriend left the attic window open, and noises from outside could be picked up easily. 
– The house does make normal house sounds, and the specific noises i’m hearing are common. We hear them all the time.
To add a little further background, I was brought up to make my own decision on belief, but was heavily influenced by my parents. Specifically relevant here, my mother had a strong belief in the supernatural. I since became an atheist, and no longer hold these beliefs. However, I am still sitting here, and still experience similar fear to what I had when my mind was a little fuzzier. I know the sounds are thoroughly explainable, and there is nothing upstairs that I would see/feel, or experience in any other way than through my minds own misinterpretation of light/sound, if I was to venture up and close the window. It’s a long winded way of getting this question out, but did anybody else face similar fears in this situation after they became atheists, if so, how did you conquer this irrational fear?

22 comments on “Justifying fear

  • I hear it too. :-j

    Recognizing one’s atheism doesn’t mean the ability to experience fearfulness just goes away. I understand you aren’t saying precisely that, but there’s something not quite clear in your post (for me anyway).

    You now know there is nothing supernatural up there causing the noise. On the other hand, you are not at ease because of this noise. There is nothing abnormal about having a fright or being a bit fearful under certain circumstances. Everyone has a different tolerance level when it comes to these things.

    If you think there is a ghost up there, however, then you need to work it out in your mind why that’s not really an acceptable conclusion under any circumstance. Nobody in the history of our species’ existence was ever harmed by a ghost. You hear something. You may have plenty of valid reasons to consider a quick and careful look.


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  • 2
    whiteraven says:

    I don’t know your fear of the supernatural. It seems normal for humans to experience anxiety because of unexpected or unusual sounds and at night they’re more dangerous because you can’t see as well. An emotional response isn’t abnormal. Attributing it to supernatural causes is primitive and superseded by the knowledge that no basis for their existence has been found outside of superstition. There’s real stuff that might make noises and even problems … a raccoon, squirrel, bat, mice in the walls, burglars. Why don’t you go up, turn on the lights and sit there getting used to the sounds and seeing they aren’t anything to fret about. Then try shutting the lights out. Take a flashlight or baseball bat with you until you feel confident enough to leave them behind. The evidence you collect by these “scientific experiments” will confirm what reason tells you is true but for which something inside you is demanding more convincing proof.

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  • 3
    Alan4discussion says:

    There is a natural curiosity to investigate unknown aspects of our environment. It makes us better able to make rapid judgements about unexpected events.

    I check out any unusual noises which my car makes when I am driving. This helps in routinely replacing worn-out parts and avoiding breakdowns.

    It is a general feature in intelligent animals.
    Our cat will carefully check over anything in our garden which has changed since she last looked at it.
    This avoids nasty surprises, so is probably deeply rooted in our evolutionary survival.

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  • 4
    SelfAwarePatterns says:

    The question I think you’re asking is, how do you get the emotional visceral part of your mind in synch with what the intellectual part has concluded. For me, the answer was time. Shortly after becoming a skeptic, I had similar responses. A year afterward, it was much less pronounced. I don’t think it will ever go away completely because we’re hard wired for it to some extent and it does provide a survival mechanism.

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  • 5
    papa lazaru says:

    Windy much?

    But yeah, mild panic attacks, a primal sense of dread, can still happens from time to time. Just something hard wired that kicks in, that shortcuts anything rational. As they say, in those kind of situations, false positives are better than false negatives, so that’s what we’ve evolved to to.

    But, whatever you do, don’t ever investigate alone!

    Rules :

    • Never split up (well, you’re on your own, so good luck).
    • Always check your corners. Close doors behind you.
    • Stay close to the expensive cast members. You may dodge a few bullets that way.
    • Alternatively, stay with the expandable ones (unless you’re one of them), they tend to go first, so as long as they’re alive, your safe.
    • Trust the cat. He’ll know when shit is about to go down.
    • Make sure you have good running shoes.
    • Turn on the lights. If no power, stay away!
    • If running into a car, always check the back seat and trunk if it’s an estate.
    • Stay away from power tools, or heavy electrical appliances.
    • Check your flashlight and batteries first.
    • Keep a mobile phone at hand, make sure it works.
    • Don’t record any video, that really upsets them.

    Clutching a baby, I would think would also be a pretty safe strategy as well.

