Puzzlement Preferred: How to Use the Sweet Spot of Fear to Escape Religious Thought

A. Jay Palmer

Puzzlement vs. Religion

There have been many excellent publications on the continuing legacy of human conflict that religion has brought to society. In his 2004 book The End of Faith, Sam Harris takes his reader through a terrifying journey surveying the atrocities of continuing religious conflict. At the end of the book he suggests in one simple sentence how religious thought could be brought to an end in a single generation: “If parents and teachers would give honest answers to the questions children ask.” I have remained awestruck by the power of that simple, single sentence.

The immediate response of most religious people to giving honest answers is to say that we already do that: “We are being honest when we say that we believe or have faith that Jesus Christ is our savior, and so on.” This is, of course, the worst kind of dishonesty that one can give a child or anyone else when a question is asked for which you simply don’t know the answer. It is an abuse of trust. Children do fine with the “I don’t know” answer provided they are in an environment of love and support. It fires their natural curiosity and challenges them to learn about their world. We can still tell stories to our children to stimulate their imaginations and inspire them. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as it is made clear to them that the story is allegory and not a specific answer to their questions. But it is how children and the rest of us respond to puzzlement that I believe offers a way forward in bringing about Harris’s solution to ending the religious mindset.

Before going further, I need to state my very simple and general definition of the religious mindset: allegiance to an ideal without question. Thus, this definition includes nationalism, which is responsible for the remainder of major human conflict not due directly to theistic religion.

On the other hand, idealization can be a valuable part of our imaginations. What other institutionalized mindsets are available that involve idealizations? It turns out there is an important one that has arrived on the scene relatively recently and is the exact antithesis to the religious mindset. This mindset starts with an ideal, called a hypothesis, but then questions it like crazy using independent investigation. The hypothesis is promoted to something called a theory if it passes the questioning, but it is accepted only provisionally until something better comes along. In its relatively short time of existence, that described mindset has left a legacy opposite to the awful legacy of religion by improving the human condition with medicine and technology and by promoting humility rather than dogma. And as this occurs, ever more questions are generated by the method. That mindset, of course, is called the scientific method.

Unfortunately, for most of the world’s population, transitioning to the scientific-method mindset is not around the corner. But we need to question our ideals if we are to escape religion’s grip. Most of us do not have the institution of science at our disposal to accomplish that. Is there a more personal way to accomplish the questioning? If that were available, everyone could at least get a start on the escape and possibly even trigger a social movement away from dogmatic thinking.

Easier said than done. But let’s consider what it would be like for deeply religious or nationalistic persons to temporarily drop their ideals. They would surely feel puzzled and even fearful about what to do next. Most would immediately return to the comfort of their religion. Remaining in the state of puzzlement is what we are after, but it requires a discipline to return to it. If fear is not involved, returning to puzzlement on a regular basis seems possible, even likely, since puzzlement is a human pleasure. However, if fear is involved, a more deliberate effort to return to the exercise of dropping one’s ideals is needed. That effort must be directed at locating oneself at what I term the sweet spot of fear.

The sweet spot of fear can be illustrated by imagining the following exercise. Find a precipice—one without guard-rails that is high enough to cause serious injury or death were you to fall off of it. Position yourself far enough back from it so that you don’t feel threatened by it. You are in the complacent zone regarding the fear of falling. This zone is analogous to religious complacency. Now start moving slowly toward the precipice. Notice what happens to your sphere of awareness. If you have started far enough back, your sphere of awareness will begin to enlarge as you become more attentive to anything that could interfere with your approach to the precipice (people, the nature of the terrain, winds, and so on). Puzzlement about what could happen next is occurring. Adaptation to your changing situation is happening. Discoveries are being made. Continue walking slowly toward the edge. At some point your sphere of awareness will begin to shrink back down again as you begin to focus on the edge itself. The sense of urgency and tight focus that occurs here is, of course, an important primal response. You are in the danger zone of the fear of falling. Not much puzzlement or discovery happens here. The tight focus is appropriate for protection from falling, but the high computational complexity associated with puzzlement and discovery is absent. Many religions attempt to place you in this zone by imposing rigid doctrines. Now back up; see if you can again find the spot where your sphere of awareness achieves its largest size, in front of the complacent zone and in back of the tight-focus, danger zone. This is the area I call the sweet spot of fear.

If one’s attempt to temporarily drop one’s religious ideals happens to place one in fear’s sweet spot, then one is likely to maintain oneself there, or at least repeat the exercise on a regular basis; it is a fun place to be. If one ends up in the danger zone of their fear, then dropping fewer or different ideals in the next attempt might work better. If one ends up in the complacent zone, perhaps one has dropped too few religious ideals or didn’t manage to drop them at all, even temporarily.

