Friday, 11 October 2013

Do modern people fear death? Not really. Instead they feel despair


Many religious people, and philosophers, regard the fear of death as the primary, dominating, inescapable factor in human life; but I doubt whether this is a universal truth.

In particular, I doubt whether the fact of death has much impact n the secular modern culture.

I think we would have to say that secular modernity has been extremely (and perhaps unexpectedly) successful in its objective of overcoming the fear of death: however, this success has come at a price.


In traditional societies, the fear of death was mostly a fear of what would happen after death. Everybody, apparently, believed in the reality of the soul and that the soul would survive death; but most cultures had a very gloomy understanding of what happened next (and this included the Ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament).

The fact that almost all societies do not regard death as the end, but do regard it as a prelude to something worse than life, is very significant - to my mind.

Given how easy it would seem to be to invent an appealing afterlife for those who do X,Y&Z; it is significant that traditional people weren't engaged in wishful thinking about death, and that religion (in general) was not giving people 'what they wanted', and that religion (in general) was neither being used to 'bribe' people into doing what the rulers wanted (with promises of paradise) nor deter them from breaking the rules (with threats of torment).

Instead (with the exception of animistic religion, I think) in pre-Christian times and non-Christian influenced places there apparently was this belief in the reality of the 'immortal' soul combined with a gloomy prospect for it after death.

Christianity brought the good news that life after death might be wonderful - for some people but not for absolutely everybody (the approximate proportions have been a matter of extreme dispute for nearly 2000 years; as has the default - were people 'damned' to misery except for those who were positively Christian, or were people saved except for those who rejected Christ).

Christianity was initially presented as Good News, and received as such - but in some times and places was presented and received as Bad news; since the good-outcome seemingly came only after fulfilling numerous and difficult conditions.

Thus there came to be societies, and people, whose lives were dominated by fear of hell; and this was so unpleasant a state that there was considerable demand for relief.

Relief was offered by secular modernity, by atheism;which by various arguments persuaded more and more people that there was nothing to fear after death - thus a load of worry was immediately lifted from the minds of many people.

The psychological benefits were immediate.

However, the method used by secular modernity was a reductionist materialism which included:

1. The soul does not exist, the concept is meaningless nonsense.

2. At death the 'self', subjectivity, is annihilated. After death nothing whatsoever remains of the person who dies. 

So, the fear of death was obliterated; at the cost of eliminating the soul, and of regarding death as complete extinction.

And this demotivates modern man - more specifically, long term considerations become ineffective as motivations, because death stands at the end of life, and looms as a possibility at any moment, rendering everything futile.

Modern people do not, in general, fear death; but the elimination of the soul and the belief that death is extinctions stands as an inevitable and unpredictable and total terminus to every life rendering it futile.

Secular modernity has therefore cured fear of death (and specifically fear of hell) with nihilism; instead of fearing a bad outcome after death, people are numbed by the belief in nothingness after death - and this terminus looms like an elephant in the room (or a black hole) which must be ignored by attending to anything else, or by obliteration of awareness, or else people would be able to see and speak of nothing else.

On the one hand, secular modernity believes in nothingness as the ultimate reality (which is why nihilism is the perfect description) - but on the other hand there seems to be nothing to gain (and a life to lose) by actually attending to nothingness; hence the extreme avoidance behaviour of secular moderns when this matter comes to consideration.

If the elephant of nihilism is ruthlessly pointed out to them, them secular moderns will simply deny its significance - deny its importance; will assert that it doesn't matter, and that if we ignore the elephant then it will have no effect and leave everybody free to do... whatever they want - and  that despite the instant and permanent annihilation awaiting everybody, we could nonetheless choose not to think about this and instead choose to live in just the same way, and with the same benefits, as if we believed that the end of the life was a doorway to eternity.


In conclusion, I believe that the fear of death has indeed been eliminated from secular moderns; but at the cost of replacing fear with despair.

A swamp of terror has been drained; and refilled with indifference, alienation, demotivation, meaninglessness and purposelessness.

This is metaphorically to 'cure' the fear of death by denying the reality of anything capable of life.