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  • 6
    cynicaloptimistrealist says:


    I don’t have any babies and therefore don’t possess a baby monitor, but remember, by their nature they are extremely sensitive, so the noise of a rattle hitting the edge of a cot sounds like a door being kicked off its hinges.

    The best way to settle your mind regarding an unexplained noise is to go find out what it is. Obviously if you become sure someone is creeping around upstairs, find a safe place and call the police. I would suggest a simple security routine, check doors, windows in each room remembering which are locked and which are open, that will give you some solace regarding the possibilities of noises being floors settling rather than a break in.

    As an atheist, remember that ghosts, just as with gods are human constructs developed to explain the causes of everyday occurances of which we were once ignorant. Our society is flooded with claptrap concerning the supernatural, you could spend weeks or months waiting for a good news article or documentary about science, but we’re innundated with stories about Christ appearing on kebabs and TV shows featuring that Jeremy Kyle of the dead – John Edwards. Ask yourself, if your dead granmother somehow survived in another form and is extremely pissed off because the day of her funeral you sold the house she had lived in all her life to a hippie commune and used the proceeds to finance a 6 month drug fueled globe trotting orgy, who’s she going to try contact? Some manicured metrosexual TV host who plays Chinese whispers with his guests? Or You? There is even a show where 3 idiots decide to visit a “haunted house” to “investigate”, the result is a long sequence where our 3 “seasoned investigators” repeatedly evacuate each others bowels and bladders by screaming at each other everytime the camerman farts.

    As explained by Alan, fear of out of place noises is a built in reaction in mammals which evolved to avoid being caught off guard by predators. When I hear something worth investigating in the middle of the night (or when my wife has prodded me awake to investigate something she heard), I feel fear, more so because I am an atheist and if there’s something to it, it’s human and I have a fight on my hands, or it’s a big spider and I have to get my wife out of bed (not an easy task). Alas, I have not conquered my irrational fear of things with 8 legs, but as for burglars I find telling myself that “he’ll never expect be confronted by a naked man with a sword” works just fine!

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  • 7
    Nodhimmi says:

    Meh, it’s normal- I would get spooked at my snooker club, late night practice alone. Neck hairs erect, weird sensation of dread. Who knows? Go to pub, correct the problem!

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  • 8
    Stardroid says:

    Be careful with phrases like ‘irrational fear’, they don’t give yourself any credit. If they’re truly irrational and worth beating yourself up about (for not being intellectually driven enough), then beat yourself up and make a resolution never to investigate the sound. If you want to be hard-hearted about it just get a hard heart; I really don’t think that’s an ‘atheism’ problem, however.

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  • 9
    Dom 2061 says:

    I’m terrified of spiders. Here in the UK there are none that can hurt me, (unless some delinquent arachnid launches an invasion on board some bananas), but possessing such rational knowledge based securely on fact does nothing to assuage those feelings. Perhaps my fear could reasonably be explained by the fact that I’m disabled, and anything with a surplus of functioning legs is just showing off, but feelings and logic don’t always communicate very well within the human brain.

    Well, I’ve just written and re-read the previous paragraph with the most awful, squeamish, highly uncomfortable feeling: I think I may have unwittingly encapsulated parts of the theist point of view. That something you feel deeply to be true is simply not open to persuasion and rational argument and if you don’t share my feelings you just simply, well… Don’t understand… You CAN’T understand…

    To them I would say this: the difference between me and you is that I am fully aware that the fear I’m experiencing is not objectively real. It is powerful and all-consuming and has a massive impact on me, but I know it is all in my head. I would never dream of trying to persuade someone that Fear emanates from spiders and had some kind of separate existence as an entity in its own right, but it seems to me that some people cannot discern the dividing line between internal and external reality.

    Because I can make that distinction, I am quite happy to sit through ” Paranormal Activity” and enjoy being really scared, or discuss Santa with a child at Christmas and feel that warm, fuzzy glow, or indeed hear creaking floorboards upstairs and experience a fleeting thrill of delicious spookiness, not because I think it’s real but because IT’S FUN. On October 31 does anyone actually believe the dead walk the earth, or that they are housing woodland spirits in their Christmas greenery?

    My point is that being rational is not some bleak denial of your humanity, (that’s religion’s job), it simply gives you the tools you need to understand and place your reactions in their proper context. It sounds to me as if you are perfectly aware of the distinction between your natural fear reactions and the likely reality that there is nothing upstairs to worry about, but that awareness will not stop you from being a normal human being. I presume you don’t stop enjoying films or TV programmes because they’re not real, so don’t try to deny your human reactions to daily life!

