It seems we are well aware of our mortality and the meaninglessness of life, but expend huge amounts of energy that things are otherwise.
One of the key mechanisms are religious beliefs and the world views constructed by adherents.
Maybe we should cut to the chase, and stop criticising individual religions and the actions of their adherents?
But is that too threatening to us?
In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning. The theory was originally proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski.
The simplest examples of cultural values which manage the terror of death are those that purport to offer literal immortality (e.g. belief in afterlife, religion). However, TMT also argues that other cultural values – including those that are seemingly unrelated to death – offer symbolic immortality. For example, value of national identity, posterity, cultural perspectives on sex, and human superiority over animals have all been linked to death concerns in some manner. In many cases these values are thought to offer symbolic immortality by providing the sense that one is part of something greater that will ultimately outlive the individual (e.g. country, lineage, species).
Because cultural values determine that which is meaningful, they are also the basis for self-esteem. TMT describes self-esteem as being the personal, subjective measure of how well an individual is living up to their cultural values. Like cultural values, self-esteem acts to protect one against the terror of death. However, it functions to provide one’s personal life with meaning, while cultural values provide meaning to life in general.
TMT is derived from anthropologist Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction The Denial of Death, in which Becker argues most human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. The terror of absolute annihilation creates such a profound – albeit subconscious – anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it. On large scales, societies build symbols: laws, religious meaning systems, cultures, and belief systems to explain the significance of life, define what makes certain characteristics, skills, and talents extraordinary, reward others whom they find exemplify certain attributes, and punish or kill others who do not adhere to their cultural worldview. On an individual level, self-esteem provides a buffer against death-related anxiety.
The Denial of Death and the Practice of Dying
“The denial of death” is a phrase from Ernest Becker, and the title of his most famous book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Becker’s book focuses on how we human beings develop strategies to fend off awareness of our mortality and vulnerability and to escape into the feeling that we’re immortal. “The practice of dying” is a phrase used by Socrates, as recorded by Plato, for describing one aspect of how a person becomes morally mature. Socrates is urging us to face into our mortality and to let an awareness of death purify our motives.
I think that Becker and Socrates are both on the money. Denying death/or practicing dying are well juxtaposed as two basic responses to our awareness of mortality. So I want here to investigate these two responses and follow out some of their consequences.
Two Contrasting Orientations
I’ll begin by recapping Becker’s main thesis in The Denial of Death.
As a cultural anthropologist, Becker was searching for explanations of why human society develops in the way that it does, and he was particularly interested in why human society is so violent, why different social groups are so intolerant and hateful of each other. By the time of writing The Denial of Death, his ninth book, he had reached the conclusion that he had found a very important explanatory principle for understanding human behavior and human culture. This principle, summarized with extreme brevity, is as follows. Human beings are mortal, and we know it. Our sense of vulnerability and mortality gives rise to a basic anxiety, even a terror, about our situation. So we devise all sorts of strategies to escape awareness of our mortality and vulnerability, as well as our anxious awareness of it. This psychological denial of death, Becker claims, is one of the most basic drives in individual behavior, and is reflected throughout human culture. Indeed, one of the main functions of culture, according to Becker, is to help us successfully avoid awareness of our mortality. That suppression of awareness plays a crucial role in keeping people functioning–if we were constantly aware of our fragility, of the nothingness we are a split second away from at all times, we’d go nuts. And how does culture perform this crucial function? By making us feel certain that we, or realities we are part of, are permanent, invulnerable, eternal. And in Becker’s view, some of the personal and social consequences of this are disastrous.
First, at the personal level, by ignoring our mortality and vulnerability we build up an unreal sense of self, and we act out of a false sense of who and what we are. Second, as members of society, we tend to identify with one or another “immortality system” (as Becker calls it). That is, we identify with a religious group, or a political group, or engage in some kind of cultural activity, or adopt a certain culturally sanctioned viewpoint, that we invest with ultimate meaning, and to which we ascribe absolute and permanent truth. This inflates us with a sense of invulnerable righteousness. And then, we have to protect ourselves against the exposure of our absolute truth being just one more mortality-denying system among others, which we can only do by insisting that all other absolute truths are false. So we attack and degrade–preferably kill–the adherents of different mortality- denying-absolute-truth systems. So the Protestants kill the Catholics; the Muslims vilify the Christians and vice versa; upholders of the American way of life denounce Communists; the Communist Khmer Rouge slaughters all the intellectuals in Cambodia; the Spanish Inquisition tortures heretics; and all good students of the Enlightenment demonize religion as the source of all evil. The list could go on and on.