One of the things that makes religion such a powerful meme is its social structure. Unfortunately, the fear-confrontation procedure I have suggested for helping to end one’s religious thought is highly individualistic, since the location of the sweet spot will vary enormously between individuals. However, that does not mean that sweet-spot experiences cannot be shared. One can easily imagine an anti-religious movement based on sharing sweet-spot experiences. That will be essential if we are to successfully compete with the powerful social structure of religion.

While I have never been religious, I certainly admit to adhering to ideals all too often that generally get me into trouble. Some personal venues that have worked best for me for releasing ideals by reaching for the sweet spot are shared below. All of the experiences involve puzzlement.

Hiking Puzzlement

I remember how beautiful the aspen grove was. I was hiking on a trail through one of the many huge groves on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. One of the things that made the aspens so especially beautiful on this day was their “quaking,” or shimmering in the bright sunlight, caused by a light afternoon breeze. Then the breeze started to strengthen. Suddenly, I was immersed in an amazing spectacle of falling golden aspen leaves in what was evidently the first strong wind of the fall season. Delighted, I stopped and watched the scene unfold throughout as much of the grove as I could see.

After watching the lovely rain of aspen leaves for a few minutes, I decided to continue the return to my car. To my astonishment, the trail had now completely disappeared under a sea of aspen leaves. A little stab of adrenalin followed as I suddenly realized that I was lost—a brief encounter with the danger zone. However, I knew that I could eventually find my way out of the aspen grove and back to my car, and the fear eventually transitioned to the sweet spot and, with it, puzzlement about how to find my way out. As my confidence returned, an immense pleasure arrived with my realization that I now had an infinity of choices. While on the trail, I had only two choices: forward or back. No puzzlement. Now I could choose from any of the complete circle of directions, and I was puzzled as to which one to take. It took about two hours, but I eventually found my way out of the aspen grove. Those were two hours of an expanded sense of awareness, of discovery—mostly, discovery of the wrong way—but fulfilling discovery, nonetheless.

I now search out these “little lost” experiences in many different venues but with the common condition that they involve many choices of direction. I believe that these types of experiences tap into an essential human ability: our ability to adapt to change. We do that better than any species on the planet. In fact, there is even a proposal that it was our ancestors’ adaptations to the ice ages that expanded the human brain relative to that of the other primates in our evolutionary history.

This brings up an intriguing question. If that is how we got our big brains—by adapting to change on a physical-evolutionary time scale—can we employ that same basic adaptation behavior on shorter time scales to improve our intelligence? Obviously, we cannot evolve the physical size of our braincase, but can we use the evolutionary dynamics operating within our collective cultural brains to improve human cognitive abilities? There is even a theory that our individual brains use evolutionary dynamics to establish synaptic connections on somatic timescales. If this is the case, can we improve our individual intelligence by simply finding opportunities to adapt to change? Did I get smarter by getting lost in an aspen grove?

Driving Puzzlement

For those of us who drive, there are sweet-spot opportunities available to us literally at every turn. While it is not a primal fear, the fear of being injured while driving is a valuable fear to work with if only because it is so readily available, and entering its sweet spot has such obvious rewards. It is also particularly illustrative of the benefit that entering the sweet spot has to other people around you. Those who drive a motorcycle are usually already acquainted with the sweet spot of this fear. Those who talk on cell phones while driving a car are not, since they are stuck in the complacent zone. The trick to engaging this fear enough to find its sweet spot is to first feel vulnerable to the very real potential for injury that driving motor vehicles presents to us. The speeds at which motor vehicles propel us were not part of our evolutionary history, so the threat of injury that these speeds present to us remains an intellectual abstraction unless we can do something physical to remind ourselves of our vulnerability.

Riding a motorcycle certainly provides that physical reminder of our vulnerability to injury. Many sensory inputs are engaged, and the physical domain is large. As a result, this fear’s sweet spot can be readily located. The rewards for being there are incredibly beneficial, and there is a large amount of sensual discovery and puzzlement about what happens next. A wonderful feeling of connection with your environment emerges as you feel the motorcycle extend you into your environment instead of shielding you from it. The texture of the road surface, the temperature and humidity changes that you pass through, the balance of the banking turn, all are integrated into an exquisite feeling of vitality if you remain within the sweet spot. You are fully aware of the factors that could injure you—road surface changes, weather, judgment errors, and especially those fast-moving objects that outweigh you by three thousand pounds that are passing you within just a few feet with people at the wheel who are in the complacent zone feeling protected rather than vulnerable.