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  • 10
    Kim Probable says:

    In addition to the things everyone else has said, you’re also dealing with a brain that’s the product of evolution, which selected for your ancestors who were cautious about their world. Scary sounds meant they might be eaten and their heightened awareness protected them, even if the reaction wasn’t fully warranted.

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  • 11
    Dublin-atheist says:

    Heigh, I myself often hear sounds upstairs and like you I knew I didn’t have any uninvited guests in my home but I couldn’t figure out what the noise was without going upstairs and looking. I usually found out what the sounds where and after a while I didt bother to look anymore because I was always disappointed that I didn’t meet a ghost, but after my daughter was born I check every sound I hear. even if I have a good idea what the sound was. This irrational fear may be due to the fact that your an alert parent.

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  • 12
    jharps says:

    Shivers up the spine? Still get ’em occasionally. Been an atheist for years, but childhood experiences can still get at me. By ‘childhood experiences’ I mean the ‘parental environment’ in which I was raised, an environment in which normal childhood fears/nightmares were explained away (!) as aspects of ‘supernatural activity’. So, for example, when I got that feeling that there was something behind me, instead of explaining that it was just my body being (over) cautious in identifying a possible attack, I was offered ghosts etc as an explanation, coupled with an assurance that my ‘guardian angel’ was there to protect me. Well, thank gawd for that, eh!?

    I suspect I’ll have to deal with those childhood fears popping up now and again for the rest of my life. I don’t think ‘conquering’ them is realistic. I just deal with it when it threatens. Sometimes I swear loudly (even if just inside my head), sometimes I talk rationally to myself, sometimes I go ‘face my fears’ by investigating. It’s simply (!) a matter of not giving in to those fears.

    What’s important, is not to pass those fears on to our children. We can’t change the past but we can do our best to influence the future.

    Sorry if I’ve said stuff other commenters have already said (I confess I haven’t read ’em), but I identified with what you wrote, and could do nowt but spout.

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  • 13
    canadian_right says:

    The human brain naturally applies “agency”, that is a conscious cause, to almost anything. That noise might be the wind, but it might be a tiger. If I assume it is a tiger and am thus cautious I might live where my friend who thinks it is the wind gets eaten.

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  • 14
    sousahari says:

    Sounds like your reptilian brain is kicking in, and your subconscious on auto-pilot dredging up any memories that match that specific reptilian brain reaction – in other words, your brain’s on a quest to scare the hell out of you, to enable you to get off your backside and check that the baby is still safe and secure… your job, me thinks?
    Take heart, before I moved into my partner’s bungalow, he told me it had a massive cellar and an even bigger loft. I didn’t think any more about that until left alone one evening. I thought I was listening to the frantic knocking from previous partners whom he’d chained to the walls of the cellar for his sadistic pleasure… and just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, noises from above me became the mad scramblings of his trapped mother (supposedly dead 4 years) whom he’d obviously tied to a bed in the loft! I hear the same noises every night, but having gone into the cellar and the loft to investigate, I find my partner innocent of all over-anxious accusations – the noises were just the central heating pipes popping and the vent-flaps on the outside of the bungalow banging in the breeze. D’oh!

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  • 15
    OpenDebate says:

    Don’t count on it. I have two kids in my family line, they both saw and spoke to a supernatural being in their bedroom when they were very young. Kids can see and talk to spirits, later they learn not to see them.

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  • 16
    Graxan says:

    I’ve found that my own mental state is particularly resistant to my rationality and while I too can suffer the occasional burst of irrational fear, especially after watching some daft horror movie or suchlike, I have found over time and through learning more about the natural sciences that these primative fears tend to give way in the light of knowledge…However I’ve also found such knowledge to be a double-edged sword. I find myself particularly and acutely aware for example, of the fact that the moon floating above our heads is an uncomfortably close 3000km sphere of rock hurtling around us every day, or that at any point I could be bathed in ionising radiation from outer space, or that a cell in my body can become spontaneously cancerous, or that the unmitigated political insanity of a country like North Korea might one day cause the doomsday clock to edge closer to 12. I know, neurosis here I come.

    While I love the fascination of the natural world that learning gives, In many ways, ignorance is bliss.

