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.



MC said...

Maybe in Britain it's different, but in America most people believe in a God so benevolent that he's totally indifferent to what they do in this life, and will therefore reward them all with Heaven. But perhaps you were limiting your theory to the ruling class thought leaders.

I have been espousing a pet theory recently that unwillingness to repent and serve God is just a transmutation of the fear of death, or at least the fear of annihilation. To change, one has to put off the old self and become a new man in Christ, and this is intrinsically fearful to people because it annihilates a large portion of their identity, just as death without the hope of heaven is an annihilation of self.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - I am talking about the UK and Europe, who are much further along this path - but it applies to the US governing elite as well.

My own view is that salvation is offered to Man for a very cheap price (as it were) but there is a price, and we have been told what it is - an essential part of the price is repentance, which involves a full admission that we did wrong and do wrong and are ultimately responsible for this.

It is this in which moderns are so horribly and almost uniquely deficient; the absolute refusal to admit that they have sinned and are responsible, the reaction that this is an intolerable insult, or an attempt to make them miserable or get one up on them; the aggressive and personal reaction to any implication that they should, must, do this.

I fear that many modern people would reject salvation rather than repent

I think repentance matters much more crucially that what we *do* (doing matters for theosis, rather than salvation).

Mormonism is the best system I know of that tends to remove the fear of death but while retaining (indeed enhacing) motivation, meaningfulness, purpose, personal engaement - I think this is ultimately to do with the 'dynamic' theology, and an easy-salvation, tough-theosis combination: easy salvation removes fear of death, tough-theosis is the eternal path stretching beyond mortal death (there is always something to do!).

Commodore said...

Although the ancient Hebrews did have a rather dim view of death/Sheol, I would not characterize their beliefs as hopeless. Certainly they regarded the default state of the dead as a grim place, but from Psalms/the prophets it seems clear that they had hope that God would not forget them even in the grave. Although what form of relief or salvation that would take doesn't seem to have been clear or even grappled with much until at least the Persian exile period. Indeed the fuzzy hope they did have seems to have been based entirely on knowing God's character; He's not one to leave His people behind.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Comm- Agreed. But it is striking how slender (albeit real) was that hope.

Samson J. said...

Well Bruce, this is a topic I've actually thought a lot about (see below), and I don't agree with you on this one today, not completely. Maybe it reflects a difference between the UK and North America; I've often gotten the impression that the UK is further gone than we even realize over here.

I agree with this much:

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.

But I disagree that modern people truly believe there is "nothing to fear" about death. I disagree that they actually believe that "nothing" happens after death. I would not say it like that. I would say, rather, that moderns have been very successful at convincing themselves not to *think* about death for most of the time, avoiding the question completely, in the same way that they have been convinced not to think about, or notice, any number of other important topics.

People use the moden apparatus of atheism to "convince" themselves, strongly enough for most of the time, that death is nothing to worry about, and they should just block any thought of death out of their minds. And this is what they do, most of the time - it's not an active, positive belief that "nothing happens" after death, but rather an utter avoidance of the topic. It works well enough for day-to-day life.

But, critically, it's been my experience that when the chips are down, when hard circumstances FORCE them to drop the facade, that most people still do believe that Something Happens after death, and most people are still afraid of that. I would say it's part of what we can't not know. For example, the number of people I've seen in hospital dying, pleading, "Dont let me die!", is high.

The reason I say this is a topic I've thought a lot about is that there is something I find extremely puzzling and amazing about it. For readers unfamiliar with the term, let me define "future time orientation": this refers to the way that an individual is able to think and plan ahead for the future. There is a very high correlation between intelligence and future time orientation, so that, for example, intelligent people control most of the world and its money because they are able to see five years into the future and understand how today's actions will affect tomorrow's results. And there is also a correlation between atheism and intelligence. Combing the two, one can see that really, there is something of a correlation between future time orientation and atheism.

