Does Fear of Death Make Religion More Salient?

As Mother Jones political blogger Kevin Drum sees it:

My instinct tells me that this is primarily an aspect of temperament you’re born with. Either you have a strong emotional reaction to the idea of eventual nonexistence or you don’t. If you do, religion is the most common way of dealing with it. The particular religion you choose is obviously mostly cultural, passed down from your parents and peers the same way you learn a particular language as a child, but the motivating fear itself probably isn’t.
But either way, does this really reveal something essential about what it means to be human? In one sense, yes: a knowledge that someday we’ll die is unique to humans (though fear of death plainly isn’t), and our response to that knowledge has been a defining feature of human cultures for millennia. Still, there are hundreds of other things that are unique to humans too, and I don’t think there’s any special reason to give this one pride of place.

Category: Observations

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2 Responses

  1. Daniel Liechty says:

    I think if you started to list all of those things that are unique to human beings, you would quickly find that what they have in common is that they grow directly out of the human capacity for abstract thought – to symbolize (make one thing stand for another), self-reflect (make oneself the object of one’s own thoughts) and project (capture past, present and future time in thought.) Our thought processes are inevitably geared toward transcendence, and this is rooted deeply in our biological existence. These very processes lead us, in turn, to recognize our mortal condition, and therefore our death anxiety is not just an immediate reaction to immediate danger, but is “existential” in nature – it is integral to the psychology of any thinking human being. We construct an amazing array of (uniquely human!) defenses against the onslaught of this potentially immobilizing anxiety, to keep it tucked under and out of immediate consciousness. Some of these are internal (the so-called psychological defense mechanisms) and most are external – the myriad avenues our (uniquely human!) cultures provide to make plausible the self-image we have that we are meaningful actors in a meaningful pageant of transcending (larger than life!) significance. As cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker put it, when we really see what human beings want, we also see that all viable human cultures are integrally “religious” enterprises, supplying the sense of transcending meaning for our lives without which we would lose all sense of forward momentum in our endeavors. This is no less true of self-consciously secular or anti-religious cultures than it is of the most overtly religious cultures. The same is true for substreams within cultures. On may draw one’s sense of transcending meaning, of being a significant actor in a “larger than life” endeavor, from say, “science” as easily as from “church.” This is not to say that these two are the same thing or even of equal value, but only that each is an avenue within a particular cultural frame of reference from which one keeps at bay (defends against) an image of oneself as mortal, fleeting, and of no more significance than a turnip. In other words, each (along with myriad others) is an avenue for defending against death anxiety. And it works most of the time for most people, except in those times when circumstances coalesce to smash through the defenses, as inevitably happens from time to time. I am pleased, Mr. Drum, that you currently feel yourself well-defended. I suggest you try not to think about it too much!

  2. Amanda Peabody says:

    For more information on religion and death salience, as well as fear of death, read about Terror Management theory and Dr Tom Pyszczynski. This theory was named before 9/11. The term refers to fear of/ discomfort with death, and has nothing to do with terrorism.

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