Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 25: Fear of Death
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 25: Fear of Death

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

[Several people, responding to last week’s essay, noted that Buddhist countries tend to have lower crime rates and that nobody has gone to war in the name of Buddhism. These are valid and relevant comments. My point was that Buddhist thinkers have recognized that desire often leads to violence and destructiveness. Some Buddhists seem to incorporate this insight and lead peaceful lives, yet many Buddhists seem unable to transcend mimetic desire and its consequences. The book Zen at War discusses how Buddhist thought was incorporated into Japanese imperialism and used to justify Japan’s activities before and during the Second World War. I would not blame Buddhism for Japanese aggression; I only note that Buddhism has often failed to arrest human mimetic desires.]

Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, argued that humans are animals, and evolutionary and behavioral data show that humans share with other animals an innate fear of death. However, Becker asserted, humans are probably unique among animals in recognizing that humans are always vulnerable to death and humans know that mortality is inevitable. Rather than feel terror (animals’ likely sentiment when facing death) constantly, humans have “death-transcending stories” derived from their culture. Such stories include beliefs that people really don’t die with the cessation of our body’s life functions (e.g., a soul lives on, elsewhere) or that people can contribute to something that transcends death, that lives on after they die (e.g., their children, their nation, or something they have created).

One’s sense of death-transcendence is integrally linked to one’s culture, because one’s culture provides stories that give life meaning and context in which one may regard one’s actions as meaningful. For example, one is remembered as honorable in some cultures by being a courageous warrior in other cultures by being nonviolent. Consequently, people tend to vigorously defend their culture’s goodness and rightness. Indeed, for many people, the survival of the culture (which affirms a sense of death-transcendence) is far more important that survival of the individual him- or herself. People know that their bodies are mortal, but the death of their culture threatens their psyches with permanent extinction.

One thing that our (Western) culture tells us is that humans are a kind of special creation. From Becker’s perspective, an important reason that many of us see ourselves as fundamentally different from animals is that it appears that animals’ existence is defined by struggle to survive and then anonymous death. Animals don’t seem to transcend death, and it’s important to our psyches that we not perceive ourselves as creatures who just die and vanish forever.

I think fear of death explains widespread acceptance of two apparently conflicting premises. Evolutionary theory is the basis of modern biology, and the vast majority of Americans accept the theory’s validity. Yet, surveys show that most Americans still believe that humans are a special creation, which is an unnecessary hypothesis if one embraces evolutionary theory. I don’t think it’s reasonable to believe in evolution of species and then exempt humans from the process. Why would educated, scientifically oriented people accept such a contradiction? It seems that these people don’t want to acknowledge human “animal-ness,” because to do so would suggest that we, like animals, will someday permanently die.

Herein lies a difficulty for secular animal advocates who argue that homo sapiens are just one among many kinds of animals, and the term “lower animals” is not defensible on evolutionary grounds. It would follow that humankind's mistreatment of fellow creatures is a matter of might makes right, not justice. This may be supported by evolutionary theory and be morally consistent as well, but it fails to account for peoples’ strong psychological need to not regard themselves as animals.

In the next essay, we’ll explore the importance of self-esteem in gaining a sense of death-transcendence.

Go on to: Part 26: The Fundamental Desire for Self-Esteem
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