And that is what is bizarre. What happens after death is the most important question there is; it's the most important question anyone can ask himself. And yet, what we see (today - I bet it would have been different in the past) is that the most intelligent people, the people with the highest future time orientations, are the most likely to hide and flee from any investigation of what happens after death.

What happens after death is the most crucial question facing any of us, and yet the people who, in every other realm of life, are the best at perceiving future consequences, are the ones who avidly hide their heads in the sand on this particular question. It's so strange (and frustrating) to me.

A secular reader might retort that these intelligent people, with high future time orientations, don't seem to care about the question of death because they've come to the conclusion that "obviously" nothing happens after death, but that response won't do, because for one thing you don't see these people really grappling with the questions, reading the philosopy, and coming to their own conclusions. You just see complete avoidance of the question.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - I don't think we disagree much.

You agree that most modern people most of the time do not fear death. Obviously there are exceptions, but the soul-denying/extinction/atheist strategy is strikingly-effective at removing the fear of death.

And the despair of modernity is most powerful among the most intelligent, due to their intrinsic tendency to consider longer time horizons - yet with the need to obliterate their awareness of a chasm of nothingness becoming ever more probable the further ahead they look.

The more secular and hedonic, the more such people pretend to be young (they believe they are as young as they superficially-look, and as young as they claim-to-feel - and this is 'confirmed' by the tricked-attentions and insincere-remarks of strangers), and can see no benefit from being old (the only acceptable praise to an old atheist is that they seem/ act younger than they really are).

As Thoreau said (an early atheist) the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation = despair.

But not so much fear.

Bonald said...

Hi Bruce,

As someone who seems unable to viscerally believe in an afterlife (as opposed to formal intellectual assent), I may have some insight into the atheist mind here. To me, extinction is a more terrifying prospect even than hell. I imagine each of of us has an experience, sometime in early adulthood, when it really sinks in for the first time for a man that he personally is going to die someday. If he is a man who believes in extinction on death, the first response is panic, like realizing that one is on a train that's speeding off a cliff, and there's no way out. The ultimate calamity--and it's a certainly for every one of us! One tries to imagine what it would be to cease to exist, for even the background of consciousness to disappear. Try to imagine time going forward, but not one's own consciousness, You can't really do it, but the attempt is terrifying. Nobody likes the feeling of panic, and if you're an atheist, you're in luck: there is no reason why you should think about death. There's nothing you can do about it, no way to prepare for it to make it better for you. The only thing to do is not let the fear of it ruin your life. Just stop thinking about it if you can.

But how, how can one ignore something so dreadful? Ultimately, distraction does most of the work of taking away death's sting, and not only for atheists. We all have jobs and family duties to occupy us, and the empty hours between the office and sleep can be filled with television, sex, drink, or blog commenting. But sometimes the dreaded realization will come upon one with force, and then an appeal to "there's nothing I can do about it, so think about something else" just won't work. At those moments, one turns to philosophy.

We're all going to die, but none of us wants to panic over it, so each of us desperately needs an argument of the form "Yes, I'm going to die someday, but that's all right because..." There are many different ways of filling in the rest, but whatever the argument, that must be the conclusion. To us, most atheist arguments to the effect that it's okay that there's no afterlife, they wouldn't want one anyway, ring quite hollow. But what can we expect them to do, given the universe they believe they've been thrown into. Suppose God were to announce to Christians that henceforth he will annihilate souls on death. We would certainly be upset to hear this, because we haven't had to rationalize to ourselves the lack of an afterlife as not-such-a-bad-thing-really. And yet, after living with this knowledge for a day, I'm sure we would reproduce all of the atheists' arguments for why we shouldn't really be bothered. For the fact is that we must not be bothered about it if we are to carry on, and any rationalization that jolts us out of despondency and encourages us to change the subject will work as a "successful" philosophy of life--successful at its real purpose, which is not truth but comfort.

Of course, there are some men, such as Montaigne, who thought they had to really make themselves believe their rationalizations. By dwelling on death decades before it comes, they prepare themselves to meet it with equanimity. Maybe this works, but from the atheist utilitarian perspective, the price is to high. Why be gloomy for decades just to avoid a short period of panic at the end?

tgj said...