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  • 17
    SaganTheCat says:

    i’m no parent, having had my testicles safely removed but i do work as a studio cat and understand that sound being transmitted from one place to a speaker in another creates a new unkown. most of the sounds you hear from the monitor your barin normally filters out because having 2 ears an a movable head you’re brain is pinpointing directions and distances all the time to create a sonic map.

    having all noise picked up and funnelled to a single speaker doesn’t give your brain the detail required (miniscule changes in time taken for the same sound to hit both ears) to know what’s close and what’s far away, only differing volume levels. if your monitor has 2 mics, and fed a stereo headset that has some sort of coupling mechanism to cause the mics to move in sync with your head, you’d be better placed to work out what’s a bang and what’s a tap.

    so yes, fear is useful. it fills the gaps in sensory data and makes you more vigilant

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  • 18
    Uriel-238 says:

    There is nothing more frightening than an unopened door –Alfred Hitchcock (attributed)

    We automatically respond to that sensory input we cannot immediately identify, or if we’re aware that we don’t have the whole picture. That comes from a baser place than our rationality.

    It might actually be worth exploring from an introspective level. If you’re pretty sure that the unrecognizable noise is not a realistic threat (e.g. a human or animal intruder) then being able to spend time with that fear, where you feel it, what comes up, etc.

    When a fear (or any given emotion) is familiar and follows consistent, familiar patterns, it becomes easier to maintain rationality despite it.

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  • 19
    Pete H says:

    You could try getting a dog. They only tend to respond to real threats like actual ghosts and demons and will automatically ignore other ambient noises. Scooby springs to mind. Plus most dogs are athiests and so should be good company.

    I think that understanding how these things can happen helps. Like knowing that our perceptions can be distorted, and that our emotional responses can sometimes be misaligned.

    I’m guessing that this more of a problem in the evening than in the morning? This isn’t just because everyone knows that witches and ghosts usually prowl at night, but because there are interesting physiological reasons why this most likely happens in the evening.

    I’m something of a light sleeper and also sometimes find it difficult to get to sleep when there’s noises, however slight. So I’ve put considerable effort into investigating just about every possible thing that clicks, pops, creaks, and bumps in the night. I’ve never yet found anything that was more sinister than electrical relays, humming transformers, various insects like mosquitos, frogs, dogs, cats, possums, plus the occasional stolen car that had been torched and is exploding, and occasional police incidents outside my bedroom window. Some kinds of sounds are more disturbing than others. Click beetles are possibly the worst – random loud clicks late at night resonating on the floorboards.

    I actually sleep best during stormy and rainy nights when the ambient noise level and violence of a storm crowds out all those other minor irritating sounds. There’s other technology options like recordings of various sounds: running stream, gentle rain, beach waves, wind in trees etc. Or the ASMR material on YouTube. Or even earplugs. But these would block out other sounds and so aren’t compatible with the responsibilities of minding children.

    From what I understand it’s a mental thing in the evening when you are depleted mentally, but perhaps not depleted physically. So the hormonal balance is not quite right for sleep. Plus there’s other factors like quality of light and activities undertaken before bed time. The mental depletion is similar to why people eat cake and biscuits at might, even though they know they shouldn’t. Some mental functions no longer work effectively, including hearing accurately, and perceptions can be distorted with emotional responses disproportionate. But after increasing the supply of glucose to the brain, from sweet food, plus getting overnight rest, the required energy is restored and normal mental function resumes. The same sound that would be ignored in the morning becomes acutely noticeable in the evening. Some perceptions might be enhanced in the evening, regardless of mental depletion – like high frequency hearing, for obvious evolutionary reasons.

    You might be able to test this by eating too much sugar in the evening. Problem solved if the energy depleted aspects of mental functioning, which depend on glucose, might be restored closer to normal. Though you probably still need the sleep to fully restore things. Unfortunately there will be negative side-effects from eating sugar.

    Another approach might be to work towards becoming fat-adapted via diet: For a couple of months you avoid eating sweet foods, alcohol, fruit juice, plus avoid most carbohydrates like foods based on grains or potatoes. Also avoid eating lots of protein. All these foods essentially digest down to huge amounts of simple sugars. In their absence your body optimises its fat metabolism, as an evolved starvation response (by eating more fat plus lots of other veges, you maintain adequate nutrition and avoid the actual starvation).