In my view, Ernest Becker was right about this core thesis. I think it is accurate to say that a denial of death pervades human culture, and that it is one of the deepest sources of intolerance, aggression, and human evil. The notion of immortality systems is an especially useful diagnostic tool. It is easy to spot people (including oneself, of course) clinging to absolute truths in the way he describe–and it is not hard to understand why they do. It is not just anxiety over physical vulnerability. It goes deeper than that. We all want out lives to have meaning, and death suggests that life adds up to nothing. People want desperately for their lives to really count, to be finally real. If you think about it, most all of us try to found our identities on something whose meaning seems permanent or enduring: the nation, the race, the revolutionary vision; the timelessness of art, the truths of science, immutable philosophical verities, the law of self-interest, the pursuit of happiness, the law of survival; cosmic energy, the rhythms of nature, the gods, Gaia, the Tao, Brahman, Krishna, Buddha-consciousness, the Torah, Jesus. And all of these, Becker says, function as “immortality systems,” because they all promise to connect our lives with what endures, with a meaning that does not perish. So let’s accept Becker’s thesis: that fear of death and meaninglessness, and a self–deluding denial of mortality, leads many people to these “immortality systems.”
But then again: is this true for every person with a passionate commitment to a meaning that endures? Are there Buddhists or Christians, for example, whose convictions and commitments do not constitute an evasion of mortality–who on the contrary face up to and embrace their mortality? In The Denial of Death, Becker tells us that there certainly are such people. In the fifth chapter, titled “The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard,” Becker applauds Kierkegaard’s portrayal of the person who does not lie about the human condition, who breaks away from the cultural network of lies that ward off the awareness of mortality, and who faces the precariousness and fragility of existence–with inevitable anxiety. Becker praises these people for their courageous “destruction of…emotional character armor.” Such a courageous and frightening passage to honesty is symbolized in the literary figure of King Lear: through the terror of being stripped of all his illusions of invulnerability, he comes finally to a profound if tragic reconciliation with reality. As for actual cultural representatives, he mentions Zen Buddhists, but “in fact,” he writes, it is a process undergone by “self-realized men in any epoch (88-9).”
Becker affirms, then, that it is possible to face up to the human situation. The denial of death is not inevitable. But what must be done, how must one proceed, to engage in this process of courageous self-realization?
Above all, Becker says, adopting a phrase from Luther, you must be able to “…taste death with the lips of your living body [so] that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die (88).” Then quoting William James (who is himself quoting the mystic Jacob Boehme), Becker further describes this “tasting” of death as a “passage into nothing, [a passage in which] a critical point must usually be passed, a corner turned within one (88).” Thus in this process of self-realization, Becker writes, the self is “brought down to nothing.” For what purpose? So that the process of what Becker calls “self-transcendence” may begin. And he describes the process of self-transcendence this way:
Man breaks through the bounds of merely cultural heroism; he destroys the character lie that had him perform as a hero in the everyday social scheme of things; and by doing so he opens himself up to infinity, to the possibility of cosmic heroism …. He links his secret inner self, his authentic talent, his deepest feelings of uniqueness … to the very ground of creation. Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate significance. …This invisible mystery at the heart of [the] creature now attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation.
“This,” he concludes, “is the meaning of faith.” Faith is the belief that despite one’s “insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force (90, 9 1).”
This, then, is what we might call good faith, not a flight into some immortality system. And clearly, some Christians, some Buddhists–at least the Zen Buddhists Becker himself mentions!–have faith in this sense, a faith that Becker characterizes as growing out of tasting one’s own death, embracing one’s own nothingness, and affirming–not a known ultimate meaningful–but an “invisible mystery” of ultimate meaning.
So Becker is suggesting a difference between (1) inauthentic clinging to the supposed absolute truth of an immortality system; and (2) authentic faith in a mystery of enduring meaning. Psychologically the distinction here is between (1) turning away from the awareness of death, and possessively claiming certain knowledge of eternal meaning; or (2) tasting one’s own mortality, and placing one’s trust in a mystery of eternal meaning.