Taking myself as an example, despair was gradually replaced by pride. I took credit for soldering on in the face of utter meaninglessness, in spite of the fact that I was doing essentially nothing by my own standards or by the standards of the world. But not killing myself immediately apparently seemed like an accomplishment, to me, in the face of utter meaninglessness. So here's my minimal effort. Give me a cookie, and get out of my face. That was my attitude.

Pride leads to the desire for autonomy, which leads to "f@#k you" as a way of life no matter how much anyone else tries to help (can they give life meaning? ultimately no, they cannot), which leads to relentless superficiality, the repudiation of all attempts to change, and to more "f@#k you." I'm going to die? F@#k you. Leave me alone. Let me do what I want. Of course it's not rational. It's insane. If it continues long enough, it becomes demonic.

Such a person is beyond human help. Either they will find the truth and recognize it, or they will be lost. The truth is not a man, but the God-man. It is simple, simplistic in the eyes of the world, but getting from A to B is beyond human capabilities, and a miracle greater than raising the dead. It is beyond the capability of the person who is lost, and it is certainly beyond the capability of theological systems, or "mere" Christianity.

The only external circumstance that I know of that might help to jolt a person out of such a mindset is suffering. This is why I expect the world to suffer quite a bit more in the not so distant future. But suffering does not force anyone to face the truth either. It's always a choice.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bonald, @tgj - Thanks for those thoughtful comments.

@Bonald - What is interesting is that I have read similar analyses from the mid 20th century 'existentialists' (Heidegger, Satre, Sam Beckett etc)- that a life without God and ending in annihilation was 'absurd' - but it can be seen that this awareness did NOT, contrary to their expectations, come to dominate the consciousness of modern man; but something more like the opposite.

Perhaps this constitutes a deep explanation for the extraordinary shallowness of modern life?

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

Another idea the mass media puts forward from time to time is that what happens to you after you die is whatever you want or expect. This means it's in your interest to believe in a Heaven that you will certainly get to regardless of your conduct. Zero standards, zero demands, zero risk.

(To believe that there are standards is to endanger yourself. Thus to dabble in Christianity is to risk Hell, when you could have had Heaven for nothing and for sure.)

Now, when this idea is put forward in television shows, movies and so on, there's no reason for thinking it's true. But people remember the promise, and not the falsity of it. It's another instance of the effectiveness of presenting people with lots of "facts" and never mind even trying to pretend that they can be backed up.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDT - I haven't come across this idea in the mass media (but then, I do deliberately avoid as much of it as I can) - but strangely it is a sort of spiritual inversion of a real Christian idea I have often encountered (for instance in CS Lewis and Charles Williams) that after death people 'get what they ask for' in a tough and realistic sort of way.

Lewis's The Great Divorce depicts a hell in which people are bound by the fact that the single thing they most value is a sin - all they have to do is repent that one sin, but most will not because they value that one sin above anything else: it is the core of their 'self'.

This is the idea that 'getting exactly what you - most - want', forever would be the worst punishment anyone could have, unless they had repented and chosen love over pride.

Of course the mass media would almost certainly be using the same superficial 'facts' but giving it the opposite (as lying) spin: that whatever our core conviction/ desire/ sin may be, Heaven will arrange itself around that conviction/desire/sin to enable ultimate gratification, and *thereby* allow us to be blissfully happy forever (or something of the sort).

Imnobody said...

Perhaps this constitutes a deep explanation for the extraordinary shallowness of modern life?

Exactly. One does anything to forget that death awaits us.

The existentialist understood the fate of modern man, which is despair and meaninglessness.

This was a logical consequence of atheism. But this was impossible for the masses to accept.

It takes a lot of rationalizations to think this is not "as bad" and most people are not that adept at this sophisticate kind of rationalizations.

So distraction came into the rescue offering an easy way out.