I am 3/4 of the way through the book, I agree with most of it and have held these opinions for years. Although I haven't finished the book I want lay down some thoughts that are present right now, maybe these thoughts will be addressed later on. The root cause that holds religions together is the fear of death. Religion keeps the fear at bay, that's obvious. What needs to be asked is how secularists and liberals deal with the fear of death? Since they don't have the comfort of an afterlife in paradise one could conclude that they have serious, unresolved issues about death and dying. I feel that it is this unacknowledged fear that keeps secularists from bringing personal religious belief into the public forum. Discussing religion means discussing death and that is sure to get people very upset, avoiding death is a primal instinct. Religious people sooth themselves with their beliefs, secularists would like to avoid the issue on an unconscious level that is why you will never see religion debated like social security, terrorism, Iraq, the U.N. etc.
In my usual cynical way I’m going to ask where the fear of death comes from; whether it’s a natural instinct, something artificial, or whether religion causes it in the first place, and how would we know? That sounds to me like something that could be examined and tested.
I’m posting at all about this because a close friend has just returned from her father’s funeral in a town in Mexico. She described it as “pagan and Christian.” She happens to be Buddhist herself, so she was looking at this with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Her parents had been married for 64 years, so this is especially hard on her mother. Her father died what seems to me an unusually beautiful death. He’d been sick for a long time, and was sent home from the hospital to die in his own home, among family and friends, which he had in abundance. He was finishing dinner, laughing and joking, when he very peacefully died. My friend was very impressed by how peaceful he looked; kept saying he looked better than he had for years, as though he was “just resting.”
The traditions that had to be followed went beyond anything I’ve ever heard of before, and I won’t go into much about them except to say that most seemed to be designed to support the family and keep it busy and distracted for as long as possible—and to honor the dead. What the Irish would call the “wake” lasted for nine days. What impressed me most is that after this, the front door must be left open for 40 days, so that the spirit of the dead can wander in and out at will before departing entirely. It’s not the custom itself that impresses me, but just imagine living in a place where one can leave the door open and unguarded for 40 days! I wouldn’t try that in NYC! This says something important about community, safety, and “civilized” society.
Is it possible that it’s the secular fear of having no way to deal with death that’s causing the fear of death, which is then brushed off on religion? Just a few generations ago death was very much a part of life, life was fragile and tenuous, and the rituals involved seem to have had more to do with mementos, fear of being forgotten, than with fear of death. Now every death is considered a failure of medicine, people die in hospitals, tubes in every orifice, connected to bleeping machines, two family members allowed in the room. And then what? In my atheist family this meant trying to find some religious official to conduct some kind of service. That’s now replaced by family-designed secular memorial services in which everyone is supposed to say something nice, however insincere. And what does the secular world offer us? Diet and exercise, and not smoking, psychotherapy if too anxious, but everybody’s still mortal.
I think the fear of death is intrinsic to most (all?) people. I think it’s insightful that even the most devout Christians (for example) are deeply and profoundly effected and saddened by the death of loved ones. Even loved ones that by most Christian standards are very likely going to heaven. Loved ones that they believe they will see again in heaven when they die.
IMO, Human beings are most emotionally uncomfortable in the state of confusion. The higher the stakes in the unknown, the higher the emotional discomfort. This creates of desperation that proves to be a fertile breeding ground for an explanation of any kind. Enter religion, mysticism or even science to fill that vacuum of confusion. I think that is what keeps many doggedly clinging to the irrational because it’s still better for them inside than the embracing the real unknown (confusion).
I also find it interesting that while people greatly fear their own death, people do things to themselves (like smoking, eating unhealthily, etc) to hasten it. Yet, many of these same people spend an inordinate amount of time worshipping their religion and god to avoid death.
I’m an atheist and I fear and am greatly saddened by the thoughts of my loved ones or own death. My life’s battle is to embrace the unknown and accept it if possible.
I think first off, we need to make some distinctions.
Survival instinct is not fear of death, its what your body does when threatened and common to all animals. Survival instinct doesnt work with cigarrettes, slow diseases or other dumb ideas. Survival instinct is what gives us that adrenaline rush when on a rollercoaster.
Fear of death is in two parts, fear of your own, and fear for loved ones.
Fear of death of self is really fear of either the unknown, or ego based fear of unconsciousness. Since we go to sleep every night and basically become unconscious, and its pretty painless, permanently losing consciousness probably wont bother you at all, since you wont even be aware you didnt wake up.
Fear of death of loved ones is more critical, and like MJ says there has to be some kind of acknowledged greiving process. Its a bond that is broken.
Comforting thoughts about that person continuing are nice, but I don’t think they are necessary to handle greif. Yes secularists cant say many comforting things like “They have gone to a better place” or “You will see them again”. However I am not afraid to discuss death, since the knowledge you and everyone you know will cease to exist somehow makes every moment that much more valuable.