    Those parts of the brain that otherwise depended on glucose progressively become much less dependent. Many people report becoming significantly more energetic and noticeably mentally sharper via fat adaptation. Plus better quality sleep lack of periodic hunger for sweets etc. Some of this might be a side effect of the starvation response of just a consequence of people getting more exercise, owing to their increased sense of energy from one’s metabolism becoming less dependent on cyclical variations in blood glucose owing to the effects of meals and time of day.

    Many things are related: kind of staple food source, physical activity, mental function and specific aspects of mind exhaustion, and especially quality of sleep (a major problem if you’ve got young kids). Consequences of chronic exposure to excess blood glucose, lack of quality sleep, insufficient physical activity, plus chronic arousal from various stress hormones pretty much throws a spanner into random areas of the works of the mind and body. Consequence are specifically unpredictable, but generally detrimental.

    Basically what you think can be somewhat related to what you eat.

    Apparently there’s been experiments along these dietary lines for mentally ill people. But research ceased owing to ethical considerations as the dietary practises involved are now regarded as inappropriate. (Because they conflict with officially approved nutritional recommendations. Sophisticated pharmaceutical approaches are preferred as being more effective, financially for the official approvers at least.)

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  • 20
    Stardroid says:

    In reply to #15 by OpenDebate:

    Don’t count on it. I have two kids in my family line, they both saw and spoke to a supernatural being in their bedroom when they were very young. Kids can see and talk to spirits, later they learn not to see them.

    You scare the crap out of me.

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  • 21
    MikeC2103 says:

    When I was younger and a believer, I was afraid of things like this. The belief in demons and monsters caused me to be afraid of the dark.

    After being an atheist for a while this fear lessened to a point I think I can honestly say it is gone. I don’t fear imaginary monsters under the bed anymore.

    I even enjoy horror much more than I used to, even though it doesn’t actually scare me now.

    I think once I understood how full of shit people are and that these stories seem to arise more from ignorance of the unknown than anything real, the fear just started to go away. I don’t jump at strange shadows, I see them and wonder what mundane objects I’m looking at.

    Though this all took time and effort to look for reasonable explanations rather than the ignorant fearful projections of my mind.

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  • 22
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #10 by Kim Probable:

    In addition to the things everyone else has said, you’re also dealing with a brain that’s the product of evolution, which selected for your ancestors who were cautious about their world. Scary sounds meant they might be eaten and their heightened awareness protected them, even if the reaction wasn’t fully warranted.

    More or less this. Brains are supercomputers with numerous sub-components, and one of those sub-components is designed to get the body’s adrenaline/epinephrine flowing when it detects something unexpected but largely unknown, usually a hidden and malevolent agent like a predator or a rival human. The evolutionary advantage is that this leaves the body ready to move into action if a hidden threat leaps out of the darkness or jumps you, combined with you being on full alert to get as much information about it as possible before it gets an advantage over you. And other living things are always out to get you. Bodies that didn’t look for them when things looked suspicious likely ended up dead or wounded, neither of which contribute to reproductive success.

    Why should it think there’s an agent in cases where an agent doesn’t exist, though? More specifically, why are people more prone to pareidolia (seeing patterns that aren’t there) than to dismissing signs readily? Because brains aren’t foolproof, and have to intuitively guess what’s out there based on scanty clues. This means a brain can make some very clever inductions, but at the cost of leaving itself open to overinterpretation. On the other hand, there’s more at stake if it tries the opposite. People who miss the hidden tiger are far more likely to end up dead than people who jump from what could have been a tiger, only to discover that it was just the leaves shaking. Evolution over many generations refines this cost/benefit analysis until it strikes a balance between getting things mostly right and not wasting too many body resources on errors (accuracy requires more computing power and doesn’t come cheap), which on balance could accept a small level of error-making so long as it was evolutionarily practical.

    To stick more closely to the OP, I didn’t have such emotions when I explicitly identified as an atheist for one simple reason: I’ve never been religious or particularly superstitious to begin with, and merely changed from being an implicit atheist to being an explicit one. I do, however, worry about the potential consequences of telling people my views in real life. To focus more on your point of irrational fears, I used to be an arachnophobe, and in my less proud moments, I have a bizarre but occasionally compelling fear of zombies waiting to lunge at me in the dark on some nights. Needless to say, I don’t watch zombie films if I can help it, and I consider this fear utterly stupid.

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