The most effective defensive driving occurs with puzzlement in the sweet spot of the fear of being injured while driving. One can certainly become complacent, even on a motorcycle, and slip back into the complacent zone or become too focused on a particular source of threat and move out of the sweet spot in the opposite direction. A common way that the latter happens on a motorcycle is for the driver to focus too close-in on the road. Everyone that has ridden a motorcycle has had this happen, and it is a classic example of our tendency to revert back to the focused mode of attention to a threat that is still with us from our ancestral response to fear. The speed of a motorcycle through a turn demands that the driver’s attention be directed farther out than our innate, focused response to the turn. In the less-focused regime of the sweet spot, not only are you much less likely to misjudge the turn, but you are also in a much better position for enjoying the aesthetic pleasure of the banking turn.

But the greatest threat of injury to us as drivers, whether they be of motorcycles or cars, comes from other vehicles. In the sweet spot, we adopt a mindset of preventing the accident rather than of protecting ourselves from the effects of the accident. We cannot enter the sweet spot of any fear without feeling some degree of vulnerability. Who would you rather have driving next to you: a driver who feels protected or a driver who feels vulnerable?

If you don’t intend to drive a motorcycle, there is a simple exercise that you can do to demonstrate to yourself some of the values of the prevention-vs.-protection mindset. Take off your shoes. If the terrain is not too hostile to your feet but requires some caution, you will feel the benefits immediately. Our feet have an exquisite sensitivity to touch, yet our shoes (like cars) usually wrap them in so much protection that we have become totally unaware of this. With my shoes off, much more of my attention must now be given to the texture of the terrain. The texture itself becomes a sensual enjoyment. I also begin to notice colorful rocks and flowers that were unnoticed before. I become involved with this element of my environment that I usually pass over without notice. I am making discoveries during the puzzlement about what to do next while I am preventing foot injury.

The above barefoot exercise has only light entertainment benefit to those around us, whereas the prevention-vs.-protection mindset has life-saving value to those around us when we are driving.

Soaring Puzzlement

Motor-gliders are sailplanes with small motors that allow us to launch without having to be towed into the sky by a powered plane. I never thought that I could soar my motor-glider here in the marine air of the northwest, especially on a solid overcast day. However, the convoluted shoreline of the Olympic Peninsula generates interesting local convergence zones that I learned I could use if I accepted the low cloud base of only two to four thousand feet.

On this day there was a gentle wind out of the southeast at Diamond Point, but I noticed on the web that it was southwesterly at Port Angeles to the west. I headed west in my motor-glider to see if I could find the convergence zone. At Sequim Valley airport, the wind sock showed the winds to be westerly, so I had already passed by it. I headed back to Diamond Point looking for some signature of the convergence zone. I headed toward some lowering of the overcast layer at around 2,000 feet and shut the motor off to explore the area but found nothing. Then I saw them—six eagles, tumbling around one another near the cloud base. Sure enough, when I joined them, I found the convergence lift I had hoped for. As soon as I arrived, one of the eagles dived down straight at me with talons out, turning at the last moment when it could better judge my size.

I spent twenty minutes with the eagles watching their exuberant behavior of tumbling around each other. It was spring, so perhaps it was mating behavior. I noticed that whenever I turned my attention to the variometer (an instrument that indicates whether the glider is in ascent or descent), I would fall out of the subtle lift zone. However, if I simply followed the eagles, I could sustain my altitude in the lift—but only at about 1,800 feet above the ground. I had some unease with this, because I had always used a self-imposed rule to not have the engine off below 2,000 feet. I had established my rule based on the time it takes to prepare the glider for engine start. Rigid adherence to the rule kept me in a type of complacent zone while soaring my glider, but now I had entered a sort of sweet spot since I was puzzled about whether to continue violating the rule to enjoy the soaring.

We are taught many such rules in aviation. The rules are usually taught as a type of ritual. “Adhere to them always lest the earth come up and smite thee,” or something like that. The irony is that adaptive behavior is also recognized as needed in aviation. For example, we are told that one of the worst things a pilot can do is focus on a single instrument or outside feature, especially in an emergency. As noted above, ritualized behavior occurs in the complacent zone of our fears while adaptive behavior and puzzlement occurs in the sweet spot.

So now I was violating my rule for the first time and entering the sweet spot. Suddenly, no eagles were visible. Looking at the variometer, I realized that the lift had disappeared with them. I was at 1,500 feet. There followed more puzzlement about what to do next. I prepared the glider for engine start but was easily able to glide to Diamond Point’s airport with the engine off.