My 96 year old grandmother said a few things while she was praying to God to die, one was “Whatever you do hun, promise me you wont get old”.
I am not so sure that survival instinct can really be attributed to the body. It seems to me that it is the thinking mind which evaluates a situation and determines whether there is a potential threat to life. If you are sound asleep and there is a fire in the house the body will certainly smell the smoke, however it is powerless to act on it without the mind being awake. Similarly a body in a coma will not be afraid of death (I’m theorizing here). Death of people close to us leaves us with a sense of loss but there is also another side to this which doesn’t get much attention. The death of any person reminds us unconsiously of our own eventual death. I have attended funerals where I did not know the person who died, yet deeply felt grief arose in me. Where did this feeling come from? I now recognize that this will happen when I attend a funeral and have examined my reaction in detail, the only explanation that rings true is that the spector of my own death has been raised and the ego grieves for it own future demise.
It seems so strange to me that people need religion to keep them from fearing death. I was talking about this to my athiest grandmother today, re The End of Faith, and she, who says she thinks about death fairly often, is not afraid of it beyond the discomfort of physical pain. The thought of being used by science and then decomposing seems fine to her, as it does to me. Why might people need unjustified ideas about what happens after death?
My sister once put it to me in terms I find highly amusing. She’s a rather “high functioning” Christian (more of an existentialist than a Christian though, really), and my apostasy has been a pretty common topic of discussion between us.
So . . . my sister and I were talking about the fear of death as one root cause of religious beliefs (perhaps the root cause), and she said she doesn’t really see that. She’s not afraid of death. If anything she’s afraid of missing what will happen afterword. That made me smile, and I explained, “Yeah, that’s basically what I was saying.”
I’m very afraid of death, and it’s hard for me to imagine that claims to the contrary are about anything other than self-delusion. The only arena of comfort with death that even seems remotely credible is that which is, as I understand it, developed through medidation—the loss of the sense of “self” as separate from “other.” But that still seems a bit too xenocentric to me.
I’m not sure we can really so completely detach ourselves from our sense of ourselves that we can comfortably accept the demise of ourselves, and I’m not sure I’d be okay with that anyway—fear of death drives a lot of our ambition to enjoy what life we have. I have pretty much no ambition of any traditional Western sort (category?), but I do have a great deal of drive to enjoy life and the people I get to experience along the way. That’s essentially what I fear losing in death.
I doubt that there are many who aren’t afraid of death after being threatened by various versions of Hell for thousands of years. But I also doubt whether fear of death was the ultimate “cause” of religion.
Freud decided that the “cause” of religion was the desire to achieve an “oceanic” feeling, which he related to being at the mother’s breast. Rejecting Freud’s explanation, virtually all modern studies of mysticism or spirituality have accepted that the oceanic feeling, a feeling of oneness with the universe, must be the ultimate goal, and always has been. A bit of research into the history of Christianity, however, makes it clear that in Christianity, at least, although of course there was always plenty of mysticism, the goal didn’t become achieving that oceanic feeling until after the black plague struck Europe in the late Middle Ages, wiping out much of the population. Until then, mysticism had vastly different methods and goals.
We can’t go back and do any kind of statistical analysis to determine what caused religion. Primitive art hints that it might have been guilt over having to kill to eat. The religions of early civilizations hint that it was the feeling that bad behavior could cause natural disasters like volcano eruptions, floods, and earthquakes, plus a desire to align cosmic forces on our side.
I think that you are right, when I used the word religion in my post I really meant the type that involves the unquestioning faith that is the subject of Sam’s book. At a basic level you probably say that religion and science are both looking for an answer to question of life.
In reading through this thread once again, I find a certain validity to most of the posts, with the most common thought being an acceptance of fear. This concensus puzzles me. Is fear of death really such a universal attitude? To respond, I feel I must address several comments individually. First, Blue’s original post stated…
Since they (atheists) don’t have the comfort of an afterlife in paradise one could conclude that they have serious, unresolved issues about death and dying.
That seems totally presumptious to me. The thought of a fantasy afterlife (based on preposterous rules of obtainment) would provide me with no comfort whatsoever. I would expect Christians or anyone else who base their choices on such beliefs would be the ones to fear death. MJ expressed that idea with…
I doubt that there are many who aren’t afraid of death after being threatened by various versions of Hell for thousands of years. They would have to live with the uncertainty of whether or not they would win or lose that proposition of an afterlife.
Atheists, though, know to expect an ultimate unconsciousness, so are free to live their lives fully and without any unresolved issues about death. I personally opt for Conservative Atheist’s quote… “Life is but a brief interlude in a blissful nonexistence.”......author unknown.
Iisbliss did an good job of explaining the distinctions in this discussion. Fear of death and survival instinct are two different things. Survival instinct is a evolutionary means of staying alive, while fear of death is a psychological and emotional attitude. She said…
Fear of death of self is really fear of either the unknown, or ego based fear of unconsciousness.