Now Becker doesn’t always emphasize this second possibility of authentic faith. One can get the impression from much of his work that any affirmation of enduring meaning is simply a denial of death and the embrace of a lie. But I believe the view expressed in the fifth chapter of The Denial of Death is his more nuanced and genuine position. And I think it will be worthwhile to develop his idea of a courageous breaking away from culturally-supported immortality systems by looking back in history to a character who many people have thought of as an epitome of a self-realized person, someone who neither accepts his culture’s standardized hero-systems, nor fears death: the philosopher Socrates.
http://ernestbecker.org/lecture-texts/t … dying.html
Some atheist authors are discussing the relationship of religion and atheism – De Botton,
There is emotional power in these ideas, but that only be my yearning after my pentecostal background.
But I have always thought there is a clarity and honesty in Sartre, Fromm at al that is much needed. Discussions often feel to dry, somehow inauthentic, dishonest.
People have expressed this over the millennia – the myth of Adam and Eve, the story of Achilles, the psalmist what is man, the creed fully god fully man.
We are worm food that contemplates the birth of the universe. We are paradoxical. Let’s try living with what we are!
Evil is the toll of the pretence of sanity.
Reports that Islamic militants have trapped up to 40,000 members of Iraq’s minority communities have spurred the US into considering a military-led humanitarian action.
Most of the trapped people are members of the Yazidi religion, one of Iraq’s oldest minorities. They were forced to flee to Mount Sinjar in the Iraqi north-west region, or face slaughter by an encircling group of Islamic State (Isis) jihadists. The UN has said that roughly 40,000 people – many women and children – have taken refuge in nine locations on the mountain, “a craggy, mile-high ridge identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark”.
Gruesome images of brutally slain people have emerged in the past week, as local officials say that at least 500 Yazidis, including 40 children, have been killed, and many more have been threatened with death. Roughly 130,000 residents of the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar have fled to Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, or to Irbil.
Reports of violence, repression and murder by Isis and other extremist groups have become increasingly prevalent in Iraq. Christians have also been targeted for their faith. The country’s largest Christian city was all but abandoned on Thursday, as Isis advanced through minority communities in the north-west.
On Thursday, the UNSC condemned the Isis attacks on the Yazidi community, saying those responsible could face trial for crimes against humanity.
Who are the Yazidis?
Estimates put the global number of Yazidis at around 700,000 people, with the vast majority of them concentrated in northern Iraq, in and around Sinjar.
A historically misunderstood group, the Yazidis are predominantly ethnically Kurdish, and have kept alive their syncretic religion for centuries, despite many years of oppression and threatened extermination.
The ancient religion is rumoured to have been founded by an 11th century Ummayyad sheikh, and is derived from Zoroastrianism (an ancient Persian faith founded by a philosopher), Christianity and Islam. The religion has taken elements from each, ranging from baptism (Christianity) to circumcision (Islam) to reverence of fire as a manifestation from God (derived from Zoroastrianism) and yet remains distinctly non-Abrahamic. This derivative quality has often led the Yazidis to be referred to as a sect.
At the core of the Yazidis’ marginalization is their worship of a fallen angel, Melek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel, one of the seven angels that take primacy in their beliefs. Unlike the fall from grace of Satan, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Melek Tawwus was forgiven and returned to heaven by God. The importance of Melek Tawwus to the Yazidis has given them an undeserved reputation for being devil-worshippers – a notoriety that, in the climate of extremism gripping Iraq, has turned life-threatening.
Under Ottoman rule in the 18th and 19th centuries alone, the Yazidis were subject to 72 genocidal massacres. More recently in 2007, hundreds of Yazidis were killed as a spate of car bombs ripped through their stronghold in northern Iraq. With numbers of dead as close to 800, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent, this was one of the single deadliest events to take place during the American-led invasion.
The Yazidis had been denounced as infidels by Al-Qaida in Iraq, a predecessor of Isis, which sanctioned their indiscriminate killing.
Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi MP in Iraq, broke down in tears on Wednesday, as she called on the parliament and the international community to “Save us! Save us!” from Isis.
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/a … -mountains