It is human nature to break the rules. It is the source of our creativity. It is how we progress. The challenge is to know which rules to break, when to break them, and by how much. But we must continue to break them, even if only by a tiny bit. Violating my rule to start the engine at 2,000 feet above ground allowed me to enjoy a wonderful episode of soaring. I still use the same 2,000-foot rule. I expect that I will break the rule again, accepting increased risk for the increased benefit of puzzlement and discovery.

As with adventures in general, the benefit side of the risk-benefit balance that we seek in recreational flying often includes a powerful learning experience. When I find myself overly focused on a particular ideal in life or in the opposite lazy state of complacency, I reflect on a flying experience—usually one in my motor glider—that reminds me of the joy of puzzlement and discovery that I am missing when in those states.

Polar Bear Puzzlement

Our usual position at the top of the food chain has rendered one of our most basic primal fears, the fear of being eaten, virtually obsolete. However, this fear is still with us, and it is an awesome experience to contact it.

I had a fortunate opportunity to explore the fear-of-being-eaten sweet spot on a research project in the Arctic. The project took place on the frozen Beaufort Sea two hundred miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The subject of our research was Arctic leads: openings that occur sporadically in the ice through which large amounts of heat and gasses are exchanged between the Arctic Ocean and the atmosphere. On several occasions when I was there, the helicopter pilots, while on patrol to look for new leads, would report seeing polar bears in the vicinity of our ice camp. Polar bears are the last remaining carnivore that still regards an isolated human being as dinner rather than a threat.

When the pilots would report seeing the bears, I would walk slowly and deliberately away from camp until my heart began to pound in my chest. That signaled my intrusion into the danger zone. I did not want to be there. Neither a flight nor a fight had much promise of success with a polar bear. I would then move back toward camp puzzling over the various escape routes were a polar bear to charge me from behind one of the many pressure ridges in the area. With the arrival of puzzlement, I was able to locate the sweet spot quite easily. I remember every detail of those portions of my walks, the color of the pressure ridges, the sound of the ice under my feet, the awesome beauty of the entire scene. My senses were wide open.

When the ice camp project leader found out about my walks, I was not allowed to take them anymore without carrying a gun. I took a few more walks with the gun, but I hardly remember them. The gun flattened the experience. With the gun, I was unable to leave the complacent zone. I felt no puzzlement and made no discoveries that I can remember.

My access to the fear of being eaten was a rare and extremely fortuitous experience. Because of the many sensory channels that open up with this fear and because the physical domain was so large, I was able to easily find the sweet spot and enjoy the feeling of vitality that is found there. I never saw a bear, but knowing they were near provided me with rich feelings of puzzlement, vitality, and discovery. All of this was available to me despite the ultimate source of my fear remaining in my imagination.

Existential Puzzlement

My puzzlement over mortality feels quite different from the puzzlement experiences described above. Without a physical involvement to consume my senses, my enhanced awareness invariably takes me to a profound inner experience. It is the human existential experience. I just cannot get my mind around the concept of nothingness. Without religious pronouncements to fill the void, I am left with the ultimate of all puzzlements. The normal sequence of discovery following puzzlement is absent, which makes the puzzlement experience even more profound. I remain absolutely awestruck by this one.


Find a precipice, get lost in the woods, venture into situations where you don’t have complete control. Feel your vulnerability, and enjoy the feeling of vitality that defensive driving brings. Drive a motorcycle. Learn to fly a small plane. Face your mortality. Feel your existential aloneness. Find your fear’s sweet spot in each case. Minimize the time you spend on either side of the sweet spot. Feel the puzzlement!

Parents and teachers need to train themselves to better confront their fears and find puzzlement. Children need not participate in the training programs. They move naturally into their sweet spots. They will propagate honesty into the next generations provided that they are raised in an environment of love and support, given some empathy training, and provided that “parents and teachers give honest answers to the questions they ask.”


Further Reading

  • Harris, Sam. The End of Faith. W. W. Norton & Co., 2004.
  • Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained. Basic Books, 2001.
  • Calvin, William H. A Brain for all Seasons. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

A. Jay Palmer

A. Jay Palmer is a contributing author for Free Inquiry

Puzzlement vs. Religion There have been many excellent publications on the continuing legacy of human conflict that religion has brought to society. In his 2004 book The End of Faith, Sam Harris takes his reader through a terrifying journey surveying the atrocities of continuing religious conflict. At the end of the book he suggests in …

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