That seems logical to me, especially the struggle of the ego to resist non-existance. I believe the other issue she and Castaa mentioned, fear of death of loved ones, is perhaps a different type of fear. If we succumb to fear of what comes after death, then fear for ourselves and loved ones would seem to be essentially the same emotion. Otherwise, what we are calling fear of death of loved ones would really seem to be a self-focused fear of loss. That would fall into the catagory of grieving rather than fear. In that sense, fear and grief seem to be closely related emotions.
Attributing fear of death to confusion and uncertainty is an easily understood and valid concept. Franklin Roosevelt certainly made that point with his famous… “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Confusion is debilitating and spawns both fear and irrationality, creating a desperate need for a comfort factor. Castaa made good points there.
I believe one unifying factor in all these thoughts can be expressed as something we all can only learn through the personal experience of living. This idea I found tentatively expressed by Iisbliss, jane, and Dragon. Physical aging changes perspective dramatically for most people. SkepticX mentioned the beginning sequence of our evolving attitude about death…
—fear of death drives a lot of our ambition to enjoy what life we have. I have pretty much no ambition of any traditional Western sort (category?), but I do have a great deal of drive to enjoy life and the people I get to experience along the way. That’s essentially what I fear losing in death.
When young, most people have some form of that drive to enjoy life and bond socially with others. As we age, we experience continual subtle changes in that life drive. Typically, after fifty or sixty, our bodies begin to more obviously change and processes slow. As we continue to age, we gradually lose both the physical and mental abilities to sustain that drive. We develop illnesses, disabilities, and losses of many means of enjoying pleasure. We often become dependent on others and less autonomous.
During this time, we become more closely connected to death and dying as we lose parents, friends, and family. JustThis had a primary point…
The death of any person reminds us unconsiously of our own eventual death.
This reminder not only reminds us of our fate, but also disconnects us from our past. We often experience a sense of losing a part of ourselves when death claims someone we are intimately connected to and who has been a co-creator of our lives and shares our memories. Once they are gone, we lose a connection to our past selves.
The bad part is that it is inevitable for almost everyone. The good part is that this is a gradual process, and brings with it a separate set of rewards. We might think of this gradual demise as a gift from life… it enables us to continually change perspective and gradually let go of things we once thought non-relinquishable. In talking with aging adults, I have found one of two attitudes. Those believing in an afterlife usually are highly expectant, but are no longer as anxious because they feel there is no time left for doubts or actions that would effect any change in their expectations. Those not believing in an afterlife simply are tired, have made peace with life, and are ready to simply let go. People of both attitudes tend to accept death as a completion of living.
That thought reminds me of the custom of aged and dying Native Americans who would say their goodbyes, seek out a cave, and solitarily and peacefully wait for death as a natural end to living. Probably most heathen cultures would share this attitude at the end of life.
Im wondering if death, to some people, is seen slightly a differently light than loss of life. Sounds silly on the face of it, but it seems to me that some people see death from the other side—a point beyond the end of life, whereas others see it as the end of living.
What needs to be asked is how secularists and liberals deal with the fear of death?
It is a fear that has to be accepted. We’re born to die. For a secularist, there isn’t much to talk about with respect to death, other than perhaps making a will. It’s no use trying to form a belief about what happens after death, that’s what the religious do.
[quote author=“Dragon”]Im wondering if death, to some people, is seen slightly a differently light than loss of life. Sounds silly on the face of it, but it seems to me that some people see death from the other side—a point beyond the end of life, whereas others see it as the end of living.
Yes, Dragon, you have a point. Many people do see death as a place rather than an event. In addition to religious ideas of afterlife, we have cultural ideas that work much the same way. Just as a small sample, I can think of various concepts of purgatory, reincarnation and even the new age philosophies of trancendence into energy forms. For centuries, a great deal of literature has helped nurture an incredible variety of beliefs. (What about all that poetry obsessed with death during the 19th century?) We humans are ingenious at creating our myths and superstitions and using them to sustain our desire for immortality.
If people believe in death as a place and are confused or unsure what they might find there, I can certainly see why they would be fearful. I would think fear of that unknown is also based a great deal on a profound sense of separation. Perhaps that is why most theories of an afterlife are based on some form of reunification with a godhead?
A thought… Greater human longevity is a very recent development in our lives. Most of our myths and legends were developed at a time when man’s lifetime was short… normally cut off between the ages of 30 and 50. Our ancestors would have created those myths at a time in their lives when they would have been fiercely involved with living. They didn’t have the period of gradual demise I described, and wouldn’t have access to the wisdom that accompanies a longer lifespan. Even today, people who are fearful of having a fore-shortened life, seem to grasp more easily onto ideas of something beyond death.
Perhaps if we learn the lessons of science, we can indeed extend our life-spans beyond 100 years. The wisdom and knowledge we gain in that time could possibly teach us to overcome ancient superstitions. Science could indirectly influence religious beliefs, without directly confronting them. I like the irony of that.