Beware one-size-fits-all solutions. Be especially wary of people who pretend to know the meaning of life. Worst of all are those who believe that the meaning of life is death.
Those who do have chosen to believe that life’s pleasures and pains, life’s achievements and failures can all be explained by the fact that the human species, en masse, is terrified of death.
Some people believe that consciousness and the attendant knowledge is a boon. To those who believe that we are all terrified of death, consciousness contains a very dark side.
When social psychologist Sheldon Solomon first suggested that the fear of death could explain human cultures and motivations, his colleagues were skeptical, to say the least. They dismissed his theories as so much philosophical claptrap.
Solomon’s was not an original idea. It dated to the Greeks and the Romans. Freud had used it to attack those who practiced religion. And, many of today’s atheists proclaim their atheism as a sign that they are unafraid of death. They tout their non-belief as a sign of superior moral courage… the courage to face death without running screaming to the nearest pew.
If that’s all it takes to make you a moral being, we have a problem.
The argument about the fear of death offers a new definition of courage, one that trivializes most of your duties toward other human beings and allows you to live your life as an amoral narcissist.
It should go without saying but those who believe that the fear-of-death explains everything take it for granted that there is no afterlife, no Heaven, not even a Hell. Obviously, there is no way to prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife.
At least Pascal was willing to consider two distinct possibilities, that there might and might not be a Heaven. For a fuller discussion of Pascal’s wager, see my book, The Last Psychoanalyst.
Since Pascal took account of both possibilities, his was a more rational argument than the one offered by Solomon and his colleagues Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski.
The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes their conclusions:
Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski have now spent a quarter-century studying how the fear of death shapes human affairs. The result is an empirical behemoth built on the foundation of a few simple propositions. One, that our awareness of death creates tremendous potential for anxiety or terror. Two, that we learn to manage that terror by embedding ourselves in a cultural worldview that imbues reality with order, meaning, and stability. Three, that we gain and maintain psychological security by sustaining faith in that worldview and living up to the values it conveys.
"The terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics, and science," they write. "It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. It contributes to conflicts around the globe. At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it."
Of course, there is no reason to believe that the fear of death built the pyramids, any churches or synagogues. I do not want to be too cute, but these edifices were built by builders. Were I to be less cute, I would point out that the usual reactions to danger are flight or fight or freeze. It’s not the same thing as building a great building or even a high tech firm.
People might build great buildings because it is satisfying to accomplish something at such a high level. Fear is not a great motivator.
The fear-of-death theorists are not doing science; they are slandering those who believe in an afterlife. The social psychologists have found a way to defame the achievements of others. And also to persuade people to join their leftist crusade against civilization.
When the psychologists discuss the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, they describe it in highly politicized terms, but also in terms that are conventionally leftist.
By their lights the terrorists who committed the attacks were true believers who thought that they could transcend death. They add that the outpouring of “patriotic zeal,” after 9/11, along with an “appetite to attack Muslims,” were signs of a fear of death.
Worse yet, for the authors was the fact that after 9/11 our nation supported a charismatic leader like George Bush.
In their words:
In a series of experiments, the psychologists found that death reminders increased support for charismatic leaders in general and for Bush and his policies in Iraq in particular.
Unfortunately, most of this is inaccurate.
After 9/11 Americans did not develop an appetite for attacking Muslims indiscriminately. As everyone knows, no such backlash occurred in America.
Also, the authors might not have noticed, George W. Bush was anything but a charismatic leader.
If we imagine that this fear-of-death argument serves a purpose, how should someone who has overcome his fear of death respond to a terrorist attack on his major city?
Again, if we were not afraid to die, how would we behave? If we would have behaved in the same way, what's the point of it all?
The psychologists have their evidence, so let’s propose some alternatives.
Imagine a culture that was constructed on good atheistic principles. Presumably, the people who inhabit it are not afraid of death.
We know that such cultures have existed. Most recently they have been Communist cultures.
In point of fact, these cultures were so unafraid of death and so unafraid of any divine judgment of their actions that they were responsible for nearly one hundred million deaths. Whether Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot or Castro, the founders of atheist cultures acted with perfectly amoral impunity.
Does this mean that they were not afraid of death?
Or does it mean that they were so afraid of death that they preferred to feed the beast with the lives of others, lest Death lust after their lives?
Perhaps those who tout the concept of the fear of death are really those who most fear death.
Consider the case of Dr. Freud.
Freud believed that human beings had concocted the afterlife because they feared death. But he also believed that human existence was a Greek tragedy, one in which you were doomed from the outset, regardless of what you did or did not do.
This made Freud something of a stoic, but his thought can also lead to a conclusion that is perfectly amoral. If the human condition is a Greek tragedy, it does not really matter what you do. Your fate will play itself out inexorably. Thus, what really matters is what you can get away with.
For all we know people like their lives because they like their lives. They might even enjoy their lives… not because they are afraid of death but because they are unafraid of it.
One must add that some people would willingly trade their lives for the lives of their children. Whether someone fears or embraces death must be a function of age and experience.
Besides, if you think about it more clearly, you would be well within your rights to see the worst torment as